Spring is here, and like a bear emerging from its cave after a long winter’s hibernation, we’re all shaking off the sleep and ramping up our activity levels. For the runners among us, that means it’s the season of base-building.
Building your base means laying down a foundation of aerobic fitness early in the training cycle. Whether you’re new to the sport, coming back after an injury, or just hitting the trails again after a winter hiatus, it’s crucial to develop your aerobic fitness before pushing your limits. And these base-building runs will yield more than just endurance: they’ll also help build the mental stamina and drive to get you through your next phase of training.
I spoke with Yassine Diboun—ultramarathoner, coach, and “Lead Wolf” of Portland’s Wy’east Wolfpack—about the ins and outs of base-building.
Do you recommend building a base before formal training for an event?
Absolutely. In my opinion, building a base is a necessary component of progressing to an event or a specific goal. This phase allows runners to build a solid foundation before adding more intense workouts into the training plan. I always tell athletes that I coach about how my brother built his home from the ground up. First he had to get the ground leveled and graded, and then he could have a solid foundation to build a strong and safe home for his family.
What does base-building mean to you?
Runners need to build up their cardiovascular system, but there are many other physiological factors that go into successful running. They must strengthen tendons, ligaments, connective tissues, and muscles, as well as build more capillaries to carry oxygen and nutrients to hardworking muscles. All of this is accomplished with the slower, longer runs of the base-building phase.
The majority of the runs during this phase should be at an intensity where the runner can carry on a conversation while running. I usually add some bodyweight exercises that are sometimes a bit more intense to stimulate the cardio system, but in general the main objective is to build that aerobic base.
How many weeks of running should a beginner or someone who has been away from running put in to build their base?
A lot depends on the athlete you are working with, but it usually ranges between 8 and 12 weeks for a beginner. When I work with runners, I assess their fitness levels and goals; from there I can calibrate their base phase, taking into account all factors such as age, athletic history, goals, past injuries... This also involves a “stress and rest” trajectory, meaning that I build for two or three weeks and then rest to bounce back.
Should speed work be a part of base-building?
I will sometimes add some short speed-work sessions, but only minimally during the base-building phase. Some examples of this would be running the last mile or so of the run at a quicker pace or incorporating Fartleks (a Swedish training method in which you vary your pace) within a run. Instead of lots of speed work, I will often have runners do HIIT (high-intensity interval training) on their cross-training days. These types of bodyweight functional fitness workouts are designed to stimulate the cardio system, increase the VO2 max [maximal aerobic capacity], and strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments used in long-distance running. Also, during the base-building phase I will add some hill running to further build that engine. There is a famous saying, “Hills are speed work in disguise!”
How does a runner or coach know that the runner has sufficient “base”?
As a coach I monitor up close and personal by running with them, using technology such as heart rate monitors and the running app Strava, where I am able to see their GAP [Grade Adjusted Pace]. Usually a rule of thumb is that if they are able to comfortably run their easy runs at somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of their max heart rate, they have a good base and are ready to add more intense training.
Miriam Wolf is editor of The FruitGuys Magazine.