What is base training and why do it?

When I first started out as a triathlete, I remember going for regular winter runs round the local reservoir (a 6 mile loop) and to keep up with the crowd, my heart rate was in the high 170’s and it felt like hard hard work yet I really wasn’t moving that quickly. The people I was running with always used to go on about how they were running ‘aerobically’ today, and keep their heart rate around 145. WHAT!!!!??? I experimented with this. I was going so slow it was almost a walk, before I could ‘run’ if you could call it that, with mine that low. Nah, I thought, far too boring, and went back to the bust a gut plan I had been working on before. No pain no gain, right? That’s what they sad wasn’t it? I really had no idea how they did it. When asked they said ‘lots of long slow runs will sort you out’. I tried that too. Seemed to make no difference.

My performances that first year were mediocre, and at the end of the next season I got a coach during the winter. On the programmes I was sent, there were always long runs. I was regularly running 7 miles home from work twice a week, ordered to go slower, within certain heart rate zones. Ok, I thought, long slow must just be what you do in winter, no?  But I still wasn’t sure why, because I still couldn’t run round the reservoir at that pace they set, and have a heart rate of 145. It just was NOT possible!! I’d need to be walking!!

What I didn’t understand at the time, is what was lacking from my fitness and my training. Aerobic work. So I completed the winters training in that fashion, as ordered by my coach. I thought nothing more of it.

I then began competing at GB level (so something must have been going right!). Still in the back of my mind, running was always my weakness, so I decided to get a run coach too after hearing that Alistair Brownlee had a triathlon and a run coach. My triathlon coach wasn’t sure about this at first, and to be honest neither was I! BUT, if Ali Brownlee can make it work, then surely so could I? So this winter, I got the plans, and suddenly the long 7 mile runs home from work were missing. I thought the coach had made a mistake! I asked where they had gone and was told I didn’t need them. How did he know that? I needed proof, which came when I did the metabolic assessments in November. Aerobic capacity in running according to the test, was excellent, a vast improvement on previous tests. What happened there?!? It seemed to have sneaked up on me without realising! But what it did show me is this:

·        Developing base fitness in running, took years, not months!

·        Don’t expect the effects of base training to be immediately noticable, but be persistent, it takes time

·        It maybe took me longer because I was starting from scratch?

·        Don’t stop once you have the base fitness, too much at the top end and you will soon lose it!

So what exactly is the benefit for me then? So what, I can now run around that reservoir with a low heart rate and the run now feels much easier, but so? Why is that beneficial? My coach says that without the base fitness you would be more tired when racing. How does that work? Here’s the science:

Whether you compete in sprint triathlons or the Ironman, building a monster aerobic system will serve you best.Aerobic training will develop your ability to produce more power (speed) while burning fats, which are in abundant supply, and thus sparing the limited stores of carbohydrates in your body.’

‘The second metabolic adaptation necessary in Base Training is an increase of the muscle cells aerobic energy production factories called mitochondria. These small powerhouse structures use fats and oxygen to make energy while not producing fatigue causing lactic acid and waste.’

From ‘the science of base training’ http://www.phase-iv.net/resources/science-of-baase-training

‘Research from around the world has confirmed that development of substantial physiological infrastructure must precede the hard work of the competitive phase. Without the necessary infrastructure developed through Base Training, the hard work to prepare for competition will not be as effective and in fact may not be tolerated at all but instead lead to injury or illness’

From ‘base training’ by Robert Forster http://sports.dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/scarabs/message/4883

So, last winter, I did the base, now I can maintain the base and work on the speed, with the new run coach? No?Everyone I talk to says ‘noooooooo, you don’t do speed work till spring!’ To be honest I have been ignoring ‘everybody else’ and doing it this way anyway! Jodie Swallow told me a while back that she continued to do fartlek throughout the year. Brett Sutton in his interview on IM talk http://melanieryding.blogspot.com/2010/12/brett-sutton-interview-part1-im-talk.html says periodisation is rubbish! Well, he would know, he has the athlete results to prove it!!

When I went searching for the theory behind periodisation on the internet, to be honest, I struggled to find anything that wasn’t in favour of it. One article I read http://mytriathlontraining.com/category/wordpress-tag/periodization seemed to actually suggest the problem was actually based on triathletes overtraining, or training too much in the ‘grey zone’ as Brett Sutton calls it. So, with this in mind, I interpret periodisation in many ways, and can perhaps see everyone’s view point.

·        Is periodisation not just a term that describes how you organise your training into chunks?

·        Is there not benefits to working on both base and speed in winter, and simply altering the balance slightly depending on the time of year?

There is many definitions of ‘periodisation’ some of which can be found here:http://www.bodyactive-online.co.uk/training/resistance/methods/periodisation/periodisationtraining.asp however I believe anything that is structure could come under the term, therefore, Brett Sutton structures his athletes training (I’m sure it has some kind of structure?!) therefore you could argue we all periodise, it’s just a case of how YOU organise yours different to HIM?


So, what do I conclude from all this?

·        Base fitness may take you more than just a few months to build up but it’s a vital foundation for speed work, not to mention keeping you injury free!

·        Without base fitness, you will tire faster in race conditions

·        Periodisation is just a term, you need to organise your training in the way that suits You and YOUR needs best


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