Building a Running Base: Month 1

Wow – it’s been so long since I shared an actual running update! I’ve been base-building for just about 4 weeks now, so I finally feel like I have enough to go on that I can write a more comprehensive report, even if (spoiler alert) I really haven’t made any fitness gains per se.

My Base Building Strategy

Instead of training for two goal races this year, as most runners do, I’m taking the entire year to build up to one goal race, the Chicago Marathon in October. This means that I’m forgoing any winter/spring formal training in order to spend the first half of the year building up my aerobic endurance and general fitness base. Training for the marathon will officially start in mid-June.

My focus for January is quite simple: get my body adapted to running again by logging 100% easy miles. I took a lot of time off this past fall (7 weeks altogether), so I’ve started out the year with very low mileage and a plan to increase it very conservatively this month. My plan called for a a few 4-milers during the week (and, by the end of the month, a couple 5 milers as well) and a weekend long run, which started out at 6 miles and will be up to 9 miles by next weekend/the end of the month.  All of these miles are at a conversational, very easy effort. I also made it a goal to do bite-sized strength training workouts 6 days a week (we’re talking 5-10 minutes total each day) in an effort to get into the habit of regular strengthening.

The two guiding tenets of this month’s work were: 1) keeping all my runs at that conversational easy effort with my HR in the aerobic zone; 2) going GPS-free for 90% of my runs.

All that time off running definitely put me behind in terms of fitness, and that’s no fun, but I see the “starting over” process as a blank slate, an opportunity to re-train myself with better habits, namely: learning to truly run by effort, not pace. I think it will be more productive for me to listen to my body, work with where I’m at now, and progress naturally, instead of being a slave to my watch and forcing myself to run paces I feel like I “should” be running. Ditching the watch and having no clue how fast I’m running forces me to focus on other things mid-run: how I feel, how hard I’m breathing, how much effort I’m putting into the run. Once in a while I will track a run, to see how I’m progressing, and occasionally I will measure my elapsed time against the route I ran on my MapMyRun afterwards to get a rough idea of what my pace was, just out of curiosity (I record all my runs as manual workouts – timer only – so I can track my heart rate).

How it’s going:

Well, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I had some setbacks this month. My first week went great, logging 16 miles, but then the next week I got a cold and only logged 8. Determined to redeem my missed long run (which was not sickness-related, I just skipped it because it was like 8 degrees that weekend), I made up for it the following Monday, but due to a vacation we went on that same week, I only ended up logging 10 miles for that week. During that vacation and the sick time, I also missed a bunch of my strength training days, and there were a couple times during the month that I just flat-out forgot to do it, but otherwise I actually did well with my strength training. I really did make an effort to get a little bit in whenever I could, and I ended up doing it at least a few days each week.

I got home from vacation on Sunday, and I rallied this week: unless something happens, I’ll log 20 miles and an 8-mile long run to close out Week 4 of base-building. I’m planning on 22 for next week, and it’s only upwards from there for the month of February. It feels good to be back on track. I do regret that I couldn’t run more miles this month, but it is what it is, and I can only move forward, not back.

I have, however, so far achieved my goal of 100% easy running these first four weeks. In fact, I nailed it – I’ve focused on easy effort for every single run and succeeded. It’s taking some practice, and there are certainly still days when my legs and lungs do not agree on what constitutes an easy effort! But I’m getting better at it. I am gradually replacing my habit of listening to my watch with a new habit of listening to my body. I’m constantly paying attention to how easy my breathing feels as an indication of whether I’m running at an appropriate effort level, and I’m also staying aware of how tense and upright my upper body is on the run. I keep my effort level steady for the duration of my runs because I’ve learned to listen to my breathing cues to tell me when I’m starting to go too fast. When that happens, instead of telling myself “slow down!”, I use the mental cue of “relax“. I take a deep breath, let my shoulders drop, let my arms relax, try to adjust a little bit upright.

The Negative

While there are so many benefits to slowing down and running by feel, these slower paces do mess with my head sometimes. I haven’t consistently run at these paces in ages. I have moments where I seriously doubt myself and have to fight the urge to do more and push harder. It’s  all too easy to fall into the trap of “I’m not improving/I’m never going to get fast again/I’ll never achieve my goals at this rate“. This is a relatively new way of training and approaching long-term goals for me, and that naturally comes with some uncertainty and discomfort. I have to remind myself over and over and over again to trust in the process and keep my eye on the prize.

My easy paces may be slower in part because I’ve gained some weight since I stopped running and training this fall. Actually, I think I started gaining weight all the way back this summer after my spring marathon. My clothes have gotten a little bit tighter this year and the tone I noticed in post-race pictures from the spring has disappeared. I don’t think a few extra pounds is having as much of an affect on my running as the fact that I’m out of shape, but I am not as lean as I once was, and the laws of physics dictate that with more weight I will move slower. Neither this nor my lack of fitness will disappear overnight, so I just have to keep being patient and disciplined.

