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To Base Train Or Not To Base Train, That Is The Question!

So here's the big question, what exactly should you be doing over the winter period. Should you be doing high intensity work or should you be doing long slow miles? The term 'base training' is a common concept for endurance athletes, it refers to the base/foundation that you lay over the winter period, before progressing in the spring, through to summer racing. Most people associate 'base' with 'long and slow', but it doesn't have to be that way. Your base should be specific to you, so once you've worked out what your weaknesses are, you should then be able to plan a more specific based which will suit your needs.

The reverse pyramid

I've banged on quite a bit about 'reverse pyramid' in recent years and it's an approach which tends to work for many amateur athletes (do shorter and higher intensity sessions in winter and then longer sessions in the summer). I find that I commonly meet people who are slow, but can keep going for a long time. They come to me because they want to go faster, hence the reverse pyramid tends to be suitable for them. In the last 12 months I've seen quite a few other coaches start to follow the reverse pyramid approach as they are convinced that it produces the best gains, but it's not that simple.

You can't tarnish everyone with the same brush.

Most coaches tend to be in one camp or another, either they favour the reverse pyramid, so everyone they coach follows inverse pyramid, or they believe in a winter of long and slow (traditional pyramid), so everyone they coach follows a base schedule of zone 1 during the winter months.

Coaches need to realise that there's more than one way to skin a cat and they need to assess people individually to ensure they are following the correct program. It's also confusing for you as an athlete, if you hear 2 opposing views then which one is correct and which one do you follow?

Endurance sports are very simple and you need to ask 2 key questions:

1. How fast can you go?
2. How long can you keep it going for?

Okay, so let's consider 2 people training for a spring marathon.

1. Sandra has ran 17 marathons with a PB of 4 hours 20 minutes. She runs marathons and ultra distance events and can run until the cows come home but has no change of pace. In fact, her 10k PB was set during a half marathon race. She's entered a spring marathon and wants to run a personal best. Sound like anyone you know?

2. Rita is a speedy track runner by trade, she was a 1500m runner at county level but rarely goes above 10k in training or racing. Whilst she may be rapid, endurance is not her strength. She's entered a spring marathon and it's going to be a real challenge for her, as the distance is well beyond her comfort zone.

Here you have 2 classic extremes, the plodder and the burner. Sandra would benefit far more from reversing the pyramid and spending a winter, trying to reduce her 5k and 10k time. Once the speed is in place, she can then increase her long runs and learn how to 'keep it going' for the full marathon. Rita has ample speed, but she has no base fitness. The classic winter base training model of long and slow would therefore work much better for Rita as it has for many others before her.

The classic base pyramid model tends to work best for fast people with poor endurance, that's who it was initially invented for. When I was a kid running athletics, all distance runners started as 800m / 1500m runners, possibly stepping up to 5k. Once they got a bit older and lost a bit of speed, they would step up to 10k and then eventually start to consider the marathon. If you look at any of the world's great distance runners such as Mo, Paula, Haille et al, that's how their careers were/are planned out, their careers were an inverse pyramid. These were people who had speed early on and progressed to add endurance and distance.

The bulk of people who take up endurance sports in later in life don't fit that model. They never started at a young age racing shorter distances. They come to the sport with NO SPEED, they are NOT able to run quickly for 5k and they then start to train for their first marathon or ultra. If you're running multiple marathons but you struggle to get below 9 minute miles, base training is not going to work for you. No amount of slow mileage will make you a quicker runner, it'll just allow you to keep running slower for longer.

So how does this help me?

You need to assess yourself as an athlete, or if you're a coach, look at the athletes you're coaching. Ask the 2 simple questions:

1. How fast can they go?
2. Can they keep it going?

Are they burners, plodders of somewhere in between? The classic base training pyramid can be used to great effect, so can the 'reverse pyramid' method. You've just got to work out which athletes should be following which program. Neither one is better or worse, they're different, just like you and me.

If you'd like a more accurate assessment of your personal strengths and weaknesses, you can book a sports science assessment, you can read more and BOOK HERE. We also offer personal coaching for Ultra Running and Ironman Triathlon at affordable prices, for more info email

Marc Laithwaite
The Endurance Store

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