To Base Train Or Not To Base Train

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Marc Laithwaite and myself have often discussed in ‘Talk Training’ on Talk Ultra Podcast about BASE TRAINING.

Coming from cycling backgrounds, Marc and myself where used to getting in the miles over the winter months as this was imperative to a great season of racing. We had the term, ‘winter miles makes summer smiles.’

But bike racing for us both was often fast, furious and long, so we needed to be complete cyclists. Endurance for the long ride, speed for when the racing really started and the ability to attack, ride fast and open up a gap on the competition. Base training in December, January, February and March was essential.

But as an ultra runner, what does base training mean for you? Do YOU really need to go out and lay base miles now for a stronger racing season? Is that not what you did while racing; you ran slow and steady. Think about it, racing for most ultra runners is not about accelerations, fartlek, making a break and so on, it’s about aiming for a strong and consistent performance over the duration of the event to produce not only the best performance but the fastest time.

Over the years Marc has wrote about the benefits of base training and how it should be conducted for greatest effect. It should be slow, it should be long and the heart rate should be controlled to burn fat etc. As mentioned above, Marc and myself have also discussed and recommended that ultra runners, ‘reverse the pyramid.’

We have posed the question, ‘Does base training have any benefit to endurance athletes?’

Would ultra runners gain more from doing high intensity training throughout the winter to raise their maximal output?

Is base training the way forwards or is shorter and higher intensity workouts better? More interesting is that in the last couple of weeks, Marc has seen 2 posts, one from Brett Sutton and one from Training Peaks, both supporting the ‘reverse pyramid’ (doing short and hard in winter and then going longer in the summer). This is the first time Marc has seen blogs supporting ‘reverse pyramid’ so clearly it’s catching on and for once he and I may get a little more support on the matter.

Even Competitor.com resorted to the same old information in a recent web post (article HERE) but I quote:

“Aerobic endurance is the key to everything else in running. You can’t get the most out of the hard repeats, hill workouts and tempo runs until you’ve built the base to handle them. Plus, physiologically you can make bigger gains in aerobic endurance and capacity than you can in any other training zone.” – Ben Rosario, head coach of Northern Arizona Elite, Flagstaff, Ariz. – Quote link HERE

“A properly executed base phase provides a platform of fitness from which distance runners can draw throughout racing season. An aerobic development phase like this is also critical to connective-tissue strengthening, giving an athlete the ability to work harder and at higher intensity with less risk of injury.” – Pete Rea, head coach, ZAP Fitness, Blowing Rock, N.C. – Quote link HERE

You can’t tarnish everyone with the same brush.

Here’s the key point that you must take away with you: one single approach is not suitable for everyone. The articles by Brett Sutton and Training Peaks and those quoted above, whilst informative and correct, were suggesting that ‘everyone’ should use one method; reverse or base training. This is pretty standard and the problem often lies with many coaches. Most coaches tend to be in one camp or another, either they are the reverse pyramid followers (minority) so everyone they coach follows reverse pyramid, or they believe in base and foundation, so everyone they coach follows base training during the winter months.

Coaches and runners need to realise that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and we are all individuals and hence we need to ensure that we are following the correct programme. It’s also confusing for you as an athlete, if you hear 2 opposing views, you ask the question, ‘which one is correct and which one do you follow?’

Endurance sports are very simple and you need to ask 2 key questions:

1. How fast can you go?
2. How long can you keep it going for?

Okay, so let’s consider 2 people training for a spring marathon.

1. Sandra and Michael have run 17 marathons with a PB of 4 hours 20 minutes. They run marathons and ultra distance events and can run until the cows come home but have no change of pace. In fact, they both have 10k PB’s set during a half marathon race. Sound like anyone you know?

2. Rita and John are track runner by trade, they were 1500m runners at county level but rarely go above 10k. Whilst they may be rapid, endurance is not their strength. The marathon is going to be a real challenge for them as the distance is well beyond their comfort zone.

Here you have 2 classic extremes, the plodder and the burner. Sandra and Michael would benefit far more from reversing the pyramid and spending a winter, trying to reduce 5k and 10k times. Once the speed is in place, they can then increase their long runs and learn how to ‘keep it going’ for the full marathon. Rita and John have ample speed, but they have no base fitness. The classic winter base training model would therfore work much better for both of them as it has for many others before them.

The classic base model tends to work best for fast people with poor endurance, that’s who it was initially invented for. That’s also the classic model for athletics, when 1500m runners are too slow, they step up to 10k, when they’re too slow for 10k they step up for marathon. These are fast runners, who need to add endurance.

But you as an ultra runner do base training while racing, no? You are more inline with Sandra and Michael.

If you’re running multiple marathons but you struggle to get below 9 minute miles, base training is not going to work for you. No amount of slow mileage will make you a quicker runner, it’ll just allow you to keep running slower for longer.

So how does this help me?

You need to assess yourself as an athlete and ask the 2 simple questions:

1. How fast can I go?
2. Can I keep it going?

Are you a burner, plodder of somewhere inbetween? The classic base training pyramid can be used to great effect, but so can the ‘reverse pyramid’ method. You, as a runner just need to work out which programme over the winter period to follow. Neither one is better or worse, they’re different, just like you and me.

If you are based in the UK, Marc Laithwaite can provide a more accurate assessment of your personal strengths and weaknesses via sports science assessment. You can BOOK HERE.

*This article is a combined article by Ian Corless and Marc Laithwaite

About Marc:

Sports Science lecturer for 10 years at St Helens HE College.

2004 established The Endurance Coach LTD sports science and coaching business. Worked with British Cycling as physiology support 2008-2008. Previous Triathlon England Regional Academy Head Coach, North West.

In 2006 established Epic Events Management LTD. Now one of the largest event companies in the NW, organising a range of triathlon, swimming and cycling events. EPIC EVENTS also encompasses Montane Trail 26 and Petzl Night Runner events.

In 2010 established Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 LTD. This has now become the UKs leading ultra distance trail running event.

In 2010 established The Endurance Store triathlon, trail running and open water swimming store. Based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, we are the North West’s community store, organising and supporting local athletes and local events.

Check out the endurance store HERE

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7 thoughts on “To Base Train Or Not To Base Train

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  2. Is it possible the ‘pyramid’ should be replaced with an overall smaller but more condensed ‘box’ of training..focusing on areas equally but more intensely..shock..shock and carry on shocking the body within training and striving for and aiming for broad spectrum,robust continually evolving training?

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