The First Step: Aerobic Training

by Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby, an article which first appeared as a feature article in Peak Performance Magazine

This is the third in a series of six articles on the art of coaching. The first two articles dealt with goal setting and establishing a periodized plan based on identified goals. Once goals have been set, both long term and short term, and a periodized plan has been established to meet those goals, then it is time to start specific training. Developing a training program follows logical steps. No matter where the athlete is on the ascending ladder of performance, the place to begin a new program is always at the first step: aerobic base building.

Aerobic training is the central feature of any effective training program. It is the basis for all that comes between the beginning of fitness and the culmination of a racing season. The term "aerobic" refers to an organism's ability to function in the presence of oxygen. The degree to which an endurance athlete can efficiently move oxygen through their body and the extent to which the athlete can effectively utilize that oxygen will determine, in large part, how fast any athlete can run distance races. As coaches we can usually improve racing ability in a beginning athlete by just gradually adding more volume. Just by itself, increasing the training load of an athlete doing less than 30 miles/week quite often improves racing performance by expanding an under developed aerobic system. For more experienced runners, who might already be training at 30+ miles per week, the increased mileage often allows for greater work loads of more intense running further along in the training cycle. In other words, a lot of easy running early in the training cycle builds a greater ability to tolerate relatively large loads of intense training later. Increased aerobic ability creates not only additional work tolerance and better racing but also enhances an athlete's ability to recover from hard efforts. In short, more is better... but only up to a point!

How much is enough? In truth, once an athlete's aerobic ability is substantially developed, the extra miles that might be added represent an increased risk of over training and injury and only increasingly small returns in training benefit. This relationship might be illustrated by figure 1. Figure 1 is a generalization. The risk of injury and over training is different for everyone and varies throughout an athlete's life. The concept, however, is applicable to everyone and the curve, whether it is shifted left or right on the mileage scale, is accurate. The more miles (or greater volume), the more risk there is and the increasingly smaller benefit. In our experience, 50 miles per week represents the deflection point of the benefit curve for most people and at that mileage the risk of injury starts to rise quickly. Age, experience, lifestyle and many other factors can shift the curve in either direction and the "safe" number of miles varies with each individual. Elite athletes can mitigate much of the risk of higher mileage by increased rest, better nutrition, massage, and other methods to enhance recovery from hard training but those avenues are often not easily available to the average runner with lifestyle limitations.

Some key concepts of aerobic base building are important to discuss: What is the safe and proper way to raise mileage? How much is enough? Are there ways to get more benefit out of the increased volume? Are there ways to mitigate the increasing risk of injury and over training? How are the benefits of the increased volume best applied so as to yield the best racing and fitness? What is the safe and proper way to raise mileage? For a beginning runner, who has very little experience with endurance sports, a good starting place is about 10% every two weeks. We like to start people with a program that works toward 20-30 minutes of exercise every other day beginning with a walking and jogging program. Once a beginner has obtained a doctor's permission to exercise, we send them out the door to walk briskly for 20 minutes interspersed with short intervals of running on an every other day basis. We build that program to 5 days per week of very easy running for 30 minutes and then to increasingly longer runs for 3 of those 5 days. For an advanced athlete we take into consideration their age and experience. If they have been through multiple "build-up" cycles and their basic aerobic strength and general health is good, it might be appropriate to start immediately with 7 days a week and 50 miles. Increasing that load by as much as 10-20% every week to two weeks.

The concept of a longer day followed by a shorter recovery day is an important one. This is simply a restatement of the old hard/easy concept that emphasizes recovery after a "hard" training stimulus. We simply redefine "hard" as a longer, low intensity mileage day. This same concept can be applied to a weekly format or bi-monthly format where a cycle might be introduced using one or two weeks of high mileage and then one or two weeks of lower miles for recovery. These cycles could be stair stepped gradually to a much higher volume than might otherwise be reached.

How much is enough? Clearly, this again varies with the experience, lifestyle, racing goals, and risk tolerance. The multiple factors can interact in a myriad of ways. For example, the athlete with little work and family commitment is impacted by training volume less adversely than an athlete with a full time job and family. As coaches, working with highly motivated people of varying talent, we are consistently confronted by athletes who want to do "more". Balancing their wishes with our responsibility to keep our clients healthy is one of the most difficult tasks we face. It is always our goal to have athletes who are healthy, training consistently, and ready to toe the line at a major racing event rather than sitting at home injured and watching the event on TV. Even if that means they are slightly undertrained. Doing a little less volume and staying healthy, fresh, and able to train consistently is always preferable and, ultimately yields better racing.

