Thursday, May 7, 2009

Building a Base

Well, it's getting to that time of year again. I thought I'd share my ideas on base-building; I should warn you, though, I don't delieve in coloring my ideas with fancy scientific terms. I know the science behind my ideas, I know they're grounded in experience, results, and research. However, I will leave the science aspect of things out of this article for the most part. If you'd like to know it, shoot me an email or something. Now, on to the base-building:
Like most of us, my idea of "base building" is colored by my first experience with it; namely, my high school track coach, Kevin McGrath, and the instructions he gave me prior to my first ever "base-training" during the summer before my junior year. Up until that point, I laughed at the idea of running during the off season (which was strictly for frisbee and hiking). In typical McGrath style, he told me everything I needed to know to get started in a few abrupt sentences. "Hey, McGrath- what should I do to get ready for a good XC season next fall?" I asked after track season was over.
"Run every day at a decent pace--not too fast not too slow. Once a week, do a shorter, fast run. 'Couple days later, do your long run-- just a couple miles more than normal. After all the other runs, do strides. Situps and pushups a couple times a week are fine."
"That's it?" I asked, sure at the time that it had to be more complicated than that.
"Did I stutter? Jesus Christ, are you deaf too, 4-eyes?"
This is often the way training instructions went with Kevin. I'm not complaining; I was just as cruel to him. It's how we communicate.
Anyway, for a runner with only a few years of experience (high schoolers and new runners) that's pretty much all you need to know about base training. For a developing runner, just getting out there and running most every day is going to bring improvements. You don't need to get more complicated than that. However, most high school kids (I was not one of these) try to race all the time in the summer. Running up-tempo if you feel good is a good thing, but you shouldn't being doing anything really intense in the summer. For a developing high schooler who might race 5k at most, the effort-level that corresponds with "marathon pace" doesn't really mean much, but that's about the effort level we're looking for on the summer tempos. Basically, better to err on the slow side than err on the fast side. During a summer tempo, you should be under control-- running quick but more importantly RELAXED. Again, for high schoolers who develop quickly (making their 5k PRs from XC irrelevant) a good rule of thumb is to add 1:00 to your mile PR and do 3-4 mile tempos NO FASTER than that pace. Since almost all high schoolers run the mile, it's a good frame of reference. Your typical 4:30 high school miler for a summer tempo run might do a two mile warmup, then 3 miles going 5:45, 5:40, 5:30, then jogging a two mile cool down. The rest of the week is just reasonably easy running with a good set of strides after. Maybe once a week throw on your spikes and do your strides at the track, just to keep used to it. Just keep it relaxed and be honest with yourself. If you're a high schooler or have less than 3-4 years experience training year round, you can stop here. That's about all you need to know to build a good base for XC.
Now, if you've been in the game a little longer, you need something a little (but not that much!) more advanced. This is because 1) you're not growing as much anymore, and you won't necessarily improve as much year to year just from maturation and 2) after a while, the same stimulus doesn't provoke the same stress/adaptation response, so you have to switch it up a little. A great start for all moderately experienced runners is George Malley's Summer of Malmo plan/philosophy. ( A lot of my own ideas for training in general and summer training in particular are lifted unapologetically from Malmo's posts on letsrun. More important than Malmo's specific instructions are his ideas: being CONSISTENT and RELAXED when you're training hard. Yes, the summer is the time to intelligently push the envelope with mileage. But doing one week of 90 miles then taking three days off and having a 40 mile week is not as good as two 70 mile weeks in a row.
In general, I am against rigid structure in the summer. There's little reason to go and take what should be an enjoyable, relaxing training season with no immediate racing goals and turn it into some inflexible, rigid schedule. I think in general, if you train entirely by feel, you end up training a little better than usual. However, because most of us are inexperienced with training by feel, we screw up- we do four workouts in a week or three tempos in a row because we "feel good" then eat serious shit by the end of the summer. So, like all things, we must compromise between structure and ab libbing. Here are the 3 key days in a base-period's week: 1) the tempo run, 3-7 miles 2) the longer repeats/fartlek OR pure sprint work 3) the long run. Fill in the rest of the days with easy runs and a good set of strides. You also might find it helpful to replace strides one day with 5-15 steep hill sprints ala Canova, Hudson, Jenkins, et alia. For serious college runners doing 60+ a week, I recommend doubles as much as you can handle. Everyone is different though- some people prefer singles, and that's fine too. However, doubling is a better way to get in more mileage and recover better than just running once a day. In the summer, I like to try to get in one run before the sun's been up too long and my other one at sundown to avoid the worst heat of the day. Work around your schedule. Here's how two weeks in the middle of summer (once you've built up your mileage and quality over the course of a few weeks) might look for a runner with 4-5 years experience, running 70+ miles a week:

