We’ve all been there…

About to register for a race, pumped on running, and ready to kick ass and take names.

Suddenly you realize you haven’t run consistently in over 4 months, and begin second guessing yourself as your training plan suddenly looks daunting.

“Who cares,” you accidentally proclaim aloud at your desk, “let’s do this thing!” And with the click of a button, you’ve registered for a race.

It’s only a few days before you realize you’re nowhere near ready for an aggressive training plan.

You need to start by laying your foundation.

Understanding Base Training

Base training, foundational training, whatever you want to call it, these words get thrown around all the time.

While it’s not always exciting — base training is slow, repetitive, and often uninspired — it’s important.

Establishing an aerobic mileage base is essential to staying healthy and strong throughout your training.

But what does “aerobic mileage base” actually mean?

Put simply, base mileage is the foundation you build before training for a particular race. You wouldn’t build a house on sand, and you shouldn’t start an intense training plan without a strong foundation.

It’s your opportunity to build endurance and strength. It’s your starting point before transitioning into race specific training.

And the stronger the starting point, the easier it will be to transition into that training plan.

Without a strong base, you risk injury, and have to fight harder to gain the speed and endurance you’re craving.

The Makings of a Strong Base Building Cycle

In this week’s episode of Trail Talk, I discuss the importance of base building, and the 6 principles to follow when building your foundation.

Listen to the full show here:

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

For those of you uninterested in the wickedly entertaining audio, I’ve also included the principles below.

6 Principles for Building a Strong Endurance Base

The way I see it, there are 6 main principles that make for a strong base building phase. Principles that if done right, not only keep things interesting, but properly prepare you for the race specific training that follows.

Which is the main goal, after all.

So let’s get to them…

1) Start with where you are now.

Not where you want to be.

  • What your training has looked like in the past
  • How long you’ve been away from regular running
  • What you’ve been doing other than training

These all play into where to start your base building mileage. That being said, most runners are surprised at how quickly they can pick things back up.

Say you training for your first half marathon, then took 6 months off. Unless you’ve done nothing but sit on your butt eating Cheetos the whole time, you aren’t going to start from where you were before the half marathon.

Breaks do mean the loss of strength and endurance, but you wont lose all the muscle memory, mental gains, and your body’s understanding of how to run long distances.

Does that mean you can just get up and run 13.1 miles? No, of course not, but you can likely start at a higher level than before. Before you start building back up your base, figure out where that level is for you now.

2) Be patient and start slow.

If you’re starting a base building program, then you’re probably pumped up for some race or something bigger. That’s great.

Use that energy to keep you focused and consistent, but don’t let the excitement propel you to go too far too fast.

Base building mileage should be run almost exclusively at an easy, conversational pace. Remember, the goal here is to develop and strengthen your aerobic system.  The Maffetone Method is a common approach to laying the foundation, where runners use the 180 Formula to predict a max aerobic heart rate, and never exceed that rate.

For many runners, this will feel like you’re running too slowly. That is good. That’s the point.

Be patient with yourself during the first several weeks.

3) Build consistency and discipline.

This is arguably the most important principle of them all.

If you’re coming off minimal running, the absolute best thing you can do before starting an aggressive training plan is to establish consistency. It helps you stay injury free, and creates the mental and physical routine needed for months of official training.

4) Introduce some speed.

Just because you’re focused on aerobic training, doesn’t mean you can’t play around with a little speed work. Especially if it’s been awhile since you last ran fast.

Introducing small amounts of speed work, around once per week, gets the body re-acquainted with pushing hard. It begins to train the muscles for a full, strong stride, and prepares you mentally for the discomfort of speed work. It will also begin to improve your lactic threshold.

Just keep in mind that speed work isn’t the primary focus.

5) Have an end goal in sight, and don’t stay here forever.

My experience is that runners entering a base phase of training fall into one of two camps:

  1. They can’t wait to get on with the real training, or
  2. They get comfortable and stay there forever.

Unless you’re a completely casual runner, with no racing plans at all, you don’t want to stay in this base phase of training too long.

