When (and how) to start training for a spring marathon

base training for runners
When to start training for a spring marathon Getty

Base training is the one- to two-month period before the four- to six-month marathon training plan begins. It is similar to a marathon training plan in that it has shorter runs on weekdays with one long run on the weekend, and the best base plans will incorporate strength training to build your muscles as you slowly increase mileage.

Experienced runners have the muscle memory and cardiovascular preparedness to start a more structured training programme three or four months from the race, says running coach Erica Coviello. But runners who don’t log many miles per week and who haven’t raced longer distances need to prep their muscles, VO2 max (the measurement of the maximum oxygen delivery and utilisation for cardiovascular exercise), haemoglobin counts (a substance in red blood cells that makes it possible for blood to carry oxygen throughout your body) and cardiac output (the amount of blood your heart pumps each minute) to safely make it to race day.

‘First-time marathoners who have not been running high mileage for a long time do not yet have those physical adaptations necessary to meet the demands they’re about to put on their bodies through marathon training,’ she says. ‘More time is required to give them a chance to better stress the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems and recover from that stress to build a stronger body, allowing them to achieve their goals.’

How to build your base fitness

If you want to make the most of your upcoming training, here’s how to set yourself up for success by building your base first.

Don’t run your easy miles too fast

In the base stage, you will increase overall mileage volume each week and introduce longer runs, but none of these miles should be particularly speedy. In fact, keeping your pace slow and your breath steady is the entire point.

‘Base building harnesses the benefits of low-intensity training,’ says Andrew Moran, a running coach and physio who specialises in orthopedics and sports medicine rehab. An important part of this phase is that you build ‘capillary density’ for key running muscles like your calves, quads and glutes, according to Moran. Think about the capillaries like you are creating more roads for the delivery of oxygen to muscle tissues that need it most. Having more capillaries leads to improved aerobic capacity.

To hold yourself accountable for not running too fast, try the talk test: can you speak in full sentences at the pace you’re going without gasping for air? If not, slow down to a speed where you can sustain a conversation.

Increase your mileage wisely

The main point of base training is acclimatising your body (and your life) to the continued accumulation of miles. One of the classic approaches for building mileage is the 10% rule, which says to take the number of miles you ran in the last week and increase it by 10% for the current week. For instance, if you ran 20 miles last week, it’s only two extra miles this week. It’s a gentle progression that’s been around since at least the 1970s, and the bulk of miles will be added to the long run.

Coviello finds the best results come when she bumps up the long runs each week for three to four weeks, followed by a recovery week where she runs slightly less – about a 15% reduction in mileage spread throughout all the runs during the week. You will still complete a long run, just not as long. The stepdown weeks are pivotal as you build your base.

‘The human body reacts to stress,’ Coviello says. ‘In order to become a better runner, you need to both put yourself through a certain amount of specific stress and be able to recover from it, which is where growth and adaptation happen.’

Work on strength

If you’ve missed the memo on how important strength training is for running, the base training cycle is the perfect time to build in a day or two per week of resistance training.

Strength training leads to ‘stiffness’ adaptation in the tendons we use for running. The stiffer the tendons, the better we perform and bounce back from hard, long miles.

‘This is when I have my athletes working pretty heavy in the weights room,’ Moran says. For his runners in base training who have mastered the form of key running-specific moves (like back squats and deadlifts), he amps the weight up to 75% of their one-repetition max (the heaviest weight they can lift for one rep).

‘I have them work toward lower-rep schemes of 8 or less for 3 to 5 sets to really push the needle,’ he says. ‘My athletes really notice benefits of strength that can unlock performance improvements throughout the remainder of the training cycle.’

Base is also the best time to prime your fast-twitch muscles with plyometric strength moves (think: jumping lunges and skater hops). This will help increase speed and decrease the chance of injury when you add in race-specific paces and speed workouts during your in-season training.

Fine-tune your schedule

Base training has huge physical benefits. Moreover, it gives you a chance to dial in your nutrition, establish a running routine, and identify any deficits that could derail your in-season training.

By giving yourself the time and space to train correctly, you are showing kindness and compassion to your body. Patience will bring greatness, and preparedness will get you to the finish smarter, healthier, and stronger than you were before.

Maximise your base with the RPE long run

In the latter half of the base stage, complete a 90-minute easy run using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) as a metric instead of pace. Keep your exertion at a 3/10 throughout the run. At the end of this run, you should feel accomplished and slightly tired, but not sore and exhausted.

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