Stick a Fork In It! All About That Base
Updated: Jun 15, 2019
Work In Progress
In the current activity monitored climate, phrases like ‘cardio base’, ‘fitness base’ and ‘endurance base’ are used interchangeably; in reality the three are mutually exclusive. This is a very common trap amongst distance runners: “my base is totes fine so I can skip easy runs! Who has time for junk miles!” Or worse, “My base is done! My base is fine. I don't need to work on my base.” ORLY? I didn’t hear the timer on the oven go off! BASE IS DONE, YA’ALL! STICK A FORK IN IT!
(that actually goes through my head. Someone says, "My base is fine," MK's brain screams "STICK A FORK IN IT!")
Base-building is never complete. Shalane Flanagan still works on her base. So does every woman who hopes to beat her. No one is ever really done. Base training is slow, repetitive, and uninspired. It’s the unsexy work that must be done every day. It’s the starting point before transitioning into race-specific workouts. The more time you spend prepping for that transition, the faster the gains will come.
This really shouldn’t be a depressing thought. I LOVED grad school. Those two years were two of the best of my life and they flew by way too quickly. I LOVE RUNNING. I am thrilled that I will always have an reason to do it. The idea that I’ll never be finished is exciting!
This is also why I encourage you guys to stay on some sort of plan year-round. We can’t take extended (2 weeks or more) breaks from consistent running and expect to pick up where we left off. It’s true that muscles have memory that never diminishes, but muscles themselves start to break down after 3 days of unuse. Muscle memory means that with proper training, you can (probably) get back to where you were faster than someone who has never been there before. It does not mean you can run a half, head off to do barre/XFit/OTF/lifting for 6months/10years and expect to beat your previous time. When the work is interrupted, so is the progress.
American culture doesn’t value continued, hard work over long periods of time. We tend to celebrate the DRASTIC improvements that often come from inhuman levels of work in short periods of time, the shorter and more drastic the better. For example, it’s no longer good enough to go from Couch to 5k, why would I get off of the couch for anything less than the marathon distance? It’s JUST a 5k! It’s not SPECIAL! Anyone can do that! I WANNA GO COUCH TO LEADVILLE IN 6 WEEKS LETS GO COACH!
Maybe, but if you haven’t been running regularly and continuously, then a 5k may be a stretch. Participating in an event for which you are undertrained is MISERABLE. Realizing it on race day, watching while people zip by you while you struggle to keep moving forward, is humiliating no matter the distance.
Why does this happen? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe part of it is the nature of aggressive salespeople, we have a tendency to stand our ground when someone tries to sell us something other than what we came to buy. Maybe part of it is not being open to the idea that Couch to BIG DISTANCE requires a metric ass-ton of support (like an entire team of producers, trainers, and nutritionists all living under one roof, Biggest Loser-style), way more than most of us have. Maybe it’s because we never asked anyone but Google, who let us print out a training plan without reading any of the instructions and cautions that came along with it.
I think all of those factors contribute in some way, but the most glaring error is twofold:
1. the concept of a ‘base’.
a. Most people I encounter have a modicum of fitness and call this a ‘base’.
2. The common belief that exercise is fungible and doesn’t have to be specific…because any exercise can give us a ‘base’.
a. Then we assume that ‘base’ is enough to support anything we want to do, any distance we want to train for.
b. Example: “If you can spin/bodypump/barre for an hour three times a week, you can totally run a 10k!”
I can’t make you ask Google the right questions or make you more receptive to information you don’t want to hear. I would, however, like to ensure that you are never again insulted when someone questions your ‘base’ in regards to endurance training.
Let’s be clear: a ‘fitness base’ just means you can participate in normal activities. Some people are born with fitness bases. Those guys suck donkey balls.
