Building an Endurance Base

endurance base
Many runners are currently planning their training for half or full marathons in the spring. If you’re one of them, it’s important to think about what preparation you need to do before you start “Week 1” of a race-specific training programme.

We take a look at why this preparation work matters, what is meant by an endurance base, and what you could actually do…

Building gradually: Why does it matter?

When you start training from a structured, race-specific programme, “Week 1” of that programme should not be a step change in training. It should not be a significant departure from what you can already do.

Why? Well, think of endurance training having as three key corners:

  1. Volume: Overall training volume per week.
  2. Distance: How far you can run in one session.
  3. Speed: Training which will help you increase your pace.

Crucially, if you try to increase more than one of these three corners significantly at the same time, you put yourself at a much higher risk of injury.

So it is extremely helpful to plan far enough ahead that you are well prepared before you embark on half- or full-marathon training. If you are already in good shape, you will be able to get more from yourself during your race-specific training period. If you are at a point where you don’t have enough time to do this, then review your training programme to make the first few weeks easier, so that you avoid a sudden increase in training load.

Remember you need to make it to the start line before you can get to the finish line. Avoiding sudden increases in training will help you to avoid injury.

What is an “endurance base”?

The idea is that you have developed good general aerobic fitness and strength, and on that sturdy platform you can then build race-specific training.

For example, if you are already comfortable running somewhere between 20 to 40 miles a week, and can already run 6-10 miles in one stretch, you are much better placed to start marathon/half marathon specific work.

Even better, if you have done some strength work to build key muscle groups that are needed for endurance running, you will be more ready for the increase in training load.

General endurance training: 4 key principles

What training should you actually do during this period? To some extent, the answer to this question depends on how experienced you are as a runner.

If you are new or relatively new to running 13.1 or 26.2 miles, you may just be focused on getting more used to running more often. Building up to running three or four times a week is important. Then gradually extending how far you run overall, and the length of your longest run, is likely to be most helpful to you.

If you are a more experienced runner looking to improve on previous half/full marathons, you are likely to be comfortable with higher mileage already. Your body is likely to be more adapted to running from previous training. But you may still need to spend a while getting back in to form if you have had some down-time or had a different focus (e.g. shorter distances) for a while. So getting your mileage up but also throwing in some hill work and fartlek may be most effective for you.

Here are some key training principles for building your endurance base:

1. Increasing weekly mileage
Gradually build up your mileage over this preparation period. How you do this depends on your starting point, but is likely to include a balance of adding in an extra run or two per week, and increasing the distance you cover in some of your runs.

2. Extending your longest run
Depending on how far you can currently run in one session, you may already need to look at increasing one of your weekly runs. This will then become your long run during half/full marathon training. (Lots of people do this on a Sunday, and most training programmes schedule it for a Sunday, but it doesn’t have to be! I do mine on a Friday!)

To state the obvious, if you can already comfortably run 8-10 miles and you are training for a half marathon, this is less important than if you can currently only run 6 and you are training for a full marathon. Use your common sense, and look at what you need to build up to within the first month of your race-specific programme.

Schedule in a rest day after the long run, and possibly beforehand as well if you need it.

3. Building strength
If you are strong when you start your race-specific training, it will help you with every aspect of your running. Running-strength comes from strong core (abdominal) muscles, as well as strong key muscles in the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves, with plenty of other muscles playing an important role too!

It is a very good idea to include at least one session per week of strength exercises, and to make these running specific. There are some excellent running-specific exercises in Paula Radcliffe’s “How to Run” book, and there’s no shortage of them on YouTube from various places too.

Strength can also be built during training, and hill sessions are particularly effective for this. (Find some hill session suggestions  in our recent piece on cross country.)

4. Decreasing injury risk
It is important to be proactive about decreasing injury risk. Some key points:

  • Shoes: Make sure you avoid poor quality or worn out shoes.
  • Stretch: After every run, stretch all your key muscles well.
  • Pay attention: If you experience a niggle, back off the training and get it treated early.
  • Be smart: Look for ways to deal with any niggles, such as using a foam roller, wearing compression socks, etc. If you have been to a physio, be diligent about following the set exercises as they will really help you.

How to plan this preparation period

In order to work out what you need to do in this preparation period, take a look at your race-specific training programme. What does the first week look like? How different is that from what you can currently do?

Here are some scenarios to consider if you have a few weeks left before you start a race-specific training programme:

  • If “Week 1” is a bit of a stretch: increase your weekly running volume slowly over the next few weeks, and slightly increase the length of your longest run. Have an easier week once a month.
  • If “Week 1” is significantly more than you’re already doing: consider looking for a different training programme which is more realistic mileage and/or consider adapting the programme to be slightly easier for the first few weeks to ease yourself in.
  • If “Week 1” is the same as you are already doing and you are interested in improving your performance: consider looking for a training programme which is slightly more challenging, and use the next few weeks to prepare yourself well.

And here are some scenarios if you don’t have much time before you start a race-specific programme:

  • If “Week 1” is a step up from your existing training load: consider looking for a different training programme which is more realistic mileage and/or consider adapting the programme to be slightly easier for the first few weeks to ease yourself in.
  • If “Week 1” is actually a bit too easy: add in a couple of extra sessions or extend one or two of the runs in distance or intensity. Make sure you keep the rest days and periodisation (an easier week once a month).

If you are not working from a structured programme, you are probably a more experienced runner who knows their ability and limits well. If so, trust your instincts, listen to your body, and continue to be patient with gradually building and improving your training. Don’t be afraid to back off if you get a niggle, as your first objective is to get to the start line.

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