Base training – don’t skip this stuff!

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in running, training

I got all crazy up in here one December evening and signed up for 3 ultramarathons in one night.  After I realized what I had done, I reached for the bottle of Jack Daniels.  When I remembered that I don’t drink, had no Jack Daniels and that the strongest drink I had to soak in the perceived pain of said races was a plastic cup of Crystal Light Energy, I pulled up my big girl panties and started making my training schedule.  This kind of stuff gets me excited.  I see training plans as an intriguing look into the body’s physiology.  It’s so intriguing in fact, that I have purchased several used college textbooks just so I could study up on the matter.

This is how I do
This is how I do

After a few month running hiatus due to crappy Utah winter weather and an unexpected surgery, I am starting back at square one with my training and need to rebuild my endurance base.  A few of my recent social media posts have referenced my base training and a few people have asked about it.  Thus I decided this may be worthy of my second blog post.  Hold on to your spandex running tights, it’s bout to get all sciency up in here.  Cue the dubstep party music and strobe lights.

Let me first start off with the disclaimer that I am not an authority on endurance training.  I would call myself more of an enthusiast.  I am not a certified coach or trainer, though I have plans to remedy that situation this year.  Dare I say there are few people out there that have studied up on the matter more than I have out of sheer intrigue.  I dare.  Aside from that, I speak from personal experience.  One aspect of a well written training plan is the base training.  This is something I vaguely understood the concept of, but never really put into place until this last year.  I attribute my 17 minute PR on a marathon and 1 hour 20 minute PR (yes, you read that right) on a 50 miler (both within a month of each other) to sticking religiously to my base training.

To fully understand the concept of building a base, you need to understand a few basic principles of Sport and Exercise Physiology.  I am not trying to insult those that are smarter than me and already know this stuff, but it took me studying a textbook (my idea of a stimulating Friday night) and picking the brains of other authorities on the matter to understand it myself.  Please excuse that I’m explaining something relatively intricate in very basic terms for the sake of keeping this post to an attention span friendly length.

In a nutshell, there are two main types of training: aerobic and anaerobic.  Aerobic training focuses on improving cardio-respiratory endurance.  Anaerobic training focuses on increasing muscular strength and your body’s ability to buffer lactate acid in the body.  So when we are base training, we are trying to keep our body in an aerobic state.  Anaerobic training is still important to the endurance athlete, but for the sake of discussion, we will keep this to the base training and talk about anaerobic training in another post.  Your body needs to be trained to deliver sufficient oxygen to meet your active tissue’s needs over a prolonged period of time when training for an endurance event.  VO2max is the measure of the highest rate of oxygen consumption attainable during exhaustive activity.  With correct training (keeping yourself in an aerobic state), you can increase your VO2max and more oxygen can be delivered and consumed to those hungry tissues than in an untrained state.  Now these improvements are nifty, you see, because they allow you to run at a faster pace for a longer period of time.

Another fun and sciency concept is what types of energy (fuel) your body is burning during aerobic vs. anaerobic states.  Basically, your body mainly burns fat stores during the aerobic state and glucose (sugar) during the anaerobic state.  Your body has ample fat to burn (one study I read somewhere – can’t remember where, wish I could reference it) said that your body has enough fat stores to fuel your body for 2 hours of aerobic exercise.  It is very common for people to believe that you need crazy amounts of food to replenish your body during long runs.  While this is partly true, if you train your body to burn your fat stores, you can run faster for longer periods of time.  Your body just doesn’t have enough glucose stored to fuel prolonged activity.  And yes, this means your body is happily burning fat and you have a great chance of losing some weight during this training phase.  Bonus.

Now how in the howdy hey hey do I know if I’m in aerobic state, you ask.  The most basic way to measure is heart rate (HR). This is important to understand because your heart rate can determine whether you are in an aerobic or anaerobic state.  Oh man, there is an entire chapter in my secondhand textbook about HR.  The blog post version of all the fancy terms is that as a general rule of thumb, if you can keep your HR at 70% of your maximum heart rate, you will know that you are most likely in an aerobic state.  There is a big debate on the best way to find your maximum HR, go ahead and Google it – I did.  Because we are just trying to stay basic, I will take the easiest way, which is the following formula:

220 – your age = HRmax

So in my case, my formula would be 220 – 31 (I’m 31 years old) = 189.  According this this formula, my HRmax is 189 beats per minute.  I have learned through my own base training and using a heart rate monitor during different types of runs over the last year that my HR is actually a little higher than average, so my real HRmax is probably a little higher than this.  The base training philosophy that I have used successfully in the past year is focusing on heart rate training zones.  During my long runs, I wear a HR monitor and focus on keeping my HR at 70%, not focusing on my pace.  I was a very difficult sale on this idea at first.  I found it counter-intuitive to run a 9:15 minute mile average for my first few long runs when my goal marathon pace was an 8:35 minute mile.  I actually adjusted the screens on my watch to show only my HR and distance during my base training runs so that I wasn’t tempted to pick up the pace.

Last Fall, after 7 weeks of base training, I went from 9:15's to 8:35's at 70% HR
Last Fall, after 7 weeks of base training, I went from 9:15’s to 8:35’s at 70% HR

You have to remember what the purpose of the base training is: training your body to increase it’s ability to transport oxygen to active tissues and burn the right types of fuel.  I found that after I hit about the 7 week mark in my marathon training, I was running at a faster pace while my HR was staying at the same 70% rate.  At this point, I knew I had created a successful endurance base and could use my anaerobic training (speed and tempo work, and in my case, GPP cross-training – that will be another post) to run at race pace through muscle memory and lactate threshold training.  Looking back at my training logs of my last marathon, the majority of my long runs ended up averaging just under 9:00 minute miles (m/m).  My final long run of 20 miles averaged 8:56 m/m but more importantly, I felt very comfortable and had some left in the tank at the end of the run.  3 weeks later, I ran my marathon averaging 8:27 m/m.

So base training huh?  It’s not just a total leap of faith, the science behind it is sound.  Your body will be able to sustain you effectively through an endurance event without injury, GI issues and unnecessary suffering.  That gets my vote.

Oh, one other cool thing I forgot to mention: your body actually creates more capillaries during aerobic exercise.  More capillaries means more oxygen transferred (reference:  That kind of nerd talk gets me hot and bothered.


Run with purpose,



1) Have you ever run according to heart rate instead of pace?

2) Have you found another method of base training to be effective?

PS – I’m just working out the kinks on this platform, if you try to comment and are having difficulty, please let me know.  I’m working on it.