1- 2 easy runs, strides
2- hilly tempo (3-8 miles at 1-1:30min/mile slower than mile PR)
3- 2 easy runs, strides
4- 2 easy runs, hill sprints (PM run can be mod if you feel good)
5- longer repeats/fartlek (ex- 5xmile around threshold pace, 2min rest or 10x3min on, 1 min off), etc
6-1 easy run
7- Hilly Long Run- 15-20% of weekly mileage. Run steady towards the end if you feel good.
8- 2 easy runs, strides
9- flat tempo 3-8 miles, same effort- if you did a short tempo the week before, go longer this time.
10- 2 easy runs, strides
11- 2 easy runs (PM mod if you feel good), hill sprints or OFF (take a day off per month; it won't kill you)
12- pure sprint work (ex- warmup, 5-10x60-150 meters nearly flat out with FULL REST. If you have a GENTLE downhill to use, that can help. Focus on GOOD FORM and RELAX)
13- 1 easy run, hill sprints if you took Thursday off
14- Hilly Long Run- same as last week.

There you go. It's a balanced approach with a fair bit of quality, but nothing crazy and plenty of rest in between hard efforts. While in the season you might push it a little more, in the summer, if you don't feel 100% ready to do a tempo or something, just push it back a day- who cares? It's the summer! If it's Tuesday and you have a tempo scheduled but you can only do it at noon and it's 103 degrees in the shade, who cares if you push it back to a more convenient day? Don't be rigid, don't be inflexible. Don't get caught up in hitting mileage figures- the only different between 59 and 60 miles is in your head. The schedule I typed up is just an example. It should be changed to accomodate your situation. If you ever have any doubts during the summer, I have the same answer for you: err on the side of caution. Better to do 10mpw week less and be healthy, better to do 15 sec/mile slower on your tempos and be fresh, etc. It's important to remember the extra stuff too- do your drills, stretch, drink a lot of water, do your core work, etc. Summer is a good time to do all the "nitty gritty."

That's pretty much it, I would think. Base training is really a very simple concept, but sometimes it's helpful to have things spelled out. As always, feel free to ask any questions you might have. And remember- don't waste good time. The run executed today is better than a carefully planned sequence of runs intending to start tomorrow.


  1. Thats a very good 14 day list. When I generally look at base training, I like to think the old school days. no workouts, no intervals. Just Hills, Tempos, Fartleks, and a 2 hour long run.

  2. yeah same here (as rubensanca), except maybe a lil less than 2 hours..
    whatever works and used to

  3. I agree- however, I get extremely bored doing just hills, tempos, fartleks. So every so often I change my sessions of 5x5min on, 1 min off into mile repeats or 10x3min in 10x800- since they're basically the same workout anyway, and interval work is my favorite work. I also find that the pure sprint work deadens my legs the first time I do it, but then gives 'em nice "zing" thereafter.

  4. Hey,

    I'm a high school girl (going to be a senior next year) and I've really liked following your blog the last few weeks. I just had a question for you: One of my huge goals this year is to make the state meet at the very end of November, and my question is, what are your thoughts on mileage increase? Last summer I ran around 40-50 mpw and got up a bit higher than that in the winter (the highest I have probably gone up to is maybe 60, but that was the highest, not an average). I'd like to do really well this season and the first races are in mid September meaning I have 3-4 months before then... do you think building up to around 80 (70-80) mpw is reasonable, especially if I start out with mainly easy runs and gradually add in tempos etc (build up the doubles too, to ~4-5x a week)? Thanks, and good luck with your season as well this year.

  5. I think a better idea would be to make 60mpw a comfortable, normal week for you. You said you've been up there, but not with any real consistency. Try to get up there and stay there, so that by the end of the summer, a 60 mile week hardly troubles you more than 40 a week used to. If by August 60 a week is nothing to you, you might want to hit one or two weeks in the 70s, but going from averaging 40-50 a week to 55-60 a week is quite a good jump already. Going from 40-50 to 70-80 would be nearly doubling your mileage, and that might take more than 3 months to get used to. It'd be better to keep the increases consistent and a little more gradual than trying to jar your way up there.

    Best of luck to you- feel free to come back with questions/updates anytime.

  6. I see. What I was thinking though was, over the winter I did do some consistent 50 mile weeks. I think by end of May/beginning of June I could be right at 50 again. To get to 60, it will just take some doubles. So do you think it is reasonable to stay around 60 and then in July be around 70 instead? This would still be a somewhat conservative increase, and I could remain at 70-75 for the next few weeks (maybe go up a bit higher in August). Of course I'll listen to my body and if I'm tired from the 60 mpw, I'll keep it there. What are your thoughts on doubles as well? I know malmo strongly advocates them, and so I'm hoping doubling 4-5x a week will also make a good difference. Basically, I think just adding like a few miles in the morning to the 50 mpw in singles should already get me close to 70 eventually (though start out at 60 and move up obviously). Thanks!

