It is the season of base training for many of us - myself included. I follow the Lydiard approach, which some of you may already know. I feel he was perhaps the the smartest coach with the most knowledge of running in the last 50 years. He was the man who single-handedly determined that inceased amounts of relatively slow high mileage is what makes runners faster. Before Lydiard, athletes would almost never run further than the distance they intended to race at any one time (Zatopek, who was also ahead of his time, was one of the few exceptions). Elite milers would go to the track and run 10 x 440 yards a couple times a week, at race pace, and go home.
Before Lydiard, "regular" people didn't run. Aerobic fitness didn't exist. He invented the term "jogging", which many people don't like these days, but it's what we do. He brought our sport to the masses.
Many elites follow his program. The caveat is that it is definitely not for everybody. Arthur Lydiard felt that if a runner wanted to get the most out of his or her training, they should be running about 100 miles per week. This is even for 800m and 1 mile racers. This is tough for 99% of runners to swallow, even lots of very competitive ones. Some very esteemed coaches (Jack Daniels is one) think that about 70 miles per week is enough for a runner to reach his or her full potential, although he advocates speedwork of at least some amount every week. Perhaps this works out to similar effort levels. As you will read later on, Lydiard doesn't want you to run fast at all when initially building up the miles.
I believe the true area of a runner's potential lies in between, meaning anywhere between 70 - 100 miles a week. However, there's a lot of very valid reasons to not run even close to either amount. The vast majority of runners are simply not interested in sacrifices one must take to reach these levels, which is totally understandable. I really like Scrabble, and know I could be a lot better if I memorized all the 2-and-3-letter words, all the words with 'Q' and no 'U', and so on. I also really like golf, and know I could be a lot better if I found the time to train several hours every day, but I don't. I am more than happy with the enjoyment I get out of both already, and that's the way it is. There's no shame in that. Most people are the same with running. They are prepared to give up a certain amount of time, they run for varying reasons, and they generally have a lot of fun and get a lot of satisfaction out of it.
I say the above because I despise elitism in this sport, and would never want to be accused of it. Many of my good friends are "mid" and "back" packers in races. I've worked hard in the past and present, coaching and helping many new runners of all levels, and find it very rewarding. However, at the same time, I feel a kinship with those few who want to make running a central part of their life, and sacrifice a great deal of time and comfort to become as good as they can be. This post is targeted to those people, although hopefully everyone will be able to find it an interesting read on some level or another!
Base training is the most important part of any runner's schedule. The aerobic component is BY FAR the most important part of a runner's arsenal. About 85% of a 5km race is aerobic, so the vast majority of your training time should be devoted to it, even more than 85%, because it takes longer to develop the aerobic system than the anaerobic. This doesn't mean all slow running - a lot of aerobic running is pretty fast, such as lactic threshold conditioning. For those looking to read about that, here is a post I made a while back that touches on lactic threshold training as well as other components of speedwork, including the proper paces.
However, when in the early stages of base training, Lydiard's goal is for runners to cover as many miles as possible, and get to high mileage quite quickly by initially slowing down all runs, sometimes quite drastically. Lydiard felt that this method allowed it to be easier than some people think it is to reach high mileage - even 100 miles a week, in a short amount of time. This is controversial, but there is an element of truth in this. To give you even more controversy, he also felt that as you build up the miles, you should not take days off. If your knees hurt, your muscles are sore, and you feel horrible, just run slower. This soreness is expected. It's going to happen. There is no way around it, and it's part of the program in the same way that soreness is a normal, expected part of weightlifting. His reasoning for working through it is that the soreness will go away in time, and running through it is better than delaying your aerobic ascent with time off. I have personally discovered this to be true. However, there's a definite difference between injury and soreness. General soreness can and should be run through if it is nothing more than the body getting used to packing on the miles. Believe me when I say that it goes away. Again, there is a fine line between injury and soreness. Listen to your body very carefully, and know the difference. Be honest with yourself.
