Welcome back to the second edition of our article series for beginner runners. This week we are going to talk about building the aerobic base. If you missed part one you can find the link for it here. We also wrote an article on aerobic base not long ago and that article can be found here.
Many beginner runners (including the two of us when we first started) make many of the same mistakes. The first mistake we see generally happens with younger people who are getting into running, or back into running after taking a significant amount of time off. In an effort to build fitness back and to make exercise a consistent part of their lives again, beginning runners will sign up for a race and set a goal finishing time. Lets say that race is a 10K and their goal is to run it in 45 minutes. That comes out roughly a 7:15 minute per mile pace (remember this is just an example). After they set that goal, they go online and find a 10K training program and start following the training and building the miles trying to run the same pace they plan to run in the race. Bad idea.
Another mistake we see people make is jumping into a high mileage program that would be better suited for intermediate or advanced runners.
The last mistake we see people make is using subjective measures alone to determine the intensity of their run. We'll explain more later.
The first step beginner runners need to take is to begin building an aerobic base. The aerobic base is building your cardiovascular system's ability to move oxygenated blood throughout the entire body and to be get muscles and tissues to effectively utilize that oxygenated blood by improving on your cardiac output, capillary density, and mitochondrial density. If you want an in depth explanation of what those terms mean, feel free to ask us next time you're in the office. Building your aerobic base is what allows you to do more work (run longer distances) at a lower heart rate. If you pay attention to elite level runners, you may notice that a lot of their training runs are at what seems like a blistering fast pace, then in races they're capable of running even faster. When beginner runners see those fast training paces we automatically assume we should be running fast during training as well, but here is the paradox, a 6 minute per mile training pace for them may be the equivalent of a 10-12 minute per mile pace for us in terms of effort. They're not pushing as hard as they can during those training runs. You may have heard the expression "don't waste your best race in a training run." Roughly 80% of your mileage should be done at a low rate of perceived exertion and 20% of your training mileage can be done a little faster. That is how you balance aerobic and anaerobic training. We will go into more depth on the difference in future articles.
The first thing runners and endurance athletes should aim to do is to build their aerobic endurance. The easiest way for the average jane and joe to do this is to begin by simply running slow. Buy a heart rate monitor. We prefer a chest strap and watch that monitors heart rate during the run. Next, you want to take your age in years and subtract it from 180. This number is your absolute maximum heart rate during training. I am 36 years old, so 180-36=144. That means that during my easy aerobic runs while building an aerobic base I am not going to allow my heart rate to exceed 144 beats per minute. This method was made popular by Dr. Phil Maffetone At first, this will be very very slow, and it may require you to stop and walk to bring your heart rate back down and to walk hills to keep your heart rate from rising too rapidly. This will seem incredibly boring and kind of silly. Trust the process. You are building aerobic endurance. It takes awhile. But, heres the cool part: initial gains and improvements can happen very quickly. At first you may be running 12-15 minute miles at that set heart rate, but within 4-6 weeks you will notice you have shaved 3-4 minutes off those totals as you're capable of running without having to stop and walk. This is objective proof that what you are doing is working.
Thats it, it really is that simple. Now, let's address a few things. There are people who claim you can build aerobic base by sprinting and aerobic work. This can be true to an extent, but only to a point. For an untrained individual, doing nearly anything early on can lead to aerobic improvements and improvements in VO2 max. Sticking to the program is how you continue to build on those gains. If you're interested in personal anecdote, the two of us will regale you with tales of crashing in races because we tried too much intense running during training and didn't build an effective aerobic base.
Now how do we put it all together? Well there are many different programs you can follow, but one of the simplest ones we recommend is Hal Higdon's winter mileage program. Like I said, there are many different programs one can follow but this one is the easiest for a beginner to follow, with one exception. Trim a few days off at first. This program is written as a 13 week program with 5-6 training days a week. If you are an absolute beginner I would recommend doing 2-4 days a week to begin with. I like to do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday when I return to this program after taking time off. Many times depending on my fitness level, I'll even cut the Saturday volume in half.
Continuing to build an aerobic base is a very long ongoing process. Start with this program (or a similar one) then move into race specific training. After your planned race, take some time off and go back into an aerobic base program. It takes time and you must be patient. Don't train according to ego, it will always bite you, trust us, we both know from experience.
Our next article will cover how to begin to progress from here, and future articles will talk about how to improve strength training to become a better all around athlete.