We begin each individual's training with aerobic volume. We look at how much volume they are presently doing and how much they've done in the past. Limited time or energy may restrict volume or the pattern in which the mileage can be run so individual lifestyle elements must be examined. Suitable volume targets and appropriate training patterns are identified. We then begin building a two week training cycle that contains longer days and recovery days that fall within what that athlete can handle at their present fitness. Over the next few months we repeat that two week cycle and gradually add more volume to the totals at a rate that is appropriate to their ability to absorb the training effectively. We watch carefully for signs of over training: staleness, lack of motivation, small injuries, irritability, colds, poor sleep, increased resting heart rate.

Rarely do we allow clients to train past 70 miles per week. For most people that volume target should be an upper limit as the risks start to outweigh the benefits. For many people 50 miles per week is an appropriate target and certainly can yield very good results if the miles are correctly structured with one or even two longer runs each week. As those upper limits are approached it is always wise to slow the percentage increase in mileage from one 2-week cycle to the next. Eight to twelve weeks of aerobic volume makes an excellent base to beginning harder training. Are there ways to get increased benefit from aerobic volume training? By building long runs into each cycle an athlete receives bonus aerobic benefit. The goals of aerobic volume training are better reached with an emphasis on specific long runs. For example, rather than to run 7 miles each day of the week, it is much better to accomplish 50 miles per week with an 8 mile run on Thursday , a long run on Sunday of 14 miles and the remaining mileage divided up among the other five days. In fact, it would be even more effective to take Monday off and place additional miles on Tuesday and Thursday. The longer runs build more aerobic strength and endurance. We'd go so far as to say that until you are running at least 90 minutes you're not really doing a "long run" and claiming all the benefits that aerobic volume can deliver.

A sample week for a beginning runner in an aerobic base cycle after a gradual build up in miles might look like this:

  • Monday-active rest (cross training: swimming, cycling, walking...)
  • Tuesday-40 minutes over short hills
  • Wednesday- 30 minutes
  • Thursday-75 minutes
  • Friday-active rest
  • Saturday-30 minutes
  • Sunday-90 minutes

The same pattern for an experienced competitive athlete might look like this:

  • Monday-40 minutes
  • Tuesday-60 minutes over long hills
  • Wednesday- 40 minutes
  • Thursday-90 minutes
  • Friday-40 minutes
  • Saturday- 40 minutes and some short aerobic stride outs
  • Sunday-2 hours

Keep in mind that this type of volume must be reached at a gradual rate and the pattern of days must be engineered to fit each individual. Notice the pattern, however, features two longer runs and that each longer run is followed by a recovery day. Some people may not be able to handle two longer runs a week and some may be able to work with an even longer run on Tuesdays. Those individual differences become apparent over time and during each aerobic building phase.

Are there ways to mitigate the increasing risk of injury and over training? Injury and over training happen to everyone. It's hard to believe that any runner can train for very long without experiencing at least the odd annoying problem. As we strive for larger training volumes, more ambitious racing, and greater fitness goals, we flirt with the possibility of encountering all sorts of problems. We know that often by doing more we can achieve greater things; however, how can we stretch the benefit curve without raising the risk at the same time?

First, slow down your aerobic volume training. How slow can you go? You'd be surprised. You should be running all your mileage at a pace that feels very comfortable and so slow that you could recite the Declaration of Independence from beginning to end (if you knew it) without having any trouble taking a breath. Keep your heart rate below 75% of your maximum. Run so slow that your neighbors will wonder what's ailing you. Why? How can you get any benefit from all this "non-work"? As you build miles your body is building strength to handle the faster running later in your training. You're building stronger tendons and ligaments, modifying muscle tissue to handle prolonged exercise, improving circulation by building a bigger heart and improved capillaries, and on and on. In fact, you're changing yourself in hundreds of ways: some that are obvious, some that aren't readily observable, and certainly, some that are not as yet even identified by science. In any case, without the slow running first you'll have a much harder time with the faster running later. By running slowly you improve your chances of surviving those long runs with a smile on your face and without the need of physical therapy. You'll most likely find that as you move through your aerobic build up that the general pace will get faster for that same "easy" effort, that's just you getting to be a better runner.

Second, run on soft surfaces whenever possible. Impact stress is often the beginning or the aggravating factor in almost every injury. By training on grass, dirt, or even synthetic tracks you may find that higher training volumes become much easier on your legs. Recovery from longer runs is much faster. Avoiding needless impact stress may by itself allow for significantly higher training volumes and avoid what may previously have been persistent injury problems.

Third, locate a running specialty store that maintains a large inventory of quality shoes. You should look for a knowledgeable staff person to obtain shoes that work best for your bio-mechanics. No single model or specific brand works for everyone but with a little patience you'll find a shoe that works for you and protects you best from harder and longer training. Also, it's very important to note that shoes have a limited life and rarely will protect you once they've been worn for more than 500 miles. Worn shoes are the first place to look when small problems start to occur. Often, purchasing a new pair of shoes combined with a couple days of rest will stop a small injury in its tracks.

