In order to handle the stresses of marathon training, you need to build strength and stability in your leg muscles and joints. As part of a periodized running program which will allow you to achieve your goals year after year, both beginner & experienced runners should build a base before beginning a marathon training program. Having a base will help prevent injury. Essentially, if you are a beginner, you need to introduce your body to the rigors of running, so your body knows what to expect and running won’t be such a shock to your system. For those that are experienced runners, building a base is critical to staying healthy and building confidence.
For beginners, on a weekly basis, one should be running at least 4 days, with a long run of 6 miles and averaging at least 20 miles. In my marathon training plan for beginners (Crushing26.2), I include a 12 week plan specifically for a beginner runner to build a base. Ideally, these 12 weeks are to prepare someone for a 5k race and allow them to be able to run for 30 minutes without stopping.
For experienced runners, building a base typically occurs between racing seasons. Depending on your race schedule, some runners complete base training twice a year. For intermediate or experienced runners, base training involves scaling back the intensity and running a lot of long, slow miles.
The idea is that this repetitive, low-intensity activity builds a strong foundation that will support the hard work of training and racing that follows during the rest of the year. However, as important that completing this base or foundation work is for your long term performance, it’s also typically the root cause of injury if done carelessly. A few tips can help you build miles safely and to best effect. Follow these steps to ensure that you, too, are fortified for the coming season.
A base period can last four weeks-or four months. I recommend no less than 2 months. For beginners, 3-6 months is the minimum to effectively build your base depending on your fitness level at the outset of the base building program. The 2 month minimum is because you shouldn’t increase your mileage by more than 10 percent every two weeks. I always coach that conservative, yet consistent training is most important. You have a much better chance of achieving your long term goals if you’re able to avoid injuries and stack week after week of training on top of each other. The more gradual you build your mileage base the better.
Although, many elite athletes complete a six-week base period between the end of cross-country and the beginning of indoor track, the average runner has much more time to build their base. As you increase your mileage, I suggest following high-mileage weeks with a lower mileage week (approximately 10 to 15% less). As best as possible, avoid more than two consecutive high-mileage weeks. If you feel fatigued during your runs or feel some aches and pains, don’t hesitate to back off by as much as 20-30% for a week or even two to ensure recovery.
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The primary purpose of base building is on aerobic mileage. However, I can’t stress the importance of including variety in your training. This includes strides & some faster (at least steady state) paced runs. Once you complete week four of base time, running an occasional tempo or rolling hill workout will help to maintain your stamina and actually improves strength and anaerobic capacity. I counsel runners who are working on a multi month base building program to add a second weekly threshold workout 6 – 8 weeks into their program. If you keep the effort controlled (under 85 percent of your max), you will continue to maintain stamina without burning out.
During the base training, assuming you’re healthy, it’s important to get your long run up to 90 minutes. Depending on your pace, this is typically 9 – 12 miles. Ensure you run at least that long every two weeks. You can adjust up or down depending on how you feel. This will keep you accustomed to time on your feet.
Besides using the strategy of gradual mileage increase, the most important and often underrated component of any good running program is rest. Your body will most successfully adapt and gets stronger if you give it a chance to recover after vigorous workouts. As you build mileage, keep in mind that rest and recovery are essential. Just as with my marathon training plan, I believe it’s important to take a rest day every week. It doesn’t have to be the day after your long run (in fact, I like to run about 5 miles easy the day after a long run), instead it could be the day after tempo or hills. Oftentimes my business travel dictates when I take my rest days. Also, as with the marathon training plan, it’s good to insert a rest week (at least 20 percent lower mileage) as discussed above. The overall lesson to be learned here is to build miles very gradually, with plenty of stretching, proper nutrition and rest.