Enough Base?

Written by Jesse. Posted in Coaching Thoughts

Many athletes have realized that a deep aerobic base is the foundation on which a solid, injury free season is based. Now armed with that information, how do you know what’s enough!? This writing outlines the process I’ll take in working with a new athlete:

1) Look at the distance they are racing. Typically the range of base phase lengths is loosely based on the distance they are racing. Shorter distance racers don’t require as much aerobic energy production, and also get in more supra-macrocycles each year (this allows them to get relatively more rounds of intensity work each year). On the flip side, aerobic work is the basis of ironman racing so the base phases are much longer with only 2-3 cycles each year. Here are the rules of thumb by race distance:
Olympic: 5-8 weeks
Half: 7-10 weeks
Iron: 8-12 weeks

2) How should one decide where they fall within these ranges? Although it seems like small changes, a 3 week difference repeated 2-5 times a year may result in a 6-15 week difference at the end of the year, or up to 30 percent of your viable training weeks. Based on that, you must choose carefully! Although this decision can be complicated, I’ll simplify here: a) athletes that are aerobic in nature should be at the lower end of the range. This can be based off of metabolic testing or a lactate test, but the simple way is to ask yourself a few questions…..primarily, do you perform better at shorter distances, or longer distance, and do you prefer doing a long two hour run over quarter mile repeats on the track? If you perform better at longer distances, you are likely aerobic in nature and should use the lower end of these ranges as an example. If the opposite is true, you’d use the higher side.

3) Another reasonable approach is to watch your aerobic paces throughout the base phase. Once these paces start to stagnate at a given heart rate, its time to move to more intense work, or increase the stress through additional aerobic training volume until you have meet the required durability for your event length (see my critical volume postings on the QT2 homepage).

From an IM perspective, I like to see the base phase culminate with the following workouts in one week…….as an IM athlete, if you can work up to these key workouts, you will be in a good place from an aerobic standpoint to move on:
Three aerobic 4K swims

Two 90 min runs, and one 2 hour run…all aerobic

Two 3.5 hour rides, and one 6 hour ride…all aerobic

These are the key workouts, not the only workouts during the week. That is, there should be other short recovery workouts and strength training in between. Now, some folks are not able to work up to these their first year training for IM, but for those not logistically limited, this is a good target for the future (maybe 1-3 years down the road).


The base phase is about developing the energy system in your body that has the potential for long term growth. Done properly each year, you can continue to make long term progress in your racing. Anaerobic energy systems are trained very quickly (in about 8-12 weeks) and are therefore not worth banging on too early in the season, particularly given the risk that comes with these types of workouts. Every athlete that I’ve seen take this approach lacks steady long term progress, and spends a good deal of their season on the couch either sick or injured going backwards with progress. The base phase is also about rebuilding strength and soft tissue durability such that the anaerobic work down the road can be done effectively and without injury. The only value to short anaerobic repeats during the early season is in the mechanical benefits gained from faster movements. This is most critical in the water, and can be done with very short repeats that don’t overtax the system.

Happy base phase…stay patient. As usual, the most rewarding things in life take big patience and sacrifice.


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