Running Base Miles – How important are they?

This inquiry just in from a regular reader who picked up on a couple of my previous comments on base training: “Could you please elaborate on the “obsolete” concept of  “doing EASY miles as your base” and “From day one intensity rules”. Don’t you need an aerobic base first to sustain intensity?”

This is perhaps the biggest change in training approaches in the past 20 years or so (right… it’s not really “new”). Many books and articles have been written with the slant that less can be more when it comes to training. The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training, Curves fitness gyms, Foothills Acceleration and Sports Training and Athletic Republic are only a few institutions that follow these scientific principles. Runner’s World put out a decent book on the topic: Run Less Run Faster (Pierce, Hurr & Moss).

Some things to be clear about:

  1. If you are a couch potato any movement – fast or slow – will have immediate effects on improving your conditioning. So, can you improve by just adding activity? (i.e. miles) That is an unqualified YES. It is clear that the biggest effect for a novice runner is in adding activity – i.e. adding miles. But, these miles can be far more effective if not just jogged.
  2. Once you are already “in shape” the only way you get faster is by running fast… not slow. It’s quite simple and logical. A million miles at 9:00 per mile won’t make you run a marathon in 7:00 per mile. You will merely get good at running 9:00 miles – give or take a bit.
  3. Older runners (40+), runners with years of running background will benefit most from high quality workouts than from adding more miles. Think of it this way: once your delivery system is developed (your highway system = heart, lungs, arteries, veins) the main conditioning takes place at the end of the delivery system (the off ramps = muscle enzymes, neuromuscular response). That peripheral aspect is conditioned through higher quality not quantity of running.
  4. Engaging in anything that is rigorous should be done gradually and incrementally the fact that it is “fast” (a relative term by the way) does’t mean we shy away from it because we are just starting out. Of course, you don’t start out a new runner with 16×400 @ 5k race pace with 45 second rests between. But, even a walker/jogger can take to the track and alternate “faster” 50 or 100 meter segments mixed with walking recoveries. The key is to tailor it to the ability of the athlete.

The myth of the base training approach is that your tendons and muscles can’t handle faster workouts without first going slow and gaining strength. This is again the use of a partial truth. Muscles can perform contractions fast or slow regardless of current condition. Conditioning however dictates how much power we can exert and how long we can exert that power. Someone who is out of shape will have less power and do less amount of work than someone in better condition. Muscles and tendons aren’t damaged merely through exerting power. They are injured by doing too much too soon – and that goes for distances or speed. And they are injured by not warming up those muscles prior to exerting greater forces.

So one key to injury prevention when integrating quality work is that before performing faster and more rigorous workouts the athlete should follow a sound warm up routine which includes dynamic range of motion drills. This prepares the body for action. And only do the most powerful/fast parts of your workout once you are 100% warmed up.

A few facts:

A related myth is that some kind of speed training or quality work is reserved for one specific time of year: peaking for a race. Peaks can be maintained far longer than previously thought. So we don’t have to “save” quality running for late in the season or for peaking. The science is now overwhelming on this topic. It should be a year round component of training for milers through ultra-marathoners. The nature of the quality work changes throughout the year in phases. But, it is now clear you do not want to lose all you have gained during your racing season by going back to long slow easy running – to the exclusion of quality.

Quality running gets faster results than slow running. All measures of fitness are gained faster than if you only do slow miles. All workouts will contribute to the various measures of fitness (LT, AT, vVO2MAX, VO2MAX). But higher quality running works MORE of these and at higher levels and in a shorter time than just easy running.

Quality running burns fat more than slow running. More calories are expended per time exercised which burns calories after the actual workout; the slow running “fat burning zone” has NOT been shown to reduce body fat! The fat burning zones appear to burn more fat for energy than other efforts during the workout but the net effect (which is what people really care about) is that actual body fat is reduced more effectively through high quality training.

And finally, increases in miles run is directly and dramatically related to increases in injury rates. High quality training (when done properly) does not have such a correlation. This has always been the fear – or really – the myth that has been promoted – that “speed kills” so take it easy if you don’t want to get injured.

Quality training may not be for everyone:

  1. If you do not enjoy hard efforts and prefer to move along casually and enjoy the mere movement of running in your environment then high quality training may turn you off because it is in fact by nature not casual. (Though for many of us is quite enjoyable and the results far outweigh the short term effort!)
  2. If you do not have any desire of improving your running. You do not want to run farther. You do not want to run faster. You do not want to improve your overall conditioning. Then, you may not want to approach your running this way. Keep running and enjoying what you do.
  3. If time is not important and you have all the time in the day to get your workouts done then, being efficient and getting more “bang for your energy buck” is not important to you.

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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3 Responses to Running Base Miles – How important are they?

  1. Greg says:

    Thanks for your fast reaction. I appreciate it.

    I guess, you are saying, once a runner’s aerobic base (important physiological adaptations) has been established, the only way to get faster is by running faster. The latter can be achieved more efficiently (time, reduced risk of injury) by shorter high(er) intensity workouts instead of adding more “slow” miles. Thus, the focus shifts to speed work (quality) over distance work (quantity). Sounds logical.

    Well measured LSD runs to maintain aerobic endurance for a given target distance (i.e. marathon) will still be necessary. So will be goal-pace runs.

    Novice runners will have to do a higher percentage of endurance work as compared to speed work (but nevertheless, should do intervals from day 2 on).


    P.S. just read you somewhat related article, Base Training and Mean Dean’s

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Let me clarify just a bit though. Your comment of “once a runner’s aerobic base (important physiological adaptations) has been established, the only way to get faster is by running faster” is much like the myth of base long miles training. You do NOT and should NOT wait for that aerobic base to be done and then add fast running to get faster. The aerobic base itself is built faster and more comprehensively (i.e. more fitness measuring parameters) by doing fast work from day one. Period.

      Of course a comprehensive training program must integrate race specific training. Long runs of course for marathoners has to be done because you need endurance and goal runs must be done for stamina (ability to hold pace over distance). And NO novice runners will NOT do a lower percentage necessarily. It is kept within their capabilities but as a percentage – as with all runners – I may start out with 15% and progressively move to 25-30% of total miles. But, that may be the same for someone who comes from a huge LSD background. Why? As I stated before, too much too soon of anything will cause injuries and adaptations must be allowed.

  2. Pingback: have I been foolish? // the Road to Ruin

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