The Importance of Base Training

Hanny Allston - A World Orienteering champ
Hanny Allston – A World Orienteering champ

Today we welcome back to our pages, the running talent of Hanny Allston fresh from her win at the Six Foot Track marathon here in Australia. Hanny ran a superb time of 3hrs 41mins, just missing the previous record by four minutes and setting the second fastest time every by a female in the race. There was a fair bit of talk before the race as to whether Hanny might go close and we certainly feel as though she has the talent to take it a step further maybe next year and break the awesome time of 3hrs 37mins from Emma Murray. That aside, Hanny is preparing herself for the World Orienteering championships in July and here she runs us through some of the basics of training, the importance of getting a good base.

There are many ways to train for the big race, and we’re certainly of the belief here at U168, that it’s all about your own personal choice and preference. We simply present you with the ideas, then the onus is on you as a runner to work out what’s best for you.

“Listen to everyone and follow no-one.”

Over the years I have had my fair share of niggles and big learning curves. As a younger athlete I always thought more was better and that my body was tough enough to cope with a mess of speed, volume and strength all thrown in together.  Thankfully none of these niggles have progressed to true injuries and I believe that I can truthfully track this back to a series of outstanding coaches who put me on the safe track over the years.  These were Max Cherry, Barry Magee and Dick Telford.  Over the last 18 months, I have become increasingly aware of their influence on my running and coaching, particularly when it comes to injury prevention.  In this article, I am going to explore the importance of buffering injuries through periodisation and the value of investing in an aerobic base by exploring the methods of my coaching mentors.  To do this, I begin with Arthur Lydiard.

Potentially the Father of formalized base training, New Zealand’s Arthur Lydiard (1917 – 2004) rose to fame through his coaching of marathon legends, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Lorraine Moller and Barry Magee.  Lydiard’s coaching foundations have become an integral part of many coaches’ current approaches to endurance training.  In recent years, the likes of Nic Bideau, Dick Telford and Barry Magee have endorsed Lydiard’s ideas.  His theories are also an evident part of the Kenyan Way.

It was Barry Magee whom I trained under during my year of study in Auckland and who introduced me to principles of Lydiard.  I remember sitting in his lounge room watching him draw Lydiard’s Pyramid of Performance.  For most of the year, Magee would send us off tempo running around the grassy volcanic cones of Auckland.  Every weekend we would head to the Waitakere Ranges to run the famous Lydiard 22 mile hilly loop.  It was only immediately prior to our key races that Magee embarked us on the higher intensity, shorter duration training sessions.

Injury prevention can be greatly helped with base training according to the principles of Lydiard
Injury prevention can be greatly helped with base training according to the principles of Lydiard

Following the Lydiard Way, Magee determined that all athletes, irrespective of their age or distance specializations, required a substantial aerobic base to protect them from injury and to sustain their maximal performance ability.  Without this aerobic foundation and as running speeds and intensity increased closer to races, a myriad of yo-yo performances, injuries and disrupted training could occur.  In my latter years, and without the direction of a coach, I fell into the trap of increasing my anaerobic training to the detriment of my aerobic base.  Niggles and under performance ensued.

As Magee reiterated with us, Lydiard believed that injury prevention and performance lay in the development of a long aerobic training base otherwise known as cardio or base training.  That is, running should be conducted frequently and at intensities low enough for the oxygen intact to adequately meet the energy demands of the working muscles.  In practical terms, in a fit athlete this type of running can be maintained for many minutes or hours and focuses on lower heart rates (generally between 60 & 80% of your maximal heart rate).

Following long base periods, Lydiard and Magee required their athletes to move into a transition phase characterized by hill resistance and leg-speed training.  The purpose of this phase was to continue to maintain the aerobic base but to strengthen the leg muscles in preparation for the anaerobic training that was soon to follow.  Lydiard’s hills were not classed as intervals like we often carry out here in Australia, but rather bounding, springing and bouncing up the hills to define the muscles and running technique required to run fast.  Lydiard’s alternative was to conduct this training in a gym setting with a focus on leg strength and plyometrics.

Prior to my move to Auckland, a highly influential Tasmanian distance coach, Max Cherry, coached me.  Cherry came from Percy Cerutty’s running school at Portsea.  The Percy Cerutty approach was to train like a Spartan throughout a season and an integral part of Cherry’s coaching were large training volumes interspersed with plenty of bounding, springing and intervals.  Cherry emphasized that these sessions would prime our legs for the demands of track running which were carried out on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  The key difference between Cherry and Magee’s training was that Magee isolated the hills to a specific block whilst Cherry would intersperse them constantly through the season.  However, both coaches would always ensure their athletes had the cardiovascular base behind them before participating in this type of hill training.

Lydiard believed that only after his athletes had completed their aerobic and resistance training phases were they ready to move onto true anaerobic or speed work.  He determined that without the earlier two training phases, the athlete was at risk of systemic acidosis, a body state in which the cellular mechanisms that allow for balanced chemistry and recovery within the muscles are compromised.  In simpler terms, Lydiard used to refer to anaerobic training as ‘tiring, exacting work’ that degraded the body (as apposed to aerobic training that upgraded the body).  The anaerobic training was carefully interspersed with recovery training and rest days to ensure that the repair process generated a stronger body & mind.  His athletes would perform numerous bouts of high speed work with just enough recovery to get through the workout holding good form, but in doing so create the desired training effect of an increased ability of the body to chemically ‘buffer’ the lactic acid.  This training has also become known as VO2 max training and would lead an athlete into the taper period before his or her main race.