  7. I'm a big fan of doubles, especially in the summer when athletes have more time to do them. I still think you'd be better off doing 10 weeks at 60-65 than trying to push up to 75 for a week or two. I've pushed mileage increases too fast before, and the way it's always worked for me is that I feel great the first 3-4 weeks at a higher mileage, then the fatigue sets in bad. I would say wait until you've hit at least 6-7 weeks over 60 miles before you got for a 70 mile week. At 60 a week, I would shoot for a long run of 10-12, a medium long-run of 8-9 and the rest of the week split up with doubles (probably like 3 in the am and 5pm) Be patient- you have years to increase your miles sensibly. If you have about 16 weeks of base training and can get the last 12 of those weeks AVERAGING 60-65, you're going to be in killer shape come fall time. Then maybe in the winter you can try some 70s- that would give you 5 or so months at 60mpw, which is plenty of time to get used to it. Don't rush it- take the summer to make 60mpw child's play.

  8. Yea, I see what you are saying; the big thing is to be consistent. Also, what are your thoughts on hill repeats? Sometimes I do the tempo run over flat surfaces and throw in a climb somewhere, but what about specific hill work? I feel like that's one thing I need to work on, building leg strength for those hills. If there's an uphill climb of say, ~200 meters, would a good workout be to do repeats of these (rest being jogging back down)?

  9. There's two schools of thoughts on hills during the summer:

    1) 200-300m hills at 1500-3000m effort are fine, as long as you use full recovery (jog down + a little extra rest so you're starting each one relatively fresh). Lots of great milers have made use of these types of sessions in the off season

    2) It's better to run hilly routes whenever you can and limit your specific hill work to the short hill sprints as described by Canova.

    Since you have over 12 weeks, I would be gradual no matter what you do. If you decide you're going to try to do hills (and if hills are a weakness of yours, I don't know think it's a bad idea) start off doing maybe 4x15 seconds uphill, then 4x30 seconds the next week, then add 1 repeat a week til you're at 10x30 seconds or 5x1 min uphill. Don't sprint them- run hard but controlled. As always, be sensible, gradual, and consistent.

  10. Get ready for me to hammer you in July and August

  11. how is this structure im doing

    sunday: long run (22%)
    monday: recovery run (10%)
    Tuesday: hill sprints (16%=8% warm up, 8% cooldown)
    Wednesday: mid week long run(14%)
    Thursday: easy run +strides (12%)
    Friday: recovery run (10%)
    Saturday: tempo/10/5k pace workout (16%)

  12. my impressions:

    1) long run is too long, proportionally. Why cram almost a quarter of your week onto one day?

    2) I think doing the long run the day after a workout isn't the best idea- I prefer to treat the long run like a hard day (whether I run it hard or not) and take an easy day after

    3)how long did it take you to work out those percentages? I hardly think there's a need to do that. The only percentage I use is for the long run, and I think a long run closer to 15% of total mileage is better than 20%. If you're training for a race that's less than 10 miles, you don't really need to go much more than 14-15 in training.

  13. I saw lydiards weeks and changed it up a bit, replacing shorter faster days wit hlonger faster, and running shorter and slower. I thought the purpose of the long run was to run long, 22% too long? 20? when do u reccomend 15-20?, so u dont do ur long run during racing season?

  14. 22% is almost 1/4th of your weekly mileage in a single day. That's just too much, unless you're training for a marathon. I don't think the long run should be over 20% of your weekly mileage EVER. If you're training for a marathon and running 110 a week, then even a 22 mile long run is only 20% of your weekly mileage. For a high school kid training for a 3mi race and running 60 a week, there's no need to do more than 10-12 at a time. Also, if you're running over 60 a week, you should be doubling more anyway.

  15. I know what you're saying Craig with 22% being long, however, if you run seven days a week, then that's an average of 14.3% as a daily average and if you run six days (I know, who takes a day off), then it's 16.7% a day. So in order to have some "easier" days, you need to have a longer day to be able to get a good balance.

    I think the general guideline I've always used and I know many others do too is 20-25% as your long run percentage. Then again, I am more of the Lydiard model that your long run should be long, even if you're training for the 1500/mile. Also, pace doesn't necessarily mean a lot in the base period, running time does.

    However, I don't worry too much about % a day in the summer. I now believe running a specific time a day is better than a specific mileage. 90 minutes - 2 hours as a long run, 60 minutes three other days and 30-45 minutes the other three. One of the 60 minute days could be a fartlek/hilly run and one of the 30-45 minute run as a tempo. Short (50-75m) strides a few times a week with plenty of recover too.

    I hope that helps someone. This is an excellent discussion so far. Let's keep it going.

  16. CoachMK-

    I just think 25% is way too much mileage to emphasize on one day. If you're doing that much, even slowly, my experience is that you need a very easy day before and after- now half your week is dedicated to one long, slow run? Again, for high schoolers training for at most 5k (and are new to the sport) I don't really see the validity. For college kids getting ready for a 10k cross country race, yeah sure- a few 17, 18 milers are good- only those college kids are probably running upwards of 90 a week anyway, and the percentage is more in line with what I recommended.

    If you're running 90-100 a week (or 90-100min a day, if you prefer) then there's nothing wrong with a run approaching two hours. But if a high school kid is running at most 50min a day (or roughly 50mpw) a two hour run is another ballpark entirely.