The Positive

Since running at a true easy pace, running feels good every single day. I have not yet struggled to get through a run, and I have not felt fatigued during or after any run I’ve completed, even my longer ones. I never dread running, and it demands pretty much no recovery: by the time I get home, rehydrate, shower and relax, it barely even feels like I’ve exercised at all. I think that’s a sign that I’m ready to start throwing in some harder efforts, and I will be starting that in February, once my mileage gets more consistent. I track my heart rate on all my runs and I’m happy to report that it has consistently been well within my aerobic zone – I would like to see it improve a bit since that seems a little high for my effort level, but I’m pleased with myself that I’ve done a good job keeping it consistent and steadily aerobic.

I know that going slower now is an investment in my running success down the road, so while it’s not always easy, I’m proud of myself for staying disciplined and doing the right thing each day. Each time it gets frustrating or boring, I remind myself that it will pay off later.

Looking Ahead: The Next 4 Weeks and February

I look forward to having nothing going on in my life the whole month of February (now there’s something I never thought I’d say!). I’m glad running is feeling good, but I really need more consistency. I can’t develop an aerobic base on 16 mpw, and in order to build my mileage, I need to be able to stick to a plan and develop a routine. I’m eager for that to start happening this month.

In February I will be adding a little bit of light speed work into my running once a week. This should spice things up and start the process of boosting my fitness. I wanted to start doing this at the 4 week mark (which is the end of this week), but since my mileage has been low and inconsistent this month, I’m pushing it back a week.

I’ll also start increasing my mileage next month: for the next 6 weeks I will be running 22-30 mile weeks, and in February I’ll start double-digit long runs, something I have not done since September. I hope this will help me start feeling more confident about my base and about completing the Canyonlands half marathon in mid-March.

Finally, on Tuesday I start my weekly “4-in-1 fitness” class (a combination of different styles of aerobics and sculpting), and I’m looking forward to adding some rigorous and consistent cross-training into my fitness routine. I’ll continue with my daily strength training, and I’m hoping that as I get used to it I can start taking on a little bit more each day.

Mentally, I need to improve at being patient with myself and my circumstances. Comparisons to the past constantly bedevil me as a runner, but they are just not helpful or productive. It doesn’t matter that I could run a marathon at an 8:30 pace in May. It’s not May anymore. Temporary or not, nobody enjoys being slower than they used to be, but I have to work with where I’m at now if I ever want to improve upon it. And I have to accept that it’s just going to take some time, and try not to freak out when many weeks – months even – go by without any noticeable and consistent improvement.

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17 thoughts on “Building a Running Base: Month 1

  1. Thanks for sharing the ups and downs of your base building thus far. We really seem to be on the same page with this year: one goal marathon, base building, easy miles. And we are definitely going through a lot of the same rebuilding frustrations like the comparison to past seasons trap. Out of curiosity: is there a mileage volume that you are hoping to be at before starting your formal training plan? Have you chosen/written a plan to follow or are you not thinking that far ahead yet?

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    1. Thanks Heather! I agree, we do seem to be on the same page, and it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels like she’s plodding through these winter days! We’ll get there.

      I haven’t started thinking about my marathon training plan yet. It’s just too early, and I want to have a better idea of where I’m at fitness-wise before I decide what I can handle, and play around with some schedules that will work for me. It will be tricky figuring out what my mileage volume will be going into training – I want a good base but it also can’t be TOO high because I’ll need room to grow. Right now I’m thinking around 35-40 mpw by June, since that is about where I’d start anyway. Because of the long duration of base building, I may eventually switch to more of an equilibrium method of weekly mileage and put more emphasis on my average weekly mileage, instead of trying to just pile on more every week. I also recently got the good advice that a good base should be around 300-500 miles, so I may just focus on trying to get to that total instead of worrying about my weekly total all the time.

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  2. I think this is a great plan and will really help you reach your goals. I kind of did this myself after my October half marathon, and I feel SO much more focused and excited to run than ever before. Going watch free and just running to enjoy it was pretty much life changing! I hope you see the same benefits that I’m seeing once you start training. Keep us updated!!

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  3. I love the plan, it takes a lot of discipline to follow through and not push. It is good you aren’t feeling like you worked out when you get done. You should be ready for your March half is you stick to running 22-30 in Feb.! You will probably be at a good sweet spot to really enjoy it.
    I know all about how what paces we “should” be running messes with the mind. I do not look at my watch while I am running, I just adjust off feel but I do look later just to see and then it really messes with me. It is hard to let go of what we think we should be doing.
    Love the idea of just doing quick strength workouts to get the habit going. I go through cycles with strength training and right now I am just not motivated, so short and sweet is a good way to not get burnt out. I am working on shorter routines at home just to shake things up.