Typically 8-12 weeks will be enough. If you’re coming off an injury, or a long break, that could bump up to 16 or 20, but 8-12 is the sweet spot.

Why? Because as we’ve said, base training has a near singular focus on your aerobic base, and doesn’t push or challenge you in ways a more specific program would.

Have an end goal in sight … something to keep you motivated and excited, and something to cut you off after a set amount of time.

5) Have fun.

And finally, have fun.

Training will get serious later, so have fun during the foundational training.

  • Run with friends
  • Explore new routes
  • Join a running club

There are countless ways to make running fun and entertaining, and now’s the time to explore those different options.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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3 thoughts on “6 Principles of Base Building for Runners

  1. Thanks for another on-point post Doug. Base training is definitely a tough subject for many runners. As you know I was in that phase this past June having returned to running after a 6-month hiatus and it was a really critical juncture in my running. I didn’t recognize it completely then, but I do now.

    My ego was telling me to go out and just start piling on miles and pushing the pace like I had been when I was forced to take a break. My common sense, however, was telling me something completely different. In the end, I decided to play it safe and start at the base building phase. I decided to use the Maffetone Method, simply because I had read a lot about it and wanted to give it a try to see what all of the hype was about.

    My first two months were completely humbling. Not allowing my heart rate past my threshold had me walking as much as I was running and it was really doing a number on my ego. I mean when I left off, I was throwing down 1:30 half marathons and sub-19 minute 5k’s. Not world class times, but not slow by any stretch either. So slowing down to 12-minute miles was really a tough pill to swallow.

    However, as I persevered I noticed that with each month that passed I started shaving more and more time off of my miles. As importantly, my volume and consistency (thanks to your work) increased significantly. I’m now a little more than 4 months in, running more miles per week on a very consistent basis and I’m feeling fresh and staying injury free.

    In hindsight, I’m 100% confident that my base phase was the reason why. And honestly, I still try to run as easy as I can as much as I can because it keeps things fresh and allows me to really connect to each run. Admittedly, I’ve introduced some speed work – mainly in the form of a lot of hill training – because running by heart rate alone didn’t seem to be allowing me to gain in that department.

    Needless to say, I’m enjoying running more now than ever before and my fitness is probably at its highest level in years.

    Bringing this comment full circle, base training may be a slog but it also may be why so many runners get injured, lose consistency or simply stop running. They aren’t doing it. If nothing else base training seems to have brought me back to the reason why I run and allowed me to enjoy it more. Like they say: a mile is a mile no matter how fast or slow you do it.

    Thanks for the post…there’s a ton of great wisdom in it.

  2. Hi there – I love this explanation. I had been running for years – and worked myself up to a marathon. But in the marathon training – never had i been so dedicated and consistent – but I started gaining weight. It was awful and completely the opposite outcome I wanted from my running. Of course, it’s nice to know you can do the distance, but I have to admit, there is a very vain side of me that wants the running to help me keep my physique looking good.

    After tons of evaluation – I stumbled upon the Maffetone method. And had I not read more of what he had to say, his insistence to keep – without exception – below the heart rate max, I would have kept creeping over -way over- that threshold. And like the previous responder, after about 6 weeks of training, I have made considerable improvement on my shockingly slow running pace. BUT I feel good. And it’s fantastic to see the measurable improvement.

    My big concern is that – point 5 in the article is to focus on the goal. I could totally see myself keeping the intensity low and hoping for measurable gains. But more importantly – I don’t want to go back to having running increasing my stress hormones, resulting in me gaining undesirable weight. Any tips?

  3. Nice post- I notice that many base building pieces start with a runner who is either inactive or out of training. What happens if you are between races and have a couple of months before beginning race-specific training? Do you keep your weekly mileage the same and run easier? Or scale back until it’s time to start training? Or…?


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