The majority of injury or burnout that occurs when people set out to raise their weekly mileage levels is caused by running too fast, not too much. It's amazing (and hard to believe) how much people can safely run when they set no pace goals. This is the most important "secret" to high mileage. Your pace will (and needs to) get faster once you get used to it. But, you need to get used to it first. You can't do it in reverse. When I first reached 90-100 miles a week, I was spending most outings at about an 8-9 minute mile pace, and at the time I was a 16:30 5k runner. To give you a comparison, if you are a 20:00 5k runner, that's about 9:30 - 10:00 mile pace, and for a 25:00 5k runner, it is about 11:15 - 12 minute pace. A 30:00 5km runner would compare with 13 - 14 minute miles. It is very slow compared to your abilities. When people tell me that this seems too slow, I tell them to try running 80 - 100 miles a week at that pace. The first day or two feel awkward and silly. After the first week, it starts to make sense.
Now, the goal of Lydiard's approach was not to run this slow throughout base training. It's only a tool to get the runner to levels he or she would take forever to get to otherwise. A lot of people believe Lydiard was all about 'long slow miles", but he was definitely not! He advocated running all the easy base training miles at your "best aerobic effort" for the day. However, for the first month or so of mileage you have never been close to before, this is going to be very slow. It's the only way to initially get to that level. If you speed up or try to cut it short, you won't reach the level you could have reached, and your upcoming season won't be as good. The ONLY goal at first is to get to high mileage, at whatever speed it takes to do so. Be patient. You can get to mileage levels you did not think possible if you do it right. Now is the time to be trying this, if you want to have a great summer of running races faster than you thought you could.
How fast can you initially get there? It depends. If you can run 50 miles a week comfortably, I think it should be fairly easy to slow right down and immediately jump up to 70 miles at what was the same relative effort level you were doing the 50 miles at. The operative part of this is "slow right down". Don't worry, you will be speeding right back up in a month. After a week at 70, you should be able to move up to 80, and perhaps try to hold your training at that level for the base season.
No one should try the above program until they are able to run at least 50 miles a week and 2 hours at a time comfortably. However, if you are not quite at this level, you can try a modified version and still reap benefits. After all, there is only one way to eventually get there, and that is in stages. The general principle is the same. Try moving up to 40 miles if you are currently at 25 or 30, and so on. Just remember the part about slowing down a lot in the beginning. Lydiard's basic idea is that you can get reach the rewards of high mileage a lot quicker if you go through an initial period of rapid increase coupled with significant decrease in speed. Those rules you read about regarding a certain percentage per week of increase don't apply if you are slowing your training pace down. Again, Lydiard's system gets you there much more quickly by purposely manipulating your average training speed to avoid the pitfalls of too much effort in too short of a training period.
After about a month to six weeks of what is very high mileage for you, your body should be starting to adapt, provided you were patient and did not run too fast. At this point, it's time to speed up, although remain aerobic. This is important. If you keep running slowly, you will not gain the full benefit. The aim of the slow running was simply to get you to where you are as quickly as possible without injury. Once you start to speed up your easy runs, the effort level should feel the same.
You will know it's time when the challenge of simply running an enormous weekly mileage volume is starting to diminish. The next two to three months should be spent gradually building up the speed of your runs, without while still remaining aerobic. This should happen naturally. Aerobic threshold runs should begin to be introduced in last half of base training, and preparations should be made for cutting you mileage almost in half and bringing on speedwork about 8 weeks before race season begins.
So many runners never reach mileage levels they are capable of because they don't have the patience to go through a period where running may not be much fun. How important is the high mileage, high aerobic level base training? Here's a direct Lydiard quote: "The day you finish this phase, your performance level is already determined and fixed for that year". You will still require speed training and sharpening before you race, but the die has already been cast on how far you can go, and how fast. Make this base training season your best.
For those interested in reading more, here is an post I made a while back on increasing mileage, in which I touch on some other information.