Is a distance base better for you?

I had a wonderful question this past week from one of the runners I coach. He is getting great results with a new program that has added a lot more quality running than he ever had run. He asked if his past few years of running lots of longer runs and miles in general laid down a base that enabled him to improve so much.

The answer is yes and no.

Anyone who goes from couch potato to running will immediately improve on all measures of fitness (VO2max, lactate threshold, etc.). It wouldn’t matter if it were slow miles, long runs, intermediate runs, tempo runs, or interval training. So, in that way, yes all the miles he had previously run laid a nice foundation and general conditioning to launch off and show nice gains quickly!

Over the past 10 plus years some wonderful research has been done around the world (France, Finland, New Zealand to mention a few) that show another side to conditioning. The old method and philosophy of training at Long Slow Distance (LSD) for a “base period” has suffered major blows. Those researchers are showing that right from the start introducing interval-like work not only affects all the same fitness markers as “miles and miles of running” but it also does it in less dedicated workout time. That makes it more efficient training. Think about it – same or better results with less time in the activity. And, interval type training does something that slow miles do not do: it makes you faster. Through neuromuscular training you specifically train your muscles to “fire” fast instead of slow. We now know that slow running begets slow runners and surprise, surprise fast running begets fast runners.

So, this is where all those base miles do not provide that unique “base” formerly thought. That very same “base” could have been attained through interval training and combinations of all the training methods.

OK now here is the caveat. (Where would we be without your caveat of the day?) Any training – long and slow or short and fast – has to be entered into gradually. You would not want to start running 60 mile weeks straight off the couch. Likewise you don’t want to hit the track and sprint all out for four sets of 4×400 meters. You are asking for injury in either case. [Though statistically, higher mileage has a higher correlation to injuries.]

The important thing is to gradually introduce whatever type of training you want to do. Even with extensive backgrounds (i.e. base) in running to jump into hill training 3 times a week will get you injured fast! If you gradually and progressively introduce quality, your tendons, muscles, joints and ligaments will adapt and you will progress.

By the way, gradual is a relative term. It is not the same for everyone. You manage introducing new aspects of training by working with all three major elements of training: intensity, duration and frequency.

The message is that you do not need to wait to do faster running. Do it now. Benefit now.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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8 Responses to Is a distance base better for you?

  1. run4change says:

    Thank’s for this article. Cleared things up very nicely and helped me to understand my own running. greatly appreciated Coach

  2. Coach Dean says:


  3. David says:

    With rest intervals run at a slow pace, can interval training become training to run both slow and fast? If the rest intervals are done at, say, a 1:1 ratio, half of an interval training session will be spent at a slow recovery pace, which often means sluggishly going through the motions. Add the warm up and cool down, and perhaps 3/4 will be spent at a slow pace. What form should rest intervals take? If the goal of speedwork intervals (3K pace or faster) is to devote a large portion of the workout running very fast, would the best approach to be to not run at all during the rest intervals, thereby minimizing the amount of slow running and maximizing the speedy efforts?

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Good point. Your total mileage will include your recovery jogs as well as warm-ups and cool-downs. A typical quality session on the track will cover 4-6 miles total. But, it is not at all the same as just getting a distance run. The recovery jog is FAR slower than your long run pace. The quality is FAR faster. That of course is the point. The recovery part is to clear lactate from your blood; not to directly enhance endurance per se.

    There are a couple of good studies on active (jog) and passive (walking) rest. Both get the same results. And as you might suspect you can do more reps with a walking rest. Therefore more quality time on your feet – right? Well, not so fast. Actually they’ve measured the amount of time during the hard interval that you actually are AT your threshold and because at a complete rest it takes awhile for your body to rev up again – part of that rep is NOT at your threshold and therefore …. jogging rests get more quality in within the fewer reps completed. So LESS mileage is completed total with the same or even better benefits. So to underscore the point – it’s not about the mileage.

    There is a case to do full rests however. In very high quality you need near full recoveries to repeat that kind of effort. It just depends on the type of training you are doing. BOTH are good and BOTH are needed within a complete training program.

  5. David says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I’ve always done interval sessions with active recoveries, but I’ll start incorporating occasional some sessions with passive recoveries. I did so today, walking and stretching during my passive recoveries. I did notice it took some time to rev up once I started a hard interval. I didn’t run a set distance. I did the session fartlek style, stopping when I started to slow too much. I also noticed I grew impatient walking and stretching, wanting to get back at it as soon as possible. It was a good workout, and I liked being able to do several very fast sprints.

  6. Dean Hebert says:

    Play with the passive recoveries a bit. Depending on how hard the work interval is it could be :30-1:00 for 400s for instance but mile reps might lengthen to 2:00. But for sure, adding the higher intensities will certainly add something to your training not previously there.

  7. Adam says:

    Dean: even Pfitz seems to agree:

    (from Running Times)
    “LSD is for novices”
    In the 1970s, we thought that the benefits of long runs were obtained by simply accumulating “time on your feet.” LSD (long, slow distance) was often touted as the most effective way to train. Even then, elite runners, such as Don Kardong and Patti Catalano, knew that LSD would only prepare them to run a long way slowly, but that knowledge was not widespread.

    In 2007, we know that many of the physiological adaptations to long runs (e.g., increased glycogen storage, and increased fat utilization at race pace) are specific to your training pace. With LSD, your body does not gain the beneficial adaptations at speeds approaching race pace. LSD is great for novice runners whose goal is simply to finish a marathon, but more experienced runners should do their long runs at a variety of paces depending on the specific goal of the workout.

  8. Dean Hebert says:

    Adam – good stuff! Now if we could just spread the word to some coaches!

    What is interesting though is even for novices or “just finishers” they will benefit greatly from more quality running as well… at least that is what is coming out of research right now.

    Maybe in 40 years they’ll say we were all wrong and some other completely different approach is better yet!!!

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