Base Period — Run Slow If You Ever Want To Run Fast!
I have received a few questions regarding base period and why I keep saying that you need to run slow if you ever want to run fast. I will do my best to explain the logic behind this.
Base period is the initial part of most training plans. It does not matter if you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran; this is where most marathon programs begin (Hanson’s Marathon Method is not for beginners and assumes you already have a solid base).
The base period usually serves one main purpose: improving your aerobic threshold. Long distance running is an aerobic activity … it seems obvious, but you need to remember this simple fact. Long distance running requires a steady effort for a prolonged period of time. Sprinting is done full bore in a short period of time … simple juxtaposition. Anaerobic pathways are incredibly inefficient for endurance sports, so we are left with the only available option, aerobic pathways.
When we race we have to find the balance between both systems, this is why you typically see elite marathoners run negative splits. Geoffrey Mutai displayed this concept beautifully during the 2013 NYC marathon. He carried a steady pace through the first 20 miles of the race before increasing his power output for the home stretch … aerobic transitioned to anaerobic.
The aerobic threshold will vary from person to person, but it is generally defined as the point where your body switches from aerobic metabolism to anaerobic. Some articles refer to this as the lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold; it is all the same thing. Aerobic effort means your body is burning carbohydrates and fats as sources of fuel. Anaerobic effort means that the power output required can no longer be supplied by the aerobic system … seems obvious. During anaerobic effort, the body begins to use stored sugars to supplement the carbohydrates and fat being burned by the aerobic system. Unfortunately, this means that lactic acid is also being produced at a faster rate than can be metabolized … if the lactic acid level gets high enough, aerobic effort becomes unmanageable, typically what we refer to as hitting the wall.
Having a high aerobic threshold means you can fuel your body for longer periods of time with minimal lactic acid build up. Concentrating on speed and bypassing the base build period is similar to putting race performance tires on a Honda Civic, you are going to be limited by the power output of your engine.
There are many variants to heart rate training and it is not an exact science. If you want to incorporate a heart rate monitor into your training, that is great, but it is not necessary. You should learn to listen to your body during your training and not rely on gadgets … your GPS watch could fail during a race!
If you do not want to use a heart rate monitor, then use the following guidelines during your workouts:
- Zone 1: Resting Heart Rate (RHR) to 60%; easy enough effort that it barely qualifies as working out.
- Zone 2: 60 to 70 %; very comfortable effort; use this for warmup and cool down.
- Zone 3: 70 to 80 %; comfortable enough to hold a conversation; most training is done here.
- Zone 4: 81 to 93%; “comfortably hard” effort; you may be able to say short, broken sentences.
- Zone 5: 94 to 100%; hard effort; the pace is sustainable, but conversation is a few words at a time. For most people this is around 5-K pace.
There are many advantages to running slow, most of which new runners (myself included) ignore during our early stages of long distance training. We always think pace trumps everything … this is wrong, incredibly wrong. Long runs are designed to help your body adapt to long distance efforts in a controlled and safe environment.
Speed should be the furthest thing in your agenda during these workouts. If you want to increase your speed, focus your efforts during tempo runs, hill repeats, Yasso 800s, magic mile repeats, etc … not during your long runs!
Here is a short list of the advantages of training at a slower pace during your long runs:
- New capillary beds are built, which is akin to building new highways. These beds allow for greater efficiency of blood flow to diffuse oxygen and nutrients to working muscles and increase the capacity for waste removal.
- Heart muscle becomes stronger which lowers our resting heart rate.
- Stroke volume, which is the amount of blood your heart can pump per beat, improves by as much as 2.5 times over normal levels, allowing your body to move more blood with each heart beat.
- Training improves the endurance capabilities of your muscle fibers by increasing the number of mitochondria within your muscle cells. Mitochondria are the “powerhouse” of the cell because they are responsible for producing the energy required for muscle contraction.
If you are willing to be disciplined in your pace and listen to your body (and heart rate monitor) the gains which can be made during the base build period will pay off tremendously once you enter the build, peak, and race periods.
Happy running and best efforts,
p.s. You can read my original post regarding heart rate zone training and long slow distance (LSD) runs here — “Why Should Long Runs Be Slower?”