Preparing to Train: The Importance of Base Building


In about five months, runners from around the world will descend on Chicago for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. If you’ve been through this marathon thing before, you know exactly what that means: it’s time to build up your base before your training begins in earnest.

Base building is a six- to nine-week low-key version of actual marathon training. The specific routine varies depending on the experience level of the runner, but all have some commonalities. Foremost among them is to build up your base in a manner that staves off injuries and wear and tear. It’s a long journey to the start line of a marathon, and you want to take great care to have a healthy body when you arrive there.

“You want nice, easy miles at a conversational pace [during the base-building period],” Ryan Caturan, the sports training program coordinator for Chicago Endurance Sports, says. “You really just want to get your activity level up—get your legs moving and your feet underneath you. You don’t necessarily have to worry too much about the number of miles you’re doing, and you want to avoid doing too many hard hill workouts. Your focus should be more on your feet. You want to get used to being on your feet quite a bit.”

How you move your feet, as well as the rest of your body, will go a long way in determining your readiness for official training. Longtime Chicago-area running coach Bill Leach stresses that focusing on developing efficient, fluid form in the base-building stage.

“The most important thing is to get a core program in place, and the next-most-important thing is the correct running gait,” Leach, who has served as director of gait analysis for the Chicago Area Runners Association since 1999, says. “You’re not likely to become injured if you’re running in an efficient manner, and if you’re not running at a duration that causes you to become inefficient.

“Someone might go out the door and run seven miles, but if their core is not strong enough yet and they’re generally not fit enough yet, then the efficiency goes down and the injury risk goes up dramatically. You want to incrementally increase mileage while also attending to the issue of gait.”

Monotony can also become a factor, even in the earliest stages of preparing for a marathon. Meg Sullivan, the training program manager for CARA, recommends mixing up your workouts to keep things interesting. This might include entering the occasional 5K.

“A lot of people compete in races throughout their training,” Sullivan says. “For me, I do like to add one faster workout during the week, just to keep your legs fresh and not get bored, because at some point you’re going to have to really start ramping it up. It’s good to keep doing a little bit of speed work [during the early stages]. But if you’re starting from scratch, you just want a lot of easy running and easy mileage.”

Cross training also figures into the base-building equation, and not simply to beat the boredom. These exercises range from low-weight, high-repetition weightlifting (such as squats) to swimming and biking. Yoga has also become popular because of the way it keeps the body limber.

“A lot of runners don’t want to cross train—they don’t like it as much,” Sullivan says. “But I try to stress that even if you don’t feel like it, you should really hop on the bike once a week. It takes away from the pounding that running does to your body. Either that or take a complete day off. I’m a fan of yoga as well, and I would suggest doing it once or twice a week. Yoga helps for injury prevention and making sure you’re properly stretched. I’m really becoming more of a fan of cross training in general because it helps to prevent injuries.”

Adds Leach, “If someone is having a low tolerance to running, then cycling and swimming are good examples of activities where cardiovascular development can occur. They provide a reduced-load, reduced-impact workout.”

Nevertheless, it stands to reason that racking up the running miles remains the key to base building.

“There’s really nothing quite as effective as running for building up the base,” Leach says.

The average person should aim to log between 20 and 25 miles per week during the base-building phase and should be able to do a six-mile run with relative ease. This will ensure that your body can withstand the rigors of your true training regimen, which will start around mid-June.

“You don’t want to go full-out where you’re using 95 percent of your maximum heart rate,” Caturan says. “You really just want to work on form and efficiency, and you’re working on strengthening the entire body. Base building focuses on your overall core so that you have as injury-free a marathon training experience as possible.”






Marathons showcase runners of all experience levels. The same holds true for the training leading up to marathons.

“You’re going to see basically every walk of life doing a marathon, especially with the Chicago Marathon, which is so popular,” Caturan says. “Training also varies from person to person. There are so many factors.”

Below are some base-building tips for runners based on their weekly mileage outputs:


0–10 Miles

These are typically people who have a sedentary lifestyle and are new to the marathon experience. If you’re at this level, Caturan suggests doing timed intervals for the first month, such as three minutes running/two minutes walking and then progressing to five minutes running/one minute walking. The running should be easy and conversational, while the walking should be brisk.


10–20 Miles

These are also runners in the novice area, and the key remains to avoid injury risks. An interval of eight minutes running/one minute walking is recommended here. You’ll start at lower miles initially and gradually build up. Move at a reasonable pace; you want to feel like you could run another mile or two when you’ve finished a workout.


20–30 Miles

More experienced runners—those who likely have participated in half or full marathons—work in this base-building zone. They’ll steadily increase their workouts and potentially be at 40 miles per week by official training.


30–40 Miles

Hills and speedwork are part of the workout routine for these active runners. When they enter marathon training, they’ll have an extremely solid base and will transition right into hard workouts.