Base training for runners explained

Long, slow, easy running forms the foundation of any running schedule, particularly for a marathon runner.

Base training for runners explained

But you need to apply a little bit of science and not just go and run at the same easy pace from now until race day.

If you’re taking on a marathon in a few months' time, now is the time to build a solid aerobic base, adding on speed work and tempo running with some thought and planning.

What is base training?

Base training is the foundation of any running schedule, and is particularly relevant to marathon runners who need to build a solid aerobic base.

Rory Coleman is a Running Performance Coach with nine Guinness World Records and nine Marathon des Sables (not to mention 735 marathons) to his name. Base training is “confidence training” he says. It helps you not just condition the body, but the mind also. “If you’ve never done a marathon you need to get used to time on your feet. Once you’ve run 20 miles, or 22 miles, you know you can run 26.2.” For elite athletes the base training period is when, according to triathlete and author, Joe Friel, you “train to train, not to race”.

What intensity should base training be done at?

“A couple of minutes slower than marathon pace,” explains Coleman. And if you don’t know your marathon pace, you can go by heart rate, “Seventy five per cent of maximum. Or if you don’t know that, just run and be able to talk as your run.”

“It feels very slow,” warns Coleman. It’s commonly accepted that most newbie runners, do too little, too fast and without any structure. If you love to run fast, curb your enthusiasm with a heart rate monitor and have some patience, with your eye firmly on the longer-term goal.

How much and for how long?

A base training period can be any length of time from six weeks to six months for an absolute beginner. “Most of your marathon training is base training,” says Coleman. “Over a period of 12, weeks 80 per cent of your running should be done at an intensity of less than 75 percent maximum heart rate. The remaining 20 per cent should be split into speed intervals and tempo or threshold running. For example if you run 50 miles per week, do 30 at 75 percent of maximum heart rate, and 10 miles at 85 per per cent, and 10 miles above that (a monthly parkrun or hills are perfect).”

In the second six weeks start to introduce some faster training, a fast 20-mile run, more racing and speedwork, the percentage should be roughly 60 to 40.

Alex Bliss, who runs the Brighton University Marathon Support Unit, agrees. “A major part of any serious endurance runner’s programme should be low intensity, zone 1 training. Training in zone 1 or below the lactate threshold is a method of exercise that is sustainable for very long periods, and forms the majority of training that is required for those looking to complete a marathon.”

Why do we need to do base training?

The marathon is an aerobic event, so you need to train the body to work in the aerobic zone. Over time this type of training will boost V02 max, increase the heart’s stroke volume (ie the amount of blood you can pump out in one beat) and boost the amount of oxygen carrying capillaries you have in your body – making you a more efficient runner.

“The improvement you can get in performance from developing your aerobic fat burning system is huge compared to the improvement in performance you can get from doing the high-end anaerobic carbohydrate burning workouts,” says Cheltenham based personal trainer, Dan Fivey. “Our bodies cannot develop both systems very well at the same time. Which means that to build a base properly, an athlete has to have the patience to work the aerobic system.”

Building up slowly at a lower intensity will also help prevent injury and is great for weight management: “Low intensity exercise is great for increasing energy expenditure and will help with weight management and calorie burning when training,” says Alex Bliss.

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