I currently train under the influence of the renowned Canberra distance coach, Dick Telford.  Dick is another who buys into the Lydiard Way. Telford’s training is strongly influenced by the environment of Canberra, utilizing the hills and bushlands to develop our aerobic base before approaching speed training on the track during specific parts of the summer.  Hills are Telford’s greatest friend and some of his sessions have been a key feature in my training partner’s programs since they were 14 years old.  Telford keeps the most intense training to the end of the season when our bodies are fully primed for it.  Very few of his athletes appear to ever be injured.

Hills are a runner's best friend!
Hills are a runner’s best friend!

However, from where I sit as a coach, the modern ‘Australian Way’ of training for distance events is a bit of a jumble for most runners.  There is often a mish-mash of long runs, jogging, cross training, very high-speed intervals and occasionally strength training all in the same week and all year round.  There often appears to be no thought to periodization and the supplementation of running with strength-building training.  This is particularly true of my adult runners who seem to fall into three categories.  The first are those who just duck out the door in their moment of spare time for a run, moving by feel and training hard or easy, depending on the amount of time they have available.  Their training often one-hit-wonder’ish with large or fast bouts followed by numerous rest days until the next session can be squeezed in.  The second are those who love to run but prefer to plod out the door and just continue on plodding until an event pops up that they wish to enter.  The third are those individuals that want to get fast faster.  Every session they do is conducted at high intensities or large volumes, with little thought given to rest or recovery.  Gym sessions are tough, swims are tough, and runs are long and tough. Eventually their body or mind snaps.

Perhaps this ‘Australian Way’ comes back to our ability to train all year round.  Unlike the Europeans who have snow forcing them to take a bit of downtime, we can continue to run and run and run all year.  Add to this the overly full calendar of running events and we seen to just move from one race to another without thought given to periodization.  In other words, we love to run and thus even when our bodies are screaming out for a rest we simply say, ‘but one more dawn run can’t hurt?!’  The result of all this is that in 2013, more than 80% of runners in Australia experienced an injury.

Despite wisdom and experience, last year I fell into this trap.  I returned from racing at the World Orienteering Championships in Finland knowing that I needed to develop more speed and endurance.  I jumped straight into strength training, track running, hill intervals, fartlek, Parkruns and a streak of races.  More speed, more speed!  What I failed to remember at the time was that my body was run down from the races and that before I should begin my speed preparations I needed to slowly rebuild my aerobic base and strength to a point where my body was strong enough to handle the degrading anaerobic work.  A niggling Achilles and hamstring ensued.

Speed training is a tough discipline to master for ultra runners - it's a fine balance
Speed training is a tough discipline to master for ultra runners – it’s a fine balance

Wiser now, my training has returned to the Lydiard Way and the coaching principles of Magee, Cherry and Telford.  Currently my training is focused around building my aerobic base via: long slow runs over the Canberra hills; increasing my jogging miles in the mornings; replacing speed training with tempo runs of around 10-16km conducted at marathon pace; and working on overall body strength in the gym.  This phase will last for around 12 weeks in total.

In April I will initiate a hill specific phase that will be focused on hill intervals, leg speed running and plyometric training in the gym.  During this time I will still aim to maintain my long runs and easy jogging miles to ensure that the aerobic system remains strong.  Finally, when the body feels fully prepared, I will reenter my last phase of training that will include race specific and speed training.  This will be interspersed with lots of jogging, long runs and additional recovery days to counterbalance the intensity.

In order for us to achieve our greatest levels of performance and avoid injuries, we need to be prepared to take our time.  Rushing the development of our aerobic base or failing altogether to periodise our training can lead to a mash of training that can ultimately lead to underperforming on race day or degrading the body to a point of injury.  For a lasting experience in the sport, I believe we need to run in the steps of our coaching fathers, that of Lydiard, Magee, Cherry and Telford.  As they have influenced on me, training hard but smart can be your ultimate weapon.



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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Base Training

  1. Hi Hanny, Fantastic article which I agree with completely. I tended to do all my session hard and while i didn’t get injured I usually got sick and run-down. These days I dont do more than one anaerobic session per week but I do enjoy them as hey really blow out the cobwebs and clear my head. When you talk of hills what grade and length would you suggest? I find it tough running long steep hills without going lactic pretty quickly.

    1. Hey Charlie… good to hear from you. I used to do the same as you… run all sessions hard and you just can’t sustain it as you say. You can get sick very quickly. I had to take 2 months off last year because I got pretty ill. On the hills sessions, there are a number of different things you can do depending upon what you’re training for. For example I personally do;
      – Hard up, then easy back down. The may incorporate a 15-30 sec rest at the top of each as well if going very hard.
      – Easy up, hard down (downhill conditioning)

      For these types of sessions, I don’t really go beyond 5-7% gradient and length of hill is debatable dependent upon what you can find. generally I look for a hill that take around 2-4 mins to run up i.e. the shorter it is, the more reps you do.

      Honestly, uphill sprinting is probably the best work out you can do I reckon.

      Cheers, Dan

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