When Does a 'Base' Become a Plateau?



Dear Dumb Runner,
Most ultra training is based on a philosophy that you spend weeks/months building a slow steady base. You will run the majority of your runs "easy", and then build your speed and aerobic threshold on top of your established base. So in theory, you could establish your base during a set training plan for any particular distance and feel pretty comfortable that you will finish. At what point does this base-building plateau? Do elite runners who are running 100+ miles a week and have been for some years continue to build a base?—Craig M, Charleston, South Carolina


Dear Craig,

I've never answered a running question by citing a Clint Eastwood character before, but today I will. To quote "Dirty" Harry Callahan: "A man's got to know his limitations." My own limitations, right now, prevent me from answering your question in any meaningful way. I just don't know enough about training or exercise physiology.

On top of that, I suspect that your question—"At what point does base-building plateau?"—is nebulous enough that even a true expert would have trouble giving you a definitive answer. I doubt that that's something you can pinpoint or quantify.

I can, however, throw out a few semi-educated opinions and observations:

  • You're right that base-building is crucial in any training plan—ultra or otherwise.
  • You're right, too, that most of the mileage in any training plan should be run "easy." (So many people get that wrong.)
  • Building a "base" is a process. You don't train for weeks or months and then wake up one morning with a base. Therefore...
  • The point at which your base plateaus is similarly fuzzy.
  • In my opinion, you've reached a plateau when you feel you've reached a plateau. I know how silly that sounds. But I believe it. Your mind and body will tell you when you've stopped climbing and reached cruising altitude. Just listen to them.
  • I would caution against spending too much time in this "base" mode without interruption. Heavy mileage week in and week out, done indefinitely, is a recipe for burnout or injury or both.
  • Elite runners are freaks. I urge you not to use them as yardsticks for anything relating to your own training. 

I hope this is at least somewhat helpful, and I'm sorry I can't speak with more authority here. Maybe when I publish this, it will attract the attention of someone who can.

Thanks for your question. 


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