Base Training For Runners: The Complete Guide

We’ve all heard the term “base training”, and most of us have probably tried to avoid doing it at all costs. Why, you ask? Well, base training isn’t the most exciting training out there, as it focuses on easy runs without many, if any, changes in pace

Even though it’s not the most entertaining training phase, it is the most critical training phase for most coaches. 

In this guide, we are going to answer the following questions:

  • What is base training?
  • What are the benefits of base training?
  • When should you include base training in your schedule? 
  • What does a base training plan look like? 

Ready to get running? 

Let’s jump in!

A woman running leisurely down the road, probably base training.

What is base training?

Base training is the foundation of any well-devised training plan for runners or any athlete. 

It is the period of training where you gradually expand your aerobic capacity, running your miles at an easy, “conversation” pace. 

For any structure to be strong, durable, and stand on its own, its foundation must be the first thing to be built. A weak foundation will lead to a fragile structure that could eventually break down.

If the foundation of a runner is built up properly, they can continue to advance and improve their performance. If a runner moves too fast and doesn’t take the time to build that solid base, the risks of either plateauing or breaking are more probable.

What is the goal of base training?

The main objective of base training is to develop your aerobic potential to its max, making all physical adaptations necessary to prepare you for the next training stage. You must lay down a solid foundation before adding any anaerobic work to your training, such as intervals or threshold runs.

Let’s get into the details of this main objective and all of the benefits that come along with it.

A woman running leisurely down the path surrounded by trees.

What are the benefits of base training?

#1: Lowers The Risk Of Injury

Running is a high-impact sport, and without the proper preparation, the body runs the risk of not being able to handle that impact. With appropriate base training (running and strength training), the body can adapt to the impact by strengthening muscles, bones, and joints. 

Because base training running is done at an easy pace, the body can recover from each run instead of experiencing fatigue and running on shot legs. This will weaken you more and open up the opportunity to experience overuse injuries such as shin splints, runner’s knee, and stress fractures or overtraining

#2: Increases Glycogen Stores and Fat Burning Capacity

After running for a prolonged period, your body becomes depleted of its glycogen stores. It needs to resort to burning fat for energy. Running for long bouts at an easy pace will wake this energy system up and get it raring to go.

In addition to working the “fat-burning” zone, the body also becomes better at storing glycogen, so this “deficit” will be handled by the body better and better each time. 

A man running with headphones smiling at the camera.

#3: Increases Cardiovascular Endurance

The more low-intensity work your body does produces more capillaries around the cells, allowing your body to move more blood and, ultimately, more oxygen to your muscles

Another amazing adaptation our body makes while working in our base training zone is with our mitochondria. Don’t you remember high school biology class? Mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell! By multiplying the number of mitochondria we have, and increasing their size and strength, the more energy we will produce and can use during our running. 

The body is amazing at adapting to what we need, isn’t it?

#4: Improves Your Mental Toughness

A good block of base training improves your body physically, but it also helps your mind. Even short, easy runs feel like an incredible feat when we begin running. Our body needs to adapt to this challenge, but so does our brain. 

Going out day after day, at your conversation pace, will make each run feel more accessible than the last. You’ll see, you won’t always be wishing you were at your last mile but won’t even notice you’re running.

It will become second nature; you’ll just keep going and going. After your mind and body are comfortable with your base training, you can begin to stress them with new adaptations, such as speedwork.

After hearing all of these incredible benefits, don’t you want to build that base? These adaptations your body will undergo will prepare you well for the specific race workouts and speed work you will see later in your training plan.

A woman running with a bottle of water on a dirt path.

Here are some tips to help you get through this training phase.

Tips for base training

#1: Always Stay At Conversation Pace

Ensure you are running at a pace where you could constantly be carrying on a conversation with someone else.

If you are using the perceived level of exertion chart, you should be between a 2-3. If you use heart rate zones, it is best to calculate them precisely and not just use formulas based on averages by age. This is if you either pulse below or above the average beats per minute. 

To calculate your heart rates zones correctly, you can either go to a lab and perform a test in the presence of a cardiologist or, with permission from your doctor, do a max effort test yourself. If you are interested in doing this, look at the following article for more details.

#2: Adjust Your Pace Depending On The Terrain

Staying at an easy pace is more complicated than it sounds, especially if you are running on hilly roads or are a trail runner! If you are a road runner and run your base training workouts on hilly terrain, you’ll have to adjust your pace accordingly. Your pace will need to slow when going uphill, and you’ll be able to go a bit faster on the downhills. 

As for trail runners, you will definitely have to walk! Base training as a trail runner often includes a lot of hiking, a least on the trails where I train! The constant uphills make for a challenging journey during a base run. When you feel your heart rate beginning to rise and your breath becoming labored, slow down and walk if you have to. 

Remember, go at whatever pace you need to to stay in a very comfortable zone where you would be able to carry on a full-on conversation! Depending on your fitness level, the terrain, and even the weather, this will vary greatly and be quite a challenge. 

