2011-12-05

The Endurance Base, or Endurance Basics

As you know, Stationary Waves is no place for absolute fitness beginners. Just by way of refresher, let me explain that this is not because I am hostile to beginners or dismissive of their efforts - we have all been beginners!

Rather, it is because I feel there is enough advice out there for beginners that it isn't a subject area I feel inclined to explore. I have often been disappointed by the lack of internet distance-running content aimed at the intermediate-to-experienced runner. Therefore, I have decided to fill that niche myself. It's not advice, it's a discussion. If you have a couple of years of running under your belt, join the dialogue!

Let's Talk About The Endurance Base
The unsung secret to having a seamless, injury-free training season is the building up of a good endurance base.

The phrase "endurance base" means exactly what you would expect it to mean. Prior to undertaking a major training regimen (for example, an 18-week marathon training regimen), it is customary for experienced athletes to spend anywhere between one and four months increasing their bodies' cardiovascular endurance.

The goal is rather obvious: The more punishment you can handle, the harder you can train; the harder you can train, the faster you can run.

Building Blocks
Let's think about it this way:

If you've never run a step in your life, your first undertaking is just to get outside and give it a try. That's the first building block.

Once you've tried it out enough times and you've decided you're interested in it, the next step is to learn how to save your energy for the full distance in question. You go from sprinting as fast as you can and then walking the rest of the way, to developing a sense of pacing that takes you from a few hundred meters all the way up to several miles. That's the second building block.

After you get used to controlling your pace for an extended period of time, you discover that alternating the length and speed of your daily run can result in increased speed and increased endurance. Before long, you've exposed yourself to comprehensive training philosophies and you've undertaken to engage in some event-specific training (like a marathon). That's the third building block.

Building an endurance base is simply the next link in the chain (if I may mix metaphors). Once you have some experience with event-specific training, it's time to pre-train (for lack of a better term). In anticipation of the coming training regimen, we start slowly building on our weekly miles run, acquainting (or reacquainting) our muscles with long-distance running and simply getting used to running again. At this point, there is no pressure, and no need to run too fast. Endurance training is a nice, relaxing process of iteratively adding to what your body can handle.

Astute Stationary Waves readers may have noticed that the building blocks I've listed above represent a progressively lengthening cognitive time-horizon.

How to Build an Endurance Base
If you have never built any kind of an endurance base before, then my recommendation is to keep things as simple as possible. Sometimes common sense is the best approach: Start with what you know you can do, and then just get comfortable doing it. When you're finally ready to take on a training regimen, go for it.

That simple approach should get you started. Of course, the more thought and planning you put into it, the better off you'll be.

The options here are virtually limitless, but there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  1. The primary goal is to avoid injury. The whole benefit of an endurance base is in being able to subject your body to more strenuous training down the road. If you injure yourself, that is clearly the opposite of the intended effect. To avoid injury, take on only moderate mileage to begin with, and increase your weekly miles by no more than about 10% per week. So if you start with 30 miles per week, add three miles per week on Week #2...
  2. Forget about speed for now. There will be time to wow yourself and others with record-breaking speed. Now is not that time. This goes right along with number 1 above. If you go too fast, too soon, you can risk injury. You'll also fatigue your muscles too early in the game, which will make it a challenge to steadily increase your endurance. Remember, we are extending our cognitive time-horizons here, so don't take on future speed training before you've built your base. Always run at a relaxed pace; resist the urge to hold yourself to a specific pace. For now, I'd even suggest you leave your watch at home.
  3. Give yourself enough time to reach your goal. If your first week of serious marathon training involves some 50 miles of running, then your endurance base should build up to at least that much mileage. Building up even more mileage in the pre-season will be even better, of course. But if you want to get to 50 miles per week and you're starting from zero, this will take you some time. Be realistic about the amount of time it takes to build up the endurance base you're aiming for. If you're increasing your mileage by 10% per week and starting out at 20 miles per week, do the math. This will take some time. Start early, and don't be afraid to hold yourself to it. 
  4. If your body tells you, "This hurts!" then back off. You may still end up with sore joints, tendons, and muscles. You may get some shin splints or a little tendonitis. Don't worry! This is the pre-season! You're not training yet. If your body hurts, back off a little. Take a few days off and try again later. Your training has not yet begun. Don't take on too much too soon.
  5. Get in the habit of stretching. If you don't stretch regularly, I would not suggest you even attempt a marathon. Stretch every day. Learn to love it. Stretching improves your body's capacity for muscle-building and elongates your muscle fibers, helping to prevent injury. This is incredibly important!
I might add that this fifth point is vitally important. The reason I pulled a muscle last season and had to bail on the Montreal Marathon is because I wasn't stretching enough. Take that seriously.

What Will I Do?
If you still need a bit more of a real-world example, I'll give you an idea of what I'll be doing to build my endurance base, starting today.

For the past few weeks, I've been running about 30 minutes a day. This week, I plan on doing at least that. Perhaps I will go for 35 minutes if I'm feeling a little ambitious. Nothing more than that, however.

From there, I will add about five minutes of running per week. Now, bear in mind that I'll be travelling out of the country for two weeks in December, and during that time, I'll be lucky to get out for a run at all. So I may lose two weeks there.

Regardless, I should be up to about 50 minutes of running per day by mid-January. More, if I'm lucky. I'll be taking it easy, enjoying the sights of the city, keeping my head up, and trying to stay warm in the cold Ottawa winter.