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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Base Training: Not Just For Endurance Runners

Back in late fall 2016, as I was contemplating my race calendar for the upcoming year, I shared my thoughts with my coach and he said, “Sounds good. That gives us time for three months of base training.”

What exactly is base training? And how important is it? 

Base training could principally be described as ‘training to train, not training to race.’ It is a period used to strengthen the muscular and aerobic systems and get the body prepared for the greater stresses that are applied when training to race. The goal of base training is to develop a runner’s aerobic potential to its maximum before implementing anaerobic training, which fine-tunes the body to run at greater speed.

Cross-country skiing is a great aerobic exercise
Physiologists experimenting with endurance athletes at Cologne University found that fine muscular endurance can be attained by exercising continually for long periods, i.e. two hours or more at a time (not split up within a day, but can be a run/bike or other multi-sport combination). ‘Continually’ means over a period of many months, the longer the better, and it can even have cumulative effects when done over several years, when racing- and off-seasons are in between. Sustained use of muscles for lengthy periods develops new capillaries within the muscles, which increase the efficiency of oxygen consumption in the muscles and better facilitates waste product elimination. Another benefit is training of the heart. Our cardiovascular system learns to do its work more easily, reflected in a progressive decrease in the resting pulse rate.

TRX (Source: Club Solutions Magazine)
Once the aerobic system is developed to its maximum, then four to six weeks of anaerobic training can follow prior to racing. More than six weeks of anaerobic training is counterproductive because improvements reach a point of diminishing returns and introduces the risk of burnout (lowering of blood pH).

Nevertheless, base training is more than just a lot of easy running. This is also an ideal time to work on strength training when it isn’t interfering with other high-intensity or speed workouts. Of course this doesn’t mean you should head to the gym for some heavy weightlifting, but working those supporting muscles that help you to keep your running form all the way to the finish line can be beneficial. For me this means a lot of functional exercises that target core muscles in the abdomen and back, which include variations of the standard push-up, lunges, and squats and may use aids such as a kettlebell, suspension (TRX), resistance training with latex bands (TheraBand), and exercise balls. These exercises are all about proper form, so it may be a good idea to have a specialist walk you through them first. I’ve had several sessions with physical trainer Christian Wolf (yourbodyisyourmachine.de) and within a very short time found myself surprisingly happy with the results. Stability on the trails in an ultra distance mountain race is, in my opinion, nearly as important as endurance.

One thing I love about base training is that running is more about ‘time on my feet’ rather than distance covered, so I go “off-road”, sometimes following the deer trails through the woods in deep snow, jumping over shrubs and ducking under the low branches. This keeps the fun in running. A win-win.

'Off-road' with Leni the Lab
But can base training help short- and middle-distance runners too? You bet! Whether you are an 800-meter specialist or marathon runner, you can benefit by maximizing your steady-state level prior to anaerobic training. As so poignantly stated by the athlete and coach Chris Hauth, “The prize never goes to the fastest guy. It goes to the guy who slows down the least.”

For more information on Base Training check out the books: Running with Lydiard by Garth Gilmour and Arthur Lydiard (the godfather of athletic coaching); The Lore of Running by Dr. Tim Noakes; or Daniels’ Running Formula by Dr. Jack Daniels….three of my favorites.

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