When you’re considering signing up for a marathon or other race down the road, it’s tempting to jump right into the training. But smart runners will tell you how important it is to have some solid weekly mileage—or a running base—under your belt first.
“When you hear about building a training base, think about it like building a foundation for a house on the beach: As much as you might want to just go out and set up a roof and four walls in the sand, laying a concrete foundation first is crucial,” says Erin Beck, NASM-certified personal training and director of training and experience for STRIDE Fitness. “Doing so supports the structure of the roof and walls on top of it.”
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Here’s exactly what constitutes a strong running base, plus how to establish one, according to your experience and upcoming race plans.
What is a running base?
Simply put, “a training base is the foundational fitness that a runner brings to the start of any training program,” explains Ned Trim, USATF-certified run coach, head coach at Mile High Run Club, and a coach with Brooklyn Track Club.
This isn’t just something total newbies do once before easing into their first race-training schedule. Even very experienced runners need to make sure to have a good base before amping things up; think of it as a bridge connecting your miles from race season to race season.
The fitness you’re building when you establish or maintain a running base, says Beck, includes improving on two components: your cardiovascular system, meaning the strengthening of your heart and lungs to prep you for intense workouts that will come in race training, and muscular fitness, because “the impact of running can be brutal if you don’t gradually build up the physical strength to support your body over those efforts.”
In other words, by regularly running and building your fitness, you strengthen the heart, so it doesn’t have to work as hard on future runs. You also get better at using oxygen so you’re not huffing and puffing as much. And your muscles build strength and endurance, so you feel stronger running longer.
Why is base training so important before race training?
A good training schedule for any race amps up your mileage and speedwork from week to week. But even those weekly steps up in effort might be too much for your body to handle if you’re starting with an inadequate base. You could wind up burned out, unmotivated, or sidelined with aches and pains.
A recent review of research on runners’ injuries published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that the injury incident rate among runners is 40.2 percent and a whopping 70 percent of the injuries are from overuse, which includes doing too much too soon. Another study of 735 runners training for the New York City Marathon found that those who increased their mileage too quickly were more likely to get injured than those who gradually added more miles to their schedule.
You can’t totally erase the possibility of getting hurt while training for a race, but going into it with a proper base slashes your chances. “The training process is essentially one big game of risk management,” says Trim. “The trick is to make sure there’s enough stress for your body to adapt and make the changes it needs to in order for you to crush your race day, but not increase stress too quickly and risk injury.”
What does a good base training running plan look like?
“A general rule of thumb for base training is one month, but the more time you have to build a foundation the better,” says Trim. There’s no one way to build a running base. It could be a quick two-week ramp-up if you’re already in good shape, or up to four months incorporating cross-training, strength, and maybe a little speed work.
Of course, what you need for your base depends in large part on your running experience and the distance of your goal race. “As with most things in sport, the time to develop a training base will depend on your current activity levels, strength of your bones and muscles, and the difference between where you are and where you plan to go,” says Beck. “If you’re a soccer player looking to run your first 5K, chances are you probably have the base you need from soccer practice alone to run that shorter distance. But if you haven’t worked out in a few years, and you’re looking to run a BQ marathon time, it’ll likely take at least a few months to build a strong base.”
To start building your base, try one of these three plans broken out by experience level, suggests Trim. Repeat each week of workouts for at least a month (or two) before you jump into race training. Make sure to work in at least two days of strength, whatever your level; Beck recommends starting with bodyweight moves, then progressing to exercises with resistance bands and dumbbells.
Beginner Base Training Plan
Break up the run and walk intervals however feels comfortable, but Trim recommends alternating 2 minutes running with 2 minutes walking. Start around 20 minutes total most days, as indicated below, but work up to 30 minutes total most days.
- Monday: run-walk for 20 min
- Tuesday: strength
- Wednesday: run-walk for 20 min
- Thursday: rest or strength
- Friday: run-walk for 20 min
- Saturday: run-walk for 30 min
- Sunday: rest or strength
Intermediate Base Training Plan
Each run should be an easy, conversational effort. But on two days, add four to six strides, with 40-60 seconds rest between, at the end of your miles. “Run your strides at 80 to 90 percent maximum effort at the tail end of your run with a focus on smooth and relaxed running form,” says Trim.
- Monday: run for 30 min + strength
- Tuesday: run for 40 min
- Wednesday: run for 50 min
- Thursday: strength
- Friday: run for 40 min
- Saturday: run for 60 min
- Sunday: rest
Advanced Base Training Plan
This plan brings the effort up a bit with some strides at the end of a couple runs and the option to do a speed workout one day. But don’t push it too hard—save those really intense efforts for once you get into your race-training plan.
- Monday: run easy effort for 45 min + strength
- Tuesday: run easy effort for 50 min with 4-6 strides
- Wednesday: run easy effort for 60 min or fartlek run
- Thursday: run for 45 min + strength
- Friday: run easy effort for 55 min with 4-6 strides
- Saturday: run easy effort for 90 min
- Sunday: rest
How do you know when you’re ready to build on your running base?
To test your fitness and gauge whether you’re ready to go with your main race-training schedule, Beck advises trying the “rule of thirds”: Run approximately a third of your goal race distance (for example, 8 to 9 miles if you want to train for a marathon), then take two days off afterward and spend the time listening to your body. “If you feel good and have no pain points, you’ve reached a good training base,” she says.
Whatever you do, though, don’t rush it or skimp on establishing that foundation. Your future self will thank you for going the gradual route. “Take the time now to build your base, rather than taking time to nurse injuries later,” Beck says.