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    1. Thank you Karen! You said it so well – it’s hard to let go. We all know that peak fitness is fleeting, that there are ups and downs…and yet, we still put ourselves up against that measuring stick all the time. Why? I can only guess it’s because we often measure our worthiness as runners by the numbers, whether consciously or not. So when those numbers don’t look as good, we don’t feel as good. I thought I had made some strides in getting past that but maybe a part of me will always feel like my speed determines my worth.

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  4. Good luck with building back up your base mileage! I was never very good at running by feel. My pacing was all over the place and I’d burn out too quickly. My recent experience running with a pace group and PRing definitely taught me the importance of pacing. I gotta work on that first before doing it by feel. I’ll see you in Chicago! 🙂

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    1. Thank you!

      Hmm, that is an interesting take. Pacing is very important but I don’t think running by feel is about pacing, it’s about effort level. At the end of the day, our bodies know effort, not pace. Listening to my body and managing my effort level are the lynchpins to successfully running by feel. It takes some practice, and I understand not everyone prefers to train this way, but I’m a firm believer that our bodies know what’s best for us better than our watches do – we just have to be willing to listen! I hope you’ll give running by effort another chance one day 🙂

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      1. I think it’s because I’m not sure where my limit actually is. I’ve only really been running consistently for a few years and I have so much more to learn about how far my body can go. Maybe when I have a better idea of what its limits are, I’ll go more by feel. I have a tendency to err on the side of caution, which may make my “feel” a bit off. I think I’m just rambling now, but long story short, I will eventually give running by effort a try. 🙂

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  5. Sounds like your plan is working–You will be ready to attack that marathon training plan! The winter can be rough just getting outside, never mind trying to accomplish certain workouts in it. I think this is definitely the last time I train for a race through the winter. It just isn’t my thing. I enjoy it more when I can just do whatever–hike, snowshoe, run the snowy trails…
    I am still struggling here with the strength stuff–probably time for a gym membership.
    My youngest did my long run (13.1!) with me last weekend. I did it at a 9:58 pace, which is slower than usual, and conversational. I noticed after that I wasn’t physically tired, but my knees and feet felt achy afterwards. I don’t know if it was being out of my usual pace, or what. Nothing major, just interesting. We also made plans to do some ultras together when she finishes high school. I guess I have to stay in shape!!
    I enjoy the updates–thanks!
    Too bad we couldn’t do some of those long runs together!

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    1. Aww thank you Cheryl! I have to admit I am so glad to not be training heavily through the winter. I used to think I was all about it but now I’m glad I’m not although I may change my tune this summer when I’m doing long runs in 98% humidity…

      I’ve heard a lot of people say that running much slower than usual results in some aches and pains. I would imagine it is because running that much slower alters your stride and causes you to slack a little on your form. I haven’t had any aches yet but I do often feel like I’m sort of lumbering along with heavy steps when I run slow. That’s why I’m eager to start adding speed work in a couple weeks, time to sharpen those knives.

      I know, I wish we lived closer so we could keep each other company!

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  6. This is extremely helpful for everyone. The main reason I started my blog and follow the blogs I do. Honest and open. We all struggle with this lifestyle in one way or another. Its ok to struggle. What we do through that is the true test. Really happy to see you sticking to your goals. This is a process and in the end it will work out. And if it doesn’t that’s ok too. We just try a new process the next time around.

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    1. Thank you Richard! I always enjoy your comments because you have a way of off-handedly making me see things in a different way, as with your comment that “what we do through [the struggle] is the true test.” I have to remember to embrace my own journey, faults and all, because it’s unique and beautiful and mine and, in its own weird way, kind of fun. It’s so easy to be jealous of people who seem to enjoy easy success, who seem to always know exactly what they want and exactly how to get it. But life (and running) would be pretty boring if everything always went according to plan and training was just one long stroll through la-la-land. In the end, it isn’t my success that defines me, it’s whether or not I respond to each step of the journey with grace.

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  7. My goal race is April 22nd, but I’m planning to use a 10 week training plan with a good base behind me. Usually I am in the thick of training already – ’cause it seems like that’s what I should be doing. It’s odd to not have started yet, but I am relishing these last few weeks of running when I want to at whatever pace I feel. My route for last week stopped at 5.5 – but I was having fun and felt good, so I did another 1.5 and definitely could have kept going.

    That’s the running I love. 🙂

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  8. Listening to your body over a watch is so important! I always think of how runners trained for years without GPS watches – maybe a stopwatch and a rough estimate of where the mile markers were on a training route, but they mostly relied on their bodies.
    Trust in the slow work of training. Those paces may not be what they used to, but where you are now and where you will be in October rely on so many factors – most of all the hard work you give. You will get back to where you were – and beyond. Trust in the slow work of training.

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  9. I could have written the last paragraph word for word…except for the 8:30 marathon pace, ha ha! This is exactly how I’m feeling. Every day I fight the frustration and tell myself to be patient, but it’s a constant battle to do that. It sounds like you have a great plan for building a base that’s going to eventually get you to a good place though!

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