Think of that (totally unfit!) guy in your office who is on a football/soccer/dodgeball/kickball team and LOVES it. He plays every week and that’s the only exercise he gets, he claims he doesn’t have to do more because he is such a gifted, natural athlete. We all know that guy! He drives us CRAZY! He makes snarky comments about our 10k races and half marathons! He asks about how much work we do then brags about how little he does! Who does he think he is?? Why does he think he is fit when he is TOTALLY unfit! WE HATE THAT GUY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Here’s some perspective while we wait for Darwin’s laws to kick him in the face: each of his 90-minute games only require maybe 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. That’s a lot of breaks to catch your breath and recover, even if you’re going way harder than you should. Over time it will take him longer and longer to recover from each game and injury, and he will blame it on getting older. The truth of the matter is that guy has been coasting on a (diminishing) fitness base for years. The stop-and-start nature of his club soccer matches aren't giving him the endurance capabilities an endurance event requires.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, think of the other guy in your office, the one who cannot walk from his car to the entrance of the mall without getting winded. That guy does not have a fitness base. You probably wouldn’t put him in the same category as soccer guy, but when it comes to training they’d be starting from the same place.
Distance running requires us to do one thing continually without breaks for an extended period of time. Both of these guys would be well-advised to start with a Couch to 5k plan, but only the latter is likely to agree with me.
An ‘aerobic base’ means your heart is strong. No one is born with an aerobic base, it has to be developed.
We think about the aerobic base as how efficiently the heart works, how much oxygen is delivered with each pump. This is measured with figures like ‘stroke volume’ and ‘Vo2 max”.
Think of your weightlifting Crossfitting friend who can bench press twice his body weight. That guy probably has a ridiculous Vo2max, which means he has a strong base of aerobic fitness. Now, ask him how fast and far he can run and he’ll groan and shake his head- that guy has no cardio/endurance base.
So Vo2 max can be important but by itself doesn’t tell us the whole story; the person with the highest Vo2 max isn’t necessarily the world’s fittest human or fastest runner; that figure alone won’t tell you which of the top ranked runners will win a given race. The missing piece here is how well muscles use that oxygen and training them to use oxygen for fuel instead of stored food (this is a measure of a cardio base). As of yet, there's no single data point or metric that gives us an idea of how large a given person's cardio base is at any point in time.
Your Crossfitting friend would have a huge advantage over the two guys in our previous example in that he already has a fitness habit, a high V02 max (i.e, a strong heart) and some mental game to work with. I would be leery of him training for anything longer than a 10k. Why? Your muscles can easily get ahead of your aerobic capacity and give you a false sense of fitness; this is why your crossfitting friend thinks a marathon will be NBD. It’s also why he will be one-and-done.
In lay terms, having a Cardio/Endurance base means you can do one thing continuously for a long damned time without stopping. No one is born with a cardio base, it has to be developed.
Your body can’t store oxygen like it can food. Luckily we have oxygen in our bloodstream at all times and can use it for energy. Having a cardio base means that your muscles can utilize the oxygen in your bloodstream for fuel for a very long time before tapping into its stored food, and a longer time after that before tapping those out and demanding external fuel (like Gu or UCAN).
No one is born with a cardio base, it must be developed; it is easier for you body to use stored sugar than convert oxygen into fuel. This is why building a cardio/endurance base takes a long time, exponentially longer than the time required to build a fitness or aerobic base. As frustrating as it sounds there is no way to shortcut this process.
Think of that guy who bikes to work every day. He probably isn’t riding hard or chasing anyone and avoids steep hills. He probably doesn’t strike you as particularly fit, even though there’s no question that he has healthier habits than soccer guy. Bike guy decides to train for his first marathon and qualifies for Boston. It’s hard not to hate him for it, but he did have an advantage. All those years of biking built an endurance base, and he was able to draw from that when he decided to train his body to run.
Interval training is fantastic for people who want to develop or enhance fitness and aerobic bases. These workouts have limited benefits to distance runners because super-hard intervals don’t do much for our endurance base. All the interval training in the world won’t help soccer guy catch up to biker guy quickly. If we want to improve our performance in distance running events, we have to do work that is specific to the sport that will enhance our training rather than interfere with it. Most importantly, we understand that our 'base' is always in progress, and is never 'done'. STICKAFORKINIT!
 It is important to note that it is exciting because I say, “I will never be finished progressing”, which is different from “I’ll never progress”. The latter is depressing and ridiculously untrue. There is no reason to think you are different and won’t progress. After all, you are not a special, broken, lesser, snowflake. You’re more likely to improve if you keep going than if you stop.