Looking back on my training over the past ten years, I have tried a lot of different things. I’ve done high mileage, low mileage, strength training, cross training, and yoga. I have found what works for me and what doesn’t. I don’t consider the cycles where I learned that something doesn’t work to be a failure though, because it taught me what not to do in the future. For example, I typically do not run many workouts faster than 10k pace while training for a marathon because the intensity of those runs is too much when coupled with the amount of miles that I run.
However, there is one lesson that took me a few years to realize, and it is my biggest mistake. For the longest time, I did lots and lots of miles during my base training, with no quality. I was literally slogging seven days a week for months at a time, completely ignoring the need to always be in touch with speed. I mistakenly thought that base phases needed to be completely dedicated to quantity at the expense of quality.
This training method did allow me to run lots of miles, but year after year, it resulted in sub-par performances for the first half of my season, until I was able to get a month or two of workouts under my belt. It is the reason why I would end a season with a personal best, then six weeks later run several minutes slower. After a few rust busting races and workouts, only then would I start rounding into shape. Fellow runners would marvel at the disparity between my performances and how quickly I fell out of shape.
Now I realize that a competitive runner should never go more than a few days without doing something a little quicker, except of course during a true recovery period. But even as you are building mileage and working on your base, you need to be running quick at least a few times a week. It doesn’t have to be much; some strides at the end of your run or a moderate progression run are fine examples. I also like doing effort-based fartlek and hill repeats during the base phase as well.
Effort-based workouts are terrific during a base phase because you run them at your current comfort level, and don’t need to worry about paces. They also build your tolerance for work, so that when you do start structured workouts, it won’t be such a shock to your body. Plus, you start the intense training phase with a higher level of fitness, setting you up for a higher peak at the end of your season.
Finding the right combination of speed and mileage is trial and error for most people. Too little quality and you want reap all the benefits. Too much quality can lead to burnout and injury. I believe that finding the optimal balance of quality and quantity is key to having a successful racing season. After all, the bigger the base, the higher the peak!