Back in the 1960s, Legendary New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard introduced to the world of running the art of training slow to race faster. He did this in the most emphatic manner by leading his team from tiny New Zealand to multiple gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympics when no one expected it. His approach was unprecedented at a time when elite runners would generally be heading to training looking to run as hard as they could, as much as they could and as often as they could. His impact on endurance running has been so significant that Runner’s World has recognised him as the all time best running coach of the world!
His famous quote of “Train, don’t strain” is the essence of this approach to training. He believed that runners should run relaxed and comfortably in the upper ends of their ‘aerobic’ zone in order to develop stamina – an approach he called “Marathon-conditioning”. This is now known as “Base training” in the endurance sports world. An elevated level of stamina translated into being able to run faster and longer in the anaerobic zones as the aerobic zones became more efficient, ultimately allowing athletes to race faster.
Benefits of Aerobic Base Training
- Builds our aerobic base
- Gradually improves our pace / speed while remaining in our aerobic zones
- Growth of capillaries and mitochondria – increase blood flow to muscles and efficiency of energy production
- Improves our ability to burn fat as energy
- Improves our relaxed speed
- Reduces risk of overtraining and injuries
How do we do Aerobic Base Training?
Generally, we want the session of running (not including warm-up and cool-down) to be at least 25 minutes long in order to stress our bodies enough for adaptations to occur. These runs are generally 25 minutes to an hour maximum in duration.
- As always, warm up for at least 10 minutes with a slow, relaxed jog
- Get our legs woken up for our session with some more ‘strides’/’pickups’ for 30-80m x4-10 sets.
- Do our aerobic running according to the two famous methods described below for 25-60 minutes. We should feel like we’ve put in a good effort at the end but also that we could happily continue running if we wanted to. Train, don’t strain.
- If we’re feeling up for it and to keep our legs feeling fresh and speedy, perform some more ‘strides’/’pickups’ for 30-80m x4-10 sets.
- Cool down for 10 minutes
The Heart Rate Zone Method
The tried-and-true method to perform base training is to use a heart rate monitor and run at 70%-80% of our maximum heart rate which is calculated as 220 minus our age as a rough estimate. There are other ways of estimating our maximum heart rate including laboratory tests and intense running repeats with a heart rate monitor but that is beyond the scope of this article and will be discussed in a future one.
For example, if one was 20 years old then their maximum heart rate is presumed to be 200bpm and therefore their optimal aerobic zone for base training is a heart rate between 140-160bpm (70-80% of 200bpm).
Running below this range wouldn’t stress our body as much for development and running above this range would take us into our anaerobic zone.
The Maffetone Method a.k.a. The 180 Formula
Another famous system which I personally use for base training is the “180 Formula” invented and popularised by Dr. Philip Maffetone, coach of arguably the greatest endurance athlete of all time – Mark Allen.
Dr. Phil Maffetone’s 180 Formula is a simple method of finding our maximum aerobic heart rate (MAHR). Simply, we just need to take our age and subtract it from 180 to find our presumed MAHR then apply Dr. Maffetone’s modifications based on our situations.
For example: Below is a 20-year-old runner.
- Subtract their age from 180: 180 – 20 = 160bpm
- Modify this number by selecting the option that best matches their profile:
- If we have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10: 160 – 10 = 150bpm
- If we are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if we have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5: 160 – 5 = 155bpm
- If we’ve been exercising regularly (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems listed in the aforementioned, keep the number the same as in 1: 180 – 20 = 160bpm
- If we have been competing for more than two years without any of the factors listed and have improved without injury, add 5: 180 – 20 + 5 = 165bpm
- If we take medications that affect our heart rate, wear a pacemaker, or have special circumstances not described above then it is best to consult with our healthcare professionals before engaging in base training.
Essentially, if we are a 20 year old runner without any of the modifying factors then the maximum heart rate we should train at aerobically is 160bpm. Going above this heart rate will transition us into the anaerobic zone which isn’t what we want when performing base training. Our aim in the workout would be to maintain a heart rate of 150-160bpm for optimal development of our aerobic base.
Key Tips before we start doing Base Training
-A very common error that people make is training too hard in base training or generally. Sounds counterintuitive right? Especially in this day and age of “NO PAIN, NO GAIN”, “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever” and “GO HARD OR GO HOME!”. Fair enough also when we consider that they’ve made time for training in their busy schedules so they want to “make the most of it” by going hard in their training. The issue with going too hard in these sessions and going above our maximum aerobic heart rate or into the anaerobic zone is that we will start to use glycogen and glucose as our primary fuels rather than improving our ability to use fats as fuels which is far more efficient.
-A common complaint is that running in the aerobic zone feels “too slow” or “too easy”. This simply shows that our aerobic capacity has plenty of room to grow with appropriate training as it is currently not efficient enough to sustain faster paces/speeds. My clients, my running friends and I all had this “issue” at the beginning too but now find we can run significantly faster in our aerobic zone which translates to being able to run faster for longer periods. For me personally, it now feels like a good, strong effort of running on every workout but I feel fresh enough to do it again if I wanted to.
-Interestingly enough, another common error is running way too slow when trying to build stamina. This is partially due to the “jogging” phenomena which took over the world in the 1960s in the wake of Arthur Lydiard’s success. It was coined “Long slow distance” running and while it made running a roaring success, it hindered the progress of many runners. It was a misinterpretation of Arthur’s methods, which actually called for running in the upper aerobic zones for sustained periods to build stamina as opposed to simply running slowly for a very, very long time.
Before we go running off, keep this in mind:
Aerobic Base Training was a game changer in the endurance sports world. While it may sound so counterintuitive to train slow in order to run fast, the results will speak for themselves.
It is highly recommended that a large portion of our running training is aerobic in nature. Many top coaches now recommend 75-85% of running or other endurance workouts to be aerobic in nature and the other 15-25% to be high quality intense workouts.
The general consensus now amongst runners and endurance athletes is to make our slower runs slow and our faster runs fast as experience has taught them that this is the most efficient way to train.
It points out that spending too much time in the middle ground doesn’t allow us to build our top end as efficiently as we will be too fatigued. Middle ground training also negates our base building as we will be going more anaerobic. This negates our fat-burning aerobic development and prevents us from training for extended periods.
Remember: “Train, don’t Strain!”