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Base Training for a Marathon

by Athletico4 Comments

Congratulations! You made the commitment and registered for a Marathon. Whether this is your first or your 50th marathon, I’m sure you are excited to get going. Now comes the tough part for most marathoners-what do I do now?

This time can actually benefit your training immensely by giving you time to base train. Good base-building serves as a transition between winter’s maintenance runs and a marathon training program. With base training, athletes can start their traditional marathon training programs in May/June stronger, faster, and less prone to injury. Good workouts during this early phase are just as important as your “peaking” (high mileage) weeks. Tempo runs or hill workouts, a weekly long run, and cross training will increase your cardiac endurance and fortify your heart, muscles, bones, and connective tissues for the tough work ahead. Your body’s increased fitness will allow you to complete your future, intense workouts more efficiently and effectively so you won’t become injured and worn down before race day.

That said: What do I do?
Good! I have your attention! Now down to brass tacks.

Successful base training increases your overall strength and fitness, but it doesn’t overtrain or overtire you before traditional training begins. A basic heart rate monitor will do wonders for your training during this time. Do not buy a complicated heart rate monitor with a million features as these can dissuade you from using it. Here are the three things your heart rate monitor needs:

  • Stopwatch so you know how long you have been running
  • Ability to calculate what your target heart rate range is and ability to enter it into the monitor
  • Easy to read and understand what your heart rate is at that moment

When you are doing your base training, your heart rate should be approximately 65 to 75% during your long runs and 80 to 90% during tempo work and speed work.

A word of caution: if you have not been running during the off-season, you will think your heart rate monitor is broken when you start. You may not be as cardiovascularly fit as you were before. This base time gives you the opportunity to run your workouts slower than the pace you are accustomed to running them. Your heart will become more conditioned, and you will not tire as quickly when prime-time running in May/June begins.

I typically do 2 tempo and/or hill workouts, one long run, and two cross-training days a week during base training to cardiovascularly train and to rouse my fast twitch muscles. Here are instructions for these workouts:

Tempo run workout:

  • 10-minute easy paced warm-up
  • 25 to 35 minutes at 10k race pace
  • 10-minute easy paced cool-down
  • Stretch

Hill workout:

  • 10-minute easy paced warm-up
  • Run up and down hill 3 minutes with a one-minute recover. Repeat 4 to 6 times
  • 10-minute easy paced cool-down
  •  Stretch

Long run workout:

  • 10-minute easy paced warm-up
  •  45 to 60 minute even paced run at 65 to 75% maximum heart rate. (If you do not have a heart rate monitor, you should be able to carry on a conversation at this speed.)
  • 10-minute easy paced cool-down
  • Stretch

Cross Training Workouts:
These are a great opportunity to mix it up! Do something BESIDES running for 45 minutes to an hour. Do not stress out that you are not running enough! You will be doing plenty of running in the weeks ahead. These activities include Pilates, yoga, strength training, biking or swimming. Basically anything that is active, intense, and not running. These will make you stronger and will help you avoid overuse injuries.

In conclusion, base training is a great way to make this marathon training season your very best. You will be less stressed and more confident as you enter the meat of your training season, which will lead to an easier road ahead. Happy and healthy racing!

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  1. Helene Lapman

    I wonder if you have any suggestions for older, less athletic runners? I am a female in my early 60’s. This will be my 3rd marathon. I ran Chicago in ’11 and ran it about 10 minutes slower than my goal of 5 and 1/4 to 5 and 1/2 hours, mostly because of the heat last year. I was very frustrated not to make my goal and so I signed up to try again.
    The amount of running you suggest above is too strenuous for me!–or maybe I’m just a wimp. Do you have any words of wisdom you could pass along? The heart is willing but the legs–not so much anymore!
    Thank you.

  2. Ally Lofgren

    Thank you for you question, Helene. For starters, anyone who has done 2 marathons is NOT a wimp! I commend you for continuing your running career.

    The beauty of base training now is that you have a long time to ease into it. I recommend that you start out doing a run/walk interval program with shorter exercise sessions when you first start out. For example, you can run for five minutes and then recover by walking for one minute and repeat throughout your workout. You can shorten the middle section to 18 to 24 minutes of your run walking and increase as you see fit. This program will help you be able to do a larger volume of work without tiring.

    Additionally, on your cross training days, I recommend doing exercises that strengthen your core muscles and increase your flexibility like yoga and/or Pilates. The stronger your core is, the better your form during running will be. That is true because your core muscles will not fatigue easily and will hold your body in good running form. You won’t become injured by running improperly.

  3. Howard Jump

    There is little advice or information available for older runners. I ran my first marathon last October. I trained on my own, and followed my own “plan.” I could not handle the daily volume that all of the touted training plans called for. I ran long on Saturdays with an easy run on Sundays or a race. If I felt fully recovered, I would run easy on Wednesday. If not, I waited until Saturday and the long run. I ran as many half marathons as I could register for over the summer. I stayed away from short races. I did not get injured. My long runs increased to 16 then 18 with a couple of 20 milers in early September. (The Ready to Run 20 Miler was terrific!)I am going to vary things this year, but not much. For older runners, the key is long slow distance runs. No speed work. No tempo work. My times got better with every half marathon. Patience is the main requirement in my training “plan.” (And the hardest.)
    I do plan to add more cross training with an emphasis on just getting stronger overall. I plan a lot more work with weights this time around. I also plan to train beyond the 20 mile mark. I got to mile 21 in the marathon and my body said “Whoa, what is this?” 21 to 26.2 was another world. I can’t wait to go back there. Older athletes really have to listen to their bodies.

  4. Ally Lofgren

    Thank you for your comment Howard! I really appreciate you sharing your experience and training tips.

    I agree entirely that all athletes need to listen to their bodies when following a training program.

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