Base building 101
How to get started when you're not sure where to begin
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Just before the start of the new year, I heard from a subscriber who said that he would like some help getting started with a running program. The issue isn’t motivation, but rather, simply knowing where to begin. I feel that confusion because I’ve been in that place, as I’m sure most runners have at some point in their journeys.
We all start with good intentions, but without a roadmap to guide us, we wind up reverting to our worst instincts and end up doing too much, too fast, too soon. That often leads to burnout or injury, and we’re back to square one.
This condition isn’t just associated with new runners. It can also wreak havoc on anyone coming off an inactive period. Whether it’s because of injury or post-race recovery or any other need for a break, returning to a regular running routine can be fraught with peril.
This is where base building comes into the picture. Developed by Arthur Lydiard in the 1960s, base building emphasizes a slow, yet steady, buildup of mileage that prepares us for bigger, faster, and longer adventures in the weeks and months ahead.
If you think of training as a pyramid, as Lydiard did, base building represents the foundation with speed and strength (i.e. hills) layered on top, leading to a peak performance on race day. It doesn’t matter if you’re just getting started or want to set a new PR, base building is a vital part of every training process.
Base building is when your body adapts to the musculoskeletal demands of running, while increasing its aerobic capacity. That helps you burn energy more efficiently, which helps your endurance, and allows running to be performed in what Lydiard termed, “a tireless state.”
Sounds good, right?
Now imagine a different metaphor. Have you ever seen a house built by shady contractors? They cut corners and skip steps because they're in a hurry to get the thing done. Inevitably, the house has tons of problems: poor plumbing, faulty wiring, leaky roof, etc.
Don’t be a shady contractor with your running. Base building is not a process you want to rush. It’s one to savor and enjoy. Here’s how to get started.
Make a commitment and a choose a plan
Understand that this will take some time. The standard notion for beginners is to start with a 12-week buildup. For more experienced runners, 4-8 weeks of base building may suffice with speedwork and hills entering the equation at appropriate points.
Adopting a training plan will help keep you on track and remove some of the guesswork about what you’re trying to accomplish. There are lots and lots of training options available online, but I highly suggest starting with a (free) Hal Higdon plan.
His novice program includes four days of running per week with two rest days and one day of walking. Weekly mileage starts at nine and finishes with 15 including a long run of six miles. This is eminently doable.
If you've been running for any length of time, you probably have your own training plans that you’ve followed in the past. If you haven’t dialed in a base building program yet, now seems like a perfect time to find one.
(For more on the hows and whys of base building, this piece answers a lot of questions you may have.)
Use this time to develop consistency
If you haven’t run in a while, it may feel really hard at first. That’s natural. The important thing is that you stay with it, day by day and week by week until running becomes a habit, rather than a chore.
In the beginning, your body will probably feel sore. Plus, there’s so much to do before you even head out the door. You’ve got to find time to run and make sure you have running clothes available. (Get ready to do laundry all the time.)
Then there are the logistical questions: Do you eat beforehand, or not at all? What time of day will you run? Where will you go? Will you listen to music or podcasts or nothing but the sound of your environment?
After a while, many of these questions will answer themselves. You’ll start to develop routines subconsciously that help you get out for your runs. Your clothes will be ready, your music selected, and your routes will become second nature.
Pretty soon, the days of the week will start to take on new meaning. You know you’re running a little bit longer on Sunday, so Monday will be a recovery day and before you know it, you’ve got your whole running week mapped out in advance.
The same holds true if you’re coming back to a regular routine after time off. Your body needs to remember how to do this, so be kind and patient with yourself.
Be prepared for frustration
Depending on your experience level, base building may feel like taking two steps back. You want to do more miles and you’d really like to get back to your old training volume sooner rather than later. You will, just not right away.
If you’re getting started, base building may feel like a drag. You have announced to yourself, your family, and all your friends that this is the year you’re going to get in shape. That’s not going to happen overnight with a steady diet of short runs. Give it time.
Speaking of time, your pace should feel easy. If you feel like you need to walk part of the distance, go right ahead. It’s fine. Trust me. In a week or two you’ll be walking less and running longer.
Try not to get too caught up in pace in the beginning because it really doesn't matter at this stage. If you stay patient and committed, your times will naturally fall as your fitness improves.
Rather than worry about performance, use this time to embrace the process. (Shoutout to Sam Hinkie.) Remember, you’re doing important work by preparing your body and your mind for all the big adventures ahead. There will be plenty of time to test your limits.
Many runners hate rest days. Why take it easy, when we could be getting more miles and accelerating our progress? Because it’s a trap. Your body needs time to repair itself and grow stronger. That doesn't happen when you run. It happens when you rest.
Recovery days really are wonderful things. In addition to allowing our bodies time to adapt to our new running routines, they also provide mental space to process all the things that are happening. They can be utilized for light cross training or strength training. Or they can just be a day when you don’t think about running at all.
The body doesn’t know miles. It knows stress. If you’re feeling burned out or exhausted, a rest day is the best medicine you can take. If you absolutely need to skip a regular running day, don’t try to make up for it later. Let it go. There will be more runs in your future.
Additionally, most training plans call for a recovery week every 3-4 weeks, where your mileage and intensity take a step back. Don’t take these weeks for granted. For one thing, you’ve earned them. And for another, the next few weeks of training will be harder than the ones you just finished.
Oh, and one final thing. Have fun. Something compelled you to want to run. Lean on that inspiration when times get tough. Use this period to cultivate a curious mindset and allow it room to grow. Before you know it, you’ll be knocking out distances you never thought were possible, thanks to that big aerobic base.
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