It’s easy to write off running on the bleh days of winter. Easy runs aren’t so important that you need to throw on five layers, are they? Probably best to rest through the cold and recharge for spring, right?
If that outlook sounds familiar, you’re missing a great opportunity. Winter footing might not always be so hot, but the colder months offer a great opportunity to build an aerobic base. This phase of training—consisting almost entirely of easy to moderate runs with a little dash of hills and speed thrown in—is the greatest predictor of future success in races ranging from the mile to the ultramarathon. It may lack the glamor of speed work, but nothing makes you faster than your base (and what’s in it).
Ask a runner from the 1970s or 1980s what their base comprised of, and they’ll give you an acronym more often associated with hippies than runners: LSD. Long slow distance was all the rage during the first running boom. Run enough of those miles, the thinking went, and you’ll get so strong that speed won’t even matter.
The results back up that logic to a point. Between the two of them, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers claimed over a dozen major marathon victories. Their mileage was no less impressive: 120, 140, even 160 per week.
Running lots of easy miles is good, but it’s not the most efficient way to improve (especially since most of us don’t have the time or inclination to run 160 miles next week!). Over time, coaches and physiologists came to realize that incorporating greater variety into a base phase led to better results. The body, after all, responds to training that challenges it. Do the same thing every day, and that challenge diminishes, as do the gains. For that reason, a proper base phase should incorporate the following runs:
A weekly staple for many, a long run should introduce the biggest single dose of aerobic running in a given time frame. Long runs enhance general fitness and musculoskeletal strength while giving you a psychological boost from covering so much ground. Runs that get incrementally faster (known as progression runs) or contain surges and pickups further increase the training stimulus.
During the base phase, regular runs are incredibly important. Since workouts are less intense and more spaced out, these runs serve as a great way to reinforce the benefits of a long run in a smaller, more manageable package.
Tempo runs and fartlek sessions are generally aerobic in nature, but it’s a higher-level aerobic workout that receives support from an anaerobic energy processes. You’ll feel this shift as labored breathing and tired legs. Whether it’s a steady five-mile tempo at half-marathon pace or a 30-minute session alternating two minutes hard with one minute easy, the goal should be to stay moderately uncomfortable throughout. These workouts also serve as a good bridge toward the shorter, more intense interval sessions that define the next phase of training in the spring.
Another deviation from old-school training methodology is incorporating a small amount of speed into training year-round. Running fast for short periods of time makes you more efficient at slower speeds, recruits different muscle groups, develops maximal power, and keeps you from feeling stale. Coaches usually incorporate this in one of three ways:
Strides can be performed on a track or a flat neighborhood street. They usually last 15 to 25 seconds. Build up to about mile race pace (or a quick but sustainable effort) over the first half of the stride and then hold that pace for the duration. Since these are anaerobic, take sufficient rest to ensure your form doesn’t start to break down. A session of 4 to 8 strides at the end of an easy run should feel invigorating, not difficult.
Hills sprints are a great way to work on maintaining posture and knee drive. Although the intensity is high, your body takes less of a pounding because of the incline and slower speeds. Longer hills of 200 to 800 meters can be used to develop aerobic conditioning; hills as short as 8 seconds, when run all-out, can simulate the types of gains found by weight training and plyometrics (jumping exercises). As always, make sure you’re well-recovered before each interval.
Though these will be found mostly later in the season, there’s nothing wrong with sneaking in a short track workout from time to time. The main difference between early-season and late-season speed sessions is the density. Early-season sessions should be shorter intervals with plenty of rest. A session of 8 x 200 meters @ mile pace with 1:30 recovery after each interval is an example of this type of session.
Now that you understand the fundamentals let’s look at how we can tie all these disparate elements together. The first thing you want to look at is your weekly mileage. Overuse injuries occur when you bump total mileage too high, too quickly. When in doubt aim for no more than a 5- to 10-percent increase each week, with a lower mileage recovery week thrown in every 3 to 4 weeks.
The total volume also shouldn’t jump more than 15 to 25 percent in a given year. (If you averaged 40 miles per week last year, gradually progressing up to 50 miles per week this year might be a reasonable goal.) Once you’ve hit a new mileage plateau, you can slowly layer in more intensity to increase the quality of the training.
Speaking of quality, most runners only need one speed workout and one long run each week with easy mileage making up the other days. Rotating your workouts between tempos, hills, fartleks, and short speed will ensure training variety. It’ll also give you a great chance for some fast racing come the spring.
By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).