Aerobic base training is one of most well known terms used in endurance sports and most athletes will recognise it as long slow mileage. It was founded in the 50's by Arthur Lydiard, who was the pioneer of running 100 miles per week at a low intensity, to establish a base. His methods were so popular, they were transposed to cycling, swimming and many other sports.
In recent years, people have questioned the need to such high volume and turned instead to higher intensity training sessions, reversed periodisation and other means of training. Many people simply don't have the time to do a high volume of training, so will look to maximise their gains in the limited time we have. With all that said, this blog post is just some general thoughts I have on the concept of high volume and low intensity base training.
I've seen a few blog posts in recent months regarding the benefits of long, slow aerobic base training and one of the main issues I have is that they have the same, very narrow focus, specifically on the subject of aerobic metabolism. You'll have read them yourself and it's a bit like 'base training bingo'... You will undoubtedly see words such as aerobic base, slow twitch, fat burning, capillary density and then... wait for it... Mitochondria!! Bingo!! Full House!!
Jeez... it reminds me of that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon confronts the Harvard graduate and says "have you got any thoughts of your own on the matter or are you just going to plagiarise the whole book for me?"
I'm not saying that those things aren't important and it's clearly been shown that high volume and low intensity training can increase capillary and mitochondria density etc, which will benefit you as an athlete. But there seems to be a lack of appreciation or thought for anything other than aerobic energy production and the reality is, there's a lot more to being a great runner than aerobic metabolism and there's other reasons why longer workouts are beneficial.
The other issue with the narrow focus on 'aerobic metabolism' is that there's plenty of people who will argue that you can get similar gains to the aerobic system by doing high intensity workouts, so actually... what's the point in doing long easy riding and running at all? Sports science does sometimes have a habit of 'narrow focus' due to it being multi-disciplinary, but as a coach, it's important we take all things into account and have a rounded view. So, here's only 2 simple things to take into account, when deciding whether athletes should do longer training sessions or high volume base training.
Physical resilience and robustness
This is really simple, if you run a lot of miles, your legs become hard as nails. Hitting the ground repeatedly for hours, means your legs are less likely to become damaged during training and racing. The repeated action of hitting the ground causes cell damage, but this isn't something that's frequently discussed. The day after a marathon, when you can't walk down stairs,... or even worse, 2 days after the marathon, when you're sliding down on your arse, that pain is the delayed response to the tissue damage that was happening DURING the race. You don't notice it during the race as there's a 24/48 hour delay in the inflammatory process termed 'delayed onset muscle soreness' (DOMS). Understand that the damage was occurring WHILST you were running or racing.
Obviously if your muscle cells are splitting open whilst you run, it's not the best for race performance. Running a high volume of slower miles will help to bullet proof your legs, you cannot bullet proof them from shorter, high intensity workouts. If you're a science geek and want the research, there's been plenty done, the simplest stuff to google and read about is blood creatine kinase levels post marathon. To give you the simplest explanation, creatine kinase is an enzyme which should be inside your cells, but when they split open, it leaks into your blood. So it's often used as a marker of tissue damage.
As a broader observation though, if you watch people doing Ironman triathlon or similar, if they haven't done enough volume, they'll be broken physically on the bike and certainly on the run. Their back and hips will be aching and on the marathon, their hip flexors have pretty much stopped working. You absolutely need physical robustness and resilience. It's very simple... Whilst shorter and higher intensity workouts have been shown to give significant aerobic gains, you won't give a flying duck what your VO2 max is at the 18 mile point in the marathon, when your chassis has collapsed and your muscles are smashed to pieces.
Mental resilience and robustness
There is a real tendency for coaching (specifically online) to be very physiology and conditioning based. Most workouts are designed with a specific physiological gain in mind, but rarely does psychology get a mention. When was the last time your coach wrote you a session with a psychological objective in mind? Whilst we like to see psychology as a peripheral or secondary discipline, be in no doubt it absolutely underpins everything.
I'm not going to even start a discussion about mental fatigue or the links between mood states and performance, because there's an academic out there who'll be desperate to pick it apart rather than simply appreciating the point I'm trying to make. But the simple fact is that mental resilience and robustness is just as important as it's physical counterpart.
If you enter an Ironman triathlon and your longest training ride is 4 hours, at some point during the event, you'll reach a point where you feel you've been out there a long time and the initial excitement and enjoyment will be wearing thin. Imagine reaching that point and then looking at your watch only to realise, you've got at least another 2 hours left in the saddle... and then the marathon. A sports psychologist would perhaps call this 'familiarisation' but if you want to feel comfortable spending 7 hours in the saddle without feeling mentally drained, then go spend 7+ hours in the saddle.
If you sit on your bike for 7 hours in training, not only will your back, neck, ass and hamstrings get used to it, so will your mind. If 7 hours becomes the norm, then race day passes quite quickly. You've only got so much mental reserve before you start to feel down about the whole thing and you just want it over and done with. Ideally, you only want that to happen in the final miles, because if it happens with 5 hours to go... jeez, that's gonna be a hard fight to the finish. Most people in endurance events start walking or stop altogether, because they've 'had enough'. They MAKE the decision to stop, they're mentally exhausted.
I'm a big believer that people set mental ceilings which limit them far more than their physical abilities. Most triathletes can ride 100 miles in training, but they reach 50 and they've 'had enough' (50 is a nice round number as well). Most runners can run an easy 2.5 hours, but they get to 90 minutes and they've 'had enough'. It's not a physical limitation, it's a mental ceiling they need to remove and simply reset 'the norm'.
These norms are also set by your peer group, so let's bring some sociology into the conversation. If you train with a group of mates who think 50 miles is a long way on a bike, then you'll follow suit. Your training group will hugely influence your own thoughts on 'what's enough' and 'what's hard'. If your mates only ever swim 2k in the pool, then a 3k swim may feel like it's a huge achievement. But some 14 year old kids arrive at school having done 6k that morning without batting an eyelid. That's because 6k is their 'norm' and their peer group all do the same, so it's nothing special to them. Don't be limited by a mental ceiling which has been founded by your peer group.
You cannot train mental resilience and robustness by only completing shorter and higher intensity workouts. You need to be in the pool for 2 hours, sat on your bike for 7 hours or running for 3 hours. Until they become the norm...
So there you have it. That's only 2 reasons why you should do longer sessions and potentially more volume, if you're taking part in longer events, but it's 2 benefits you can't really get from shorter sessions. Crack on, get out there, go easy (honestly it's fine to go easy) and go long.
Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. When it all seemed to be going so well... he set up a running shop. You can't win em all. He's also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.
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