Fourth, a little care to support longer runs with proper nutrition and hydration will dramatically increase recovery times and, again, make a higher mileage volume possible. Much has been written about athletic nutrition and that topic goes beyond the scope of this discussion. However, proper nutrition which includes a variety of considerations such as adequate carbohydrates, protein, minerals, hydration is essential. Timing of nutritional needs is equally important. For example, by eating within the first 30 minutes of finishing a long run you can "super load" your system and be ready to train again that much sooner. If you like candy bars, milk shakes or doughnuts that's the time to eat them. A sports bar works well but we find a huge cinnamon roll to be a much more satisfying reward!

Proper hydration during a long run is equally important. It starts with maintaining hydration on a daily basis with particular attention to it the day before a long run. An extra glass or two of water the day before long runs is always wise. During a long run, particularly in warm weather, drinking at least one bike bottle of water (16 oz.) every hour will help make the run more comfortable and recovery much quicker. A sports drink will help fuel the longer runs and becomes vital for training runs lasting longer than 2 hours. Adequate fuel and water will get you through the run feeling better and, ultimately, will lead to better recovery and more consistent training.

How are the benefits of increased volume best applied to yield better racing and fitness? A system of periodized training that features expanded aerobic volume as a base for faster running is the accepted model for training distance athletes. Running long and slow builds endurance and tolerance for work that leads to faster and more specific training yielding the type of fitness that produces goal racing. A program of expanded volume based on a hard/easy pattern and featuring at least one long run each week will show the best results. By expanding volume at a conservative and appropriate rate and by maintaining elevated mileage for at least 8 weeks, aerobic volume training will deliver increased endurance and strength by making the athlete stronger and more efficient; a better running machine.

ATHLETE PROFILES - Shawn and Melissa

In the spring of 1996, Shawn, a local runner came to us for help in becoming a more competitive age group racer. He was looking ahead a couple of years to a new age group and the potential for success against a very good group of local, national class masters runners. With the goal of reaching that kind of competitive fitness we carefully reviewed Shawn's past training strategies. Shawn had been running 30 miles per week, included very few long runs in his training program, wasn't periodizing or strategizing his program, and ran only one type of workout almost every day he ran. Those workouts were hard paced, timed runs over a rarely varying course in an effort to produce faster times with each workout.

Our first step was to slow down the pace Shawn was running to "very easy". The low intensity allowed us to start him on a six day a week schedule that slowly built his mileage and the length of his weekly long run. After 8 weeks his long run had reached almost two hours and he was running over 5 hours per week. We often use minutes and hours as a measure of distance as it starts people thinking less about pace and more about accomplishing easy, "time on the feet" running. This was an important step with Shawn as his previous training had all been geared to timed and measured courses. We involved him in a local running club that gathered on Sundays. Those slow, long runs became more enjoyable and were done in varied locations over soft surfaces that frequently included a large number of hills. The emphasis was on fun and on new outdoor experiences making the challenge of an ever increasing long run less daunting.

Next, we moved him through the other phases of the planned training building on the "aerobic base" we established in the beginning. The first full cycle of training produced personal bests at every distance Shawn raced, from 5k to the 1/2 marathon. The succeeding training cycles over the following three years featured continued aerobic development building on each past aerobic cycle. Shawn continued to boast new personal bests and became competitive in his age group, not only in local races, but in occasional out of town competitions, too.

Recently Anaerobic Management developed a program in conjunction with a local health club that was aimed at individuals who had never run before. An introductory program has so many issues to deal with that are already assumed in most running programs. Everything from shoes to basic nutrition are all new to the total beginner. However, the biggest challenge is take someone who can run only 5 minutes and develop the aerobic base necessary to sustain continuous running for an hour or more.

Melissa came to us after having just had a baby. Her goal was to get back into shape, while hopefully developing a program that would be a continual source on ongoing health. She had never "run" before and selected our program after attending a clinic that we put on for a health club. Our program met three days a week at varying times in an effort to fit the schedules of several individuals. We ran with the group, encouraging them, while at the same time addressing the questions of novice runners. Melissa began by running only 4 or 5 continuous minutes. Her first runs were a combination of running and walking for a period of 15 to 20 minutes. We used the same course each time which was conducive to goal setting. "Melissa, let's get to the next stop sign before we walk." The first big step came when Melissa could run 20 continuous minutes. Our long term goal was a one hour run, something which was not even conceivable to her. By the end of the 6 month program, Melissa was able to run nearly 80 minutes on a hilly course. During that development, her fitness changed dramatically and she gained enough confidence to enter a few local races, finding that she did not finish last and indeed continued to improve her pace and finish time. Gradual aerobic base building was the key to her success. More importantly, running has been a life changing experience that has become a regular part of her life and health.