A trail runner walking uphill.

#3: Forget About Pace

This is probably the hardest one for road runners, as it’s common for us to check our watch constantly to ensure we are at the “right” pace according to our training that day. With base training, we forget about all of that. 

Don’t think about your actual pace at all. Remember that base training is most commonly based on your perceived effort level. If you need to, hide the pace from sight and set up a watch face with just the time! The old-fashioned way, just a chronometer. 

#4: Run With A Friend

Running accompanied during base training is a great way to pass the time and ensure you will be talking! Be sure and show up with plenty of stories to tell. 

#5: Be Patient

Of course, we all want to get faster, and trodding along at what seems to be a turtle’s pace to us may not seem like progress is being made, but it is. When base training, remaining patient is much easier said than done, but follow through with the whole process and don’t let others, or even yourself, let you stray from that path. 

Enjoy it. How often do you get to run without worrying about how fast you’re going or how many 400 meter intervals at Vo2 Max you have left? Be patient; you’ll be glad you took the time to do it right.

From a coaching standpoint, the difference between my athletes who actually followed my advice to stick to an easy pace during their base training phase and those who did not and ran hard anyway is evident. 

The athletes that followed through continue to reap the benefits of that “easy” work, such as a nice low heart rate at a swift pace.

A group of people running leisurely smiling.

How long is the base training period?

The bigger the goal, the stronger the foundation you will need, but typically 4-12 weeks is an adequate amount of time for this build. Many factors come into play when setting up this timeline, such as experience, fitness level, and goal.

If you are working toward a half marathon, 8 weeks may be sufficient. Still, more time may be needed to build a solid endurance base if you train for ultra distances.

When Should I Fit Base Training Into My Running Plan?

Base training is not just for beginners but should be worked into every runner’s program. Once or twice a year would be the ideal number of times to actually “go back to basics” and add a base training block of anywhere between 4-12 weeks.

The best time to fit these blocks in would be right after a big race or race season and after the appropriate recovery period has been taken. When you are rested and ready to go, you can begin your base training phase again.

Base training should be your first priority if you are a beginner runner. Take advantage of the fact that you didn’t make the same mistake most of us do and skip this primordial training step. 

Now that you know why and when you should do your base training let’s look at how you do it with running base building plan examples.

A woman trail running with her dog.

Base Training Running Plan Examples

For a 5k beginner runner who can complete that distance continuously running, the first couple of weeks of a running base building plan could look like this.

Remember that your total volume should not increase by more than 10% week by week; so the weekly increase will be gradual.

Beginner Base Training Running Plan 

Week 1

Monday: Strength training session

Tuesday: 20-30 minutes easy run

Wednesday:  Strength training session

Thursday: 20-30 minutes easy run

Friday: 20- 30 minutes XT easy or rest 

Saturday: 40 minutes easy run

Sunday: Rest 

Week 2

Monday: Strength training session

Tuesday: 22-33 minutes easy run

Wednesday: Strength training session

Thursday: 22-33 minutes easy run

Friday: 22- 33 minutes XT easy or rest 

Saturday: 44 minutes easy 

Sunday: Rest

Two people jogging on opposite sides of a dirt road.

Now, for an experienced marathon runner who has just finished a race and the necessary recovery period, you will notice that the only significant difference is mileage. The time has increased, but the intensity has not.

Experienced Base Training Running Plan

Week 1

Monday: 50-60 min easy run + strength training 

Tuesday: 50-60 minutes easy run

Wednesday: 60-70 minutes easy run + strength training 

Thursday: 50-60 minutes easy run

Friday: 60 minutes XT easy or rest 

Saturday: 90-120 minutes easy run

Sunday: Rest 

Week 2

Monday: 55-66 min easy run + strength training 

Tuesday: 55-66 minutes easy run

Wednesday: 66-77 minutes easy run + strength training 

Thursday: 55-66 minutes easy run

Friday: 66 minutes XT easy or rest 

Saturday: 99-132 minutes easy run

Sunday: Rest 

As you can see, starting this base training process is not very interesting as far as the workouts go. But, enjoy this time, as it will get more complicated from here!

You should take a specific fitness test every 4-6 weeks to track your progress.

Some of the tests you could take are the mile test, 3k test, or the 5k test. Whichever fitness test you choose, be sure it’s the same for the entirety of the base training, so the improvement is evident. It’s very motivating to see how you have shredded down your time by working your aerobic base. 

Even though this is probably news you didn’t want to hear, base training is vital, so take the time to do it properly. You’ll thank me later! 

If you want to train for your first 5k or an ultra marathon, check out our training plans here! 

Two people running looking at each other.
Katelyn Tocci
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community she is known for her ear to ear smile even under the toughest race conditions. She loves sharing her knowledge and experience with everyone and has a great desire to motivate others to hit the trails alongside her. Run for fun!

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