Steady State Training for Runners / Base Training
The winter months are the perfect time to start, or continue, laying the foundations of your race season, regardless of your sport. It is the time when technique is learned and perfected, when strength sessions feature more often and where weaknesses are identified and addressed, with a view to having a better season than the last.
It's also the time that endurance athletes build their stamina with long slow aerobic sessions. For runners, this means building on the their base fitness by increasing the duration of the longest run by no more than 10% each week and keeping heart rate (HR) in Zones 1 and 2. Increases greater than 10% place too much stress on the runner's body and increases the risk of injury due to the high impact nature of running. This 10% is a maximum not a minimum!
In all training, recovery and rest is as important as the work out itself. When planning your training, use a four week cycle that is based on three weeks of building endurance and one week of recovery. During the recovery week, significantly reduce the volume of training to let your body get more rest and expedite the recovery process.
The long slow run should be the staple of winter training for all long distance runners. Here I am assuming that you, the runner, is comfortable with a minimum of 45 minutes of continuous running. If you are comfortable with a steady 45 minutes, let's explore why steady state training makes sense this time of year.
Endurance building ... the primary goal of the steady state run is to build the endurance you need to complete your A race distance. Notice the use of the word "complete" as opposed to "compete". One step at a time! Your weekly run training will consist of three to four runs of varying distance and intensity; your long run being one of these runs. If you are a multi-sport athlete, the numbers of runs in a week may be lower.
Training muscles to burn fat for energy ... simply put, your body had two basic types of muscles; fast twitch and slow twitch. Fast twitch muscles contract very quickly and have very little, if any, endurance. They tend to burn carbs and oxygen, or just carbs depending on the speed of contraction. Your slow twitch muscles, which contract slowly, can be trained to work for a long time without fatigue. These muscles burn oxygen and fat for fuel. Keeping your HR in Zone 1 and 2 ensures that fat is the fuel of choice.
Development of aerobic system ... a runner's body makes many significant changes during prolonged aerobic exercise. They include but not limited to: the heart becomes stronger and larger (like any muscle, it becomes toned and stronger with exercise), the capillary network increases around the muscles so that more blood and oxygen can be transported to them by a fitter heart. Moderate impact activities promote strong bones by preventing leeching of calcium and other minerals.
Before you attempt any type of speed intervals, ensure your endurance base has been built and is sufficient to cover the distance of your key race. There is however, one type of interval work that would benefit a runner at this time: hill reps. Hill reps, if done correctly, will help build strength in the connective tissues, muscles and cardio system. These reps are done slowly, in the aerobic HR zones. Their main purpose is to build strength, so leave speed out of the equation and instead, concentrate on keeping good form as you run up the hill. Incorporate these sessions every other week except during recovery weeks.
A solid endurance base built up over several years is a must for all endurance athletes, including runners. The body takes time to adapt. Injuries such as stress fractures happen when the body is put under repeated stresses that it is not able to handle. By building this base, a runner or triathlete will be able to work harder when the time is right.
The second goal of steady state training is perfecting technique. Keeping intensity low allows you to focus on holding your body upright, keeping cadence high and holding technique throughout the workout.
If your running has been your key limiter, or even the source of injury, consider having a bio mechanical assessment to identify areas for change or improvement. Great running technique is a skill to be learned and with any new skill, it will take time to forge the changes in your neuromuscular system so that they become second nature. Seek help from professionals such as the RunningSchool when making these changes. Not only will they be able to instruct you on good technique, but most importantly, they give you immediate feedback when form begins to falter.
Winter training doesn't have to be boring or a drudgery. It is a time to learn something new, like technique, it's time to build on what you have for a better season this year. Summer racing bodies are built during the long cold winter months.
So what are you waiting for?