All About That Base

Recreational runners frequently chafe at the suggestion of base-building, as though this is a judgment of their fitness level. As the running industry becomes increasingly specialized and geared towards racing and performance, basic concepts like 'fitness' are overlooked. Jogging becomes pointless, 'base-building' is a scam, and and easy effort runs are junk miles that can be skipped.

Base-building is never complete. Shalane Flanagan still works on her base.  So does every woman who hopes to beat her.  No one is ever really done.  Base training is slow, repetitive, and uninspired.  It’s the unsexy work that must be done every day. It's a process, not a destination. It’s the starting point in a training cycle before transitioning into race-specific workouts.  The more time you spend prepping for that transition, the faster the gains will come. This is easier said that done. In the current running industry landscape, either you are training for an event, or recovering after an event. For goal-oriented overachievers, this usually means an endless cycle of overcorrections- training too hard to re-gain fitness, then not doing enough to maintain fitness.

This, by the way, is why we created Maintain.

Runners can’t take extended (2 weeks or more) breaks from consistent running and expect to pick up where we left off whenever we return.  It’s true that muscles have memory that never diminishes, but muscles themselves start to break down after 3 days of unuse.  Muscle memory means that with proper training, you can (probably) get back to where you were faster than someone who has never been there before. It does not mean you can run a half or full marathon , head off to do barre/XFit/OTF/lifting for 6months/10years and expect to beat your previous time your first cycle back. You may be fit, but you haven't maintained your running base. Your body is no longer adapted to the sport.

When the work is interrupted, so is the progress. Specific Fitness American culture doesn’t value continued, hard work over long periods of time.  We tend to celebrate the DRASTIC improvements that often come from inhuman levels of work in short periods of time, the shorter and more drastic the better.  For example, it’s no longer good enough to go from Couch to 5k, why would I get off of the couch for anything less than the marathon distance? It’s JUST a 5k!  It’s not SPECIAL!  Anyone can do that!  I WANNA GO COUCH TO LEADVILLE IN 6 WEEKS LETS GO COACH! Maybe, but if you haven’t been running regularly and continuously, then a 5k may be a stretch.  Participating in an event for which you are undertrained is MISERABLE. Realizing it on race day, watching while people zip by you while you struggle to keep moving forward, is humiliating no matter the distance.  Why does this happen?  I’m not entirely sure. I think all of those factors contribute in some way, but the most glaring error is twofold: 1. the concept of a ‘base’.  a. Most people I encounter have a modicum of fitness and call this a ‘base’. 2. The common belief that exercise is fungible and doesn’t have to be specific…because any exercise can give us a ‘base’.  a. Then we assume that ‘base’ is enough to support anything we want to do, any distance we want to train for. b. Example: “If you can spin/bodypump/barre for an hour three times a week, you can totally run a 10k!” I can’t make you ask Google the right questions or make you more receptive to information you don’t want to hear.  I would, however, like to ensure that you are never again insulted when someone questions your ‘base’ in regards to endurance training.

Phrases like ‘cardio base’, ‘fitness base’ and ‘endurance base’ are used interchangeably; in reality the three are mutually exclusive. 

Runners warming up with silly toes coach mk fitness protection program

Fitness Base Let’s be clear: a ‘fitness base’ just means you can participate in daily life activities.  Think of that guy in your office who is on a football/soccer/dodgeball/kickball team and thinks he is such a gifted, natural athlete.  We all know that guy!  He is AWFUL!  He makes snarky comments about our 10k races and half marathons!  He asks about how much work we do then brags about how little he does!  Here’s some perspective while we wait for Darwin’s laws to kick him in the face: each of his 90-minute soccer games only require maybe 30 minutes of vigorous exercise.  That’s a lot of breaks to catch your breath and recover.  Over time it will take him longer and longer to recover from each game and injury, and he will blame it on getting older.  The truth of the matter is that guy has been coasting on a modicum of fit privilage/athletic ability and a (diminishing) fitness base for years. The stop-and-start nature of his club soccer matches aren't giving him the endurance capabilities an endurance event requires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, think of the other guy in your office, the one who cannot walk from his car to the entrance of the mall without getting winded.  That guy does not have a fitness base.  You probably wouldn’t put him in the same category as soccer guy, but when it comes to training they’d be starting from the same place.

Distance running requires us to do one thing continually without breaks for an extended period of time.  Both of these guys would be well-advised to start with a Couch to 5k plan, but only the latter is likely to agree with me. Aerobic Base An ‘aerobic base’ means your body's oxygen-delivery system is strong.  We think about the aerobic base as how efficiently the heart works, how much oxygen is delivered with each pump.  This is measured with figures like ‘stroke volume’ and ‘Vo2 max”.   Think of your weightlifting Crossfitting friend who can bench press twice his body weight.  That guy probably has a ridiculous Vo2max.  Now, ask him how fast and far he can run and he’ll groan and shake his head- that guy has no cardio/endurance base.  So Vo2 max can be important but by itself doesn’t tell us the whole story; the person with the highest Vo2 max isn’t necessarily the world’s fittest human or fastest runner; that figure alone won’t tell you which of the top ranked runners will win a given race.  The missing piece here is how well muscles use that oxygen and training them to use oxygen for fuel instead of stored food (this is a measure of a cardio base).  As of yet, there's no single data point or metric that gives us an idea of how large a given person's cardio base is at any point in time.  Your Crossfitting friend would have a huge advantage over the two guys in our previous example in that he already has a fitness habit, a high V02 max (i.e, a strong heart) and some mental game to work with.  I would be leery of him training for anything longer than a 10k.  Why?  Your muscles can easily get ahead of your aerobic capacity and give you a false sense of fitness; this is why your crossfitting friend thinks a marathon will be NBD.  It’s also why he will be one-and-done. Cardio/Endurance Base In lay terms, having a Cardio/Endurance base means you can do one thing continuously for a long damned time without stopping.  No one is born with an endurance base, it has to be developed.

Your body can’t store oxygen like it can food.  Luckily we have oxygen in our bloodstream at all times and can use it for energy.  Having a cardio base means that your muscles can utilize the oxygen in your bloodstream for fuel for a very long time before tapping into its stored food, and a longer time after that before tapping those out and demanding external fuel (like Gu or UCAN). No one is born with a cardio base, it must be developed; it is easier for you body to use stored sugar than convert oxygen into fuel.  This is why building a cardio/endurance base takes a long time, exponentially longer than the time required to build a fitness or aerobic base.  As frustrating as it sounds there is no way to shortcut this process.  Think of that guy who bikes to work every day.  He probably isn’t riding hard or chasing anyone and avoids steep hills.  He probably doesn’t strike you as particularly fit, even though there’s no question that he has healthier habits than soccer guy.  Bike guy decides to train for his first marathon and qualifies for Boston.  It’s hard not to hate him for it, but he did have an advantage.  All those years of biking built an endurance base, and he was able to draw from that when he decided to train his body to run. Conclusion Interval training is fantastic for people who want to develop or enhance fitness and aerobic bases.  These workouts have limited benefits to distance runners because super-hard intervals don’t do much for our endurance base.  All the interval training in the world won’t help soccer guy catch up to biker guy quickly.   If we want to improve our performance in distance running events, we have to do work that is specific to the sport that will enhance our training rather than interfere with it.  

Most importantly, we understand that our 'base' is always in progress, and our work is never 'done'.

Since running is our downtime and our self-care, this is the best news ever.


This post was originally written for Coach MK's Fitness Protection clients, then republished for her blog, then updated here today.

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