ARTICLE: The Base Phase

Yesterday I completed my first test run, a 4.2km run in about 22min (12kph speed). The sensation in my foot cannot reasonably be called pain anymore and with a few more test runs on the orthotics under my belt I am now carefully optimistic on the optimistic return I'd set for my return to base training: 6th of October.

If I can recommence training on the 6th, I should reach my peak between 15th of June and 6th of September, leaving just enough time for a fruitful season.

So today, I'll talk about how I designed the Base Phase.

First Choice: Methodology
Learn from the experts, they say, and they are not wrong. Sleamaker et. al. have had great results with the SERIOUS training programme (so has Daniel's and others with similar programs) and were my preferred choice as I found their programme to be the only one detailed enough to guide you through session design day by day and month by month for a full 48-week cycle (those who know the SERIOUS programme will recognise that its entirely modular and resembles the LEGO-version of training programmes).

Given my injury history, I wanted a controlled programme that would build mey fitnessu slowly and solidly over time, adding mileage and intensity gradually and with focus, and allowing for a prolonged racing season. The shorter your base phase, the shorter you will be able to race effectively before you must go back to base training (there's an exception to the this: some people react to shorter base trainings and burn out equally fast in racing seemingly because of genetic factors. These athletes are called "short-swing" as opposed to "long-swing" which respond to long base training only but maintain strength for longer).

Once I had chosen this, I mapped out all the possible sessions that you could do inside the seven major categories proposed in the SERIOUS program (Speed-Endurance-Race-Interval-Overdistance-Uphill-Strength).

Choosing Techniques
Next I wanted to implement the newest scientific research, so I tweaked the programme to go with the new recommendations from "Brain Training for Runners", this meant a few key changes:

1. Slightly more very fast speedwork in the base phase (to establish neural connectivity to large amounts of skeletal muscle fibres early for later use)
2. Use of the dynamic stretching and technical drills included in the Brain Training Programme
3. Inclusion of Proprioceptive Cues (technique focuses for all your runs to improve your gait and running mechanics) for all weeks
4. Inclusion of the Anti-Sitting exercises on a daily basis (imbalances caused by sitting was identified in "Brain Training..." as major cause of injury, which makes sense as we are not designed to sit 8 hours a day).

Finally, I felt that the strength training prescribed by both programs were not sufficient for the base phase.

Purpose of the Base Phase
To take a step back, the purpose of any base phase is the following:

1. Prepare the body for more intensive exercise
2. Build up base fitness (basic endurance)
3. Build strength

So I used the recommendations in a book focused on strength training that you should do no less than three weight sessions per week. This ties into my experience with weightlifting. Everything less is not sufficient to get any real strength gains (on it's own). Both Brain Training and the SERIOUS programme prescribe less and I have think this is due to them being more well-versed in endurance training than strength training. (as a point of comparison, you only need 2 sessions per week in racing season for "maintenance". This is a bare minimum, however).

Once this was decided, I picked the fitting strength exercises for the Base phase from my book "Weight Training for Runners".

That being done, I needed to split the sessions over the week days. I wanted to follow some of the Laws stipulated by Noakes in "The Lore of Running", as these are proven to be widely successful (most of the laws are fulfilled automatically by choosing a proper training programme like the Sleamaker/Brain Training programmes as the programmes are build around these very basic principles):

1. Alternate hard and easy training
2. Train frequently, all year round
3. Don't overtrain

Based on this I ensured that a hard day never followed a hard day, and I chose to train at least 6 times a week (repetition is a powerful stimulant for improvement). To avoid burn-out, I always have a minimum of 1 rest day per week.

Next, I chose a number of hours, conservatively choosing 325 training hours for the next year. Based on my Excel Sheet (tailor made for the occasion), I can predict with some accuracy that I will start out running between 42-53km per week in the first month of base training. This increases to a maximum of 81km per week in week 15 before the base training is capped off at 61km (the Intensity stage, which I will talk off in another article, will take me to a predicted 127km in the absolute hardest week of the year's training).

I also decided at some stage during the later training phases to ensure that I would have a few days with two training runs per day. Doing endurance runs in a "pre-fatigued state" (meaning, while your body has not fully recuperated from previous exercise) is a powerful stimulant for building resistance to fatigue. It has to be kept to a minimum unfortunately as it's risky and damaging to all but the strongest and best-adapted athletes.

Choosing Drills
To make it easier for myself, I picked the general structure of drills from the Brain Training programme (choosing the 10k programme as being closest to my current goals) and tweaking it were necessary.

This means:

Monday: Always off (hate Mondays, slow starter)
Tuesdays: Technique drills, base run, strength
Wednesdays: Dynamic stretch, warm-up run, very short hill sprints
Thursdays: Base run, strength
Fridays: Base run with fartlek
Saturday: Slow hill run, strength
Sunday: Endurance run (marathon pace)

This basic structure holds sway throughout the Base Phase. From week 1-3 the mileage increases before dropping radically in the 4th week. This is then repeated 4 times with increasingly more mileage in each 4-week period.

The speed and uphill drills remain short, but get slightly more advanced as we go. At the height of the base phase (week 15), one speed session is 11x200m in 44sec with 1:28 rest (for example), while fartlek is replaced by 400m intervals (peaking at 10x400m in 1:38 with 0:49 rest).

The longest run of this period is a 1h20min run at base speed and a 1h16min run at marathon pace.

Fartlek is only used for the first 8 weeks (as it's a nice simple start but lacks the rigour needed later). Finally, the body get's a rest from the short hill sprints in week 13-16 to prepare for the much harder hill drills in the Intensity phase. The hardest hill drill of the base phase is 6x2min UP, 2min float.

None of these exercises are chosen without a purpose, strength training and hill drills serve to build a foundation of strength. Base runs build base fitness and allow enough recovery, while the marathon runs polish it off and provide a bit more actual racing endurance (due to the higher aerobic intensity).

The very short speed drills programme the brain to utilise its full leg turn-over and make running fast seem more effortless (it also increases running economy). Fartlek and 400ms prepare the body ever so slightly for the real interval training to come. (for comparison, intervals in the intensity phase become increasingly race specific, one example: 3x1K intervals at 5k speed with 3 minute floats). Float referring to active recoveries (e.g. jogging) in between intervals.

I final word: Due to the Brain Training changes to the paradigm, we are now less interested in heart rates. Simply put: the body does not operate inside set zones, instead a current fitness level is chosen based on recent race performances and different speeds for the exercises extrapolated from that fitness level (a very interesting consequence of this that I wish to write about at some stage is that this means the anaerobic threshold, so crucial in many programmes, does not exist).

Heart rate remains important, though. If you can perform the same exercise at a lower heart rate than previously this is one important sign that your fitness may be improving (if you can perform a drill faster and at the same or lower heart rate, this would likewise be a certain indicator that your training program is working). It's important to conduct a time trial or other test every 4 weeks, so you can take corrective measures in case you do not seem to be responding to the training. Here I should repeat my advice on not forgetting other secondary factors that may skew the result such as weather, illness, overtraining, lack of sleep, stress, and poor nutrition.

So, all that's needed now, is for the foot to heal in time.