Aerobic training, also known as “base training,” has been likened to the foundation of a building in its importance to developing fitness. No house could survive for long with a weak foundation and so it is with distance runners and aerobic training.
The word aerobic means “in the presence of oxygen.” A simple definition of aerobic running might be: “Training at a level of intensity at which an athlete can maintain an adequate supply of oxygen to the body’s musculature to fuel necessary contractions.” As the supply becomes inadequate, for whatever reason, the body’s anaerobic system is gradually brought on line to make up the deficit. The term anaerobic means “without oxygen” and is only a temporary backup in creating fuel for contracting muscle cells. A byproduct of the anaerobic system, lactic acid, makes running anaerobically increasingly uncomfortable and can be sustained at high intensity for only short periods of time.
Successful distance training seeks to first maximize an athlete’s ability to utilize oxygen and then in the final phases of training to teach the athlete’s body to work efficiently when faced with anaerobic stress. The first important step is to develop the aerobic system to its functional limits, if possible. Because the anaerobic portion of racing is only a relatively small portion (10% of a 10km), aerobic training is the focus for every successful distance athlete. In training to race, ones goal should be to obtain the highest aerobic capacity possible while developing strength, power, speed, and finally anaerobic capabilities.
Aerobic training in the form of long, slow distance running is the beginning step in any sensible program to reach even a minimal level of fitness. I’ve found it helpful to start most people thinking in terms of “running time” and not mileage, working toward maximizing the time on their feet. By working in “number of minutes run” instead of km’s most people are more accepting of slowing down their running pace and making the goal “longer” instead of “faster”.
What can be gained by all this running? A stronger heart and lungs, muscle adaptation to running long distances, increased ability to recruit muscle tissue, increased mitochondria in your muscles (where energy is created for your muscles to use), increased ability to utilize fat, a higher percentage of lean body mass, increased oxygen carrying capacity of the blood and stronger bones and joints are all adaptions your body makes to tolerate increasingly longer runs. All of these adaptions, and many others, occur as you run longer and longer and all of them will help you run faster when you start specific training to race. You must run slow before you run fast!
A common training mistake is running easy km’s too fast. How slow is slow? Very slow. Go ahead, ease back, enjoy yourself and don’t push. You should be able to recite “Mary had a little lamb” without running out of breath… very conversational. For heart monitor owners that’s about 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. For most of us that effort is 115 – 145 beats per minute but that can vary dramatically among people.
Long runs are key in developing an aerobic base, they deliver the largest “aerobic return” and are the focus of an aerobic training week. Running continuously for 90 minutes will deliver benefits that are unavailable from shorter runs. For competitive athletes, I recommend that during an aerobic build up they work toward one long run each week that approaches two hours and one moderately long run every week that approaches ninety minutes. For the less competitive people I recommend at least one run that will reach ninety minutes.
Here’s an example of a competitive athlete’s weekly aerobic training schedule:
Monday- 30 to 40 minutes easy (short day to recover from the long Sunday run)
Tuesday- 60 minutes easy
Wednesday- 45 minutes easy with 5x 100 meter strides at about 5k pace
Thursday- 90 minutes over hills (easy effort on the hills)
Friday- 45 minutes easy
Saturday- 30 to 40 minutes easy (short day in preparation for the long run the next day)
Sunday- 2+ hours on a soft surface road or trail at a very easy effort
The above schedule would yield anywhere from 80 – 130 km per week depending on the athlete and the speed of the “easy effort” each day. For most people the concept of alternating easy and hard days seems to work best but 2 or even 3 rest days between longer runs may be necessary. In this type of training the term “hard day” refers strictly to the length of the run and not the speed or intensity! Additional km’s or time could be added anywhere in the schedule but emphasis on the easy/hard concept is important. Resting before and after longer runs is essential as your body must have time to regroup and adapt to the previous stress before it is put under pressure again.
Longer runs place demand on the human body’s fuel supply and on it’s ability to stay adequately hydrated. In short, during an aerobic training cycle take extra care to drink plenty of water and eat plenty of good foods high in carbohydrate to stay adequately fueled to train effectively. Using a sports drink during long runs is a very valuable tool in maintaining fuel and water, not only for that specific run but in aiding recovery for the next training session by not depleting the “on board” supply and enabling muscle tissue to recover quicker.
Also, there is ample evidence that by maintaining an adequate blood sugar level you avoid a stressed out immune system which occurs commonly after hard runs and may increase your chance of catching a stray virus. After a long run there is a 30 minute “window of opportunity” to reload fuel and water at an increased level. During that 30 minutes a runner’s body will “super compensate” and reload at an even greater rate than it might normally. So take advantage of that 30 minutes by being prepared after each long run with water and fuel to replenish what’s been used up.
I always recommend training on soft surfaces whenever possible. Some people find off road training difficult and even dangerous due to uneven surfaces but trails and dirt roads can often be found that offer both a reasonable running surface and a more pleasant environment for training than city streets or bike paths. Soft surfaces enhance recovery, lower impact injury risk and will enable you to train longer distances with less fatigue. A famous New Zealand distance runner and coach, John Davies, likes to say that “oxygen is life.”
Improving your ability to use oxygen as a runner will improve your health in general and enhance and prolong your life.
STAY HEALTHY, STAY CONSISTENT, AND RUN THOSE LONG RUNS SLOW!!!!
Article by Time-to-Run Cape Town resident coach Dave Spence