Base-building for a half marathon: an ambitious goal

The ambitious goal

After a series of minor illnesses in recent years, the capricious gods that dictate the health of the elderly smiled on me for a period of eighteen months from mid-2011 to the end of 2012.  I remained illness-free and was able to train consistently.  By mid-summer in 2012 my aerobic fitness was good, though my pace was generally sluggish.  I found it very difficult to sustain a pace of 5 min/Km for even a few Km.  Nonetheless, in the final few weeks before the Robin Hood half marathon in September, several sessions of drills and faster running re-awakened  some semblance of reasonable speed.  I was delighted to run the half marathon in 101:50 (4:50 min/Km).  This was 27 seconds slower than I had recorded 5 years previously following my last year of fairly consistent training.  That run in 2007 remains my M60 best .

Paradoxically, I was pleased to note that in the intervening 5 years from 2007 to 2012, there had been a 20% reduction in distance covered in 5 hops during the hopping test.  Although a sign of aging, the evidence of a potentially correctible deterioration suggested that it was plausible that I could set the clock back and improve upon my M60 best in my late 60’s provided I could reverse that deficit.   On the other hand, WAVA predicted a slowing of HM time by six and a half minutes from age 61 to 67, so setting the clock back 6 years would be an ambitious goal.

Recovering strength

In the first phase of my campaign, starting in October 2012, I cut back running to a maintenance level and engaged in systematic weight training which I hoped would reverse the atrophy of my leg muscles.  I focussed  mainly squats and deadlifts to strengthen my legs and trunk.    I made rapid gains in strength and by the early months of this year, I had comfortably exceeded my target.  I was able to a set of 5 squats at 170% of my body weight.  I intended to do a month or so of lifting of lighter loads at higher speed to increase power in addition to strength, and also some plyometrics, while gradually building up the amount of running.  However the capricious gods ceased to smile, and my plan was thwarted by a recurrence of arthritis; especially frustrating as my joints had coped well with the heavy lifting.  By the time the arthritis settled, my aerobic fitness had deteriorated markedly, though I was re-assured to find that my strength had declined only slightly.

To my surprise and disappointment, my hopping had scarcely improved despite the improved strength.  I therefore am facing the possibility that the cardinal factor in my loss of speed is loss of elasticity of my connective tissues, rather than muscle strength.  My range of motion during static stretches has deteriorated only marginally in the past 50 years. The loss appears to be a loss of elastic recoil.   I am not sure to what extent this can be recovered in old age, though a program of gentle plyometrics would probably be the best strategy.  However, even gentle plyometrics was out of the question in the ealry months of 2013 in light of the recent arthritis.  So my ambitious goal to set the clock back six years seemed ill-starred.   Nonetheless, I was not prepared to give up lightly, so I formulated a tentative program: 10 weeks of base-building founded on a moderate volume of slow running together with cross-training on the elliptical cross trainer to minimise stress on my joints, followed by a period of specific preparation for a HM in September.  I am now six weeks into the specific HM preparation, so it is a good time to evaluate progress.


As Arthur Lydiard demonstrated with spectacular success fifty years ago, the key to base building is a large volume (100 miles per week or more) of predominantly fairly easy paced running.  Lydiard described training sessions as quarter, half and three quarter paced effort.  The crucial feature of ¼ effort  was that at the end of the session you could repeat it again without appreciable stress.  Although it appears that Lydiard himself never quantified training effort in relation to lactate threshold, it is clear that his ¼ paced efforts were well below lactate threshold, while ¾ effort sessions were run near to lactate threshold.   During base building the majority of the training volume is at ¼ effort but on Sunday mornings Lydiard’s protégés usually did a more effortful long run in the Waitakere hills near Auckland.  Anecdotal reports by visiting elite athletes imply that this run was quite challenging.  Lydiard also recommended wind sprints during base-building to maintain fluency of the running action.

When heart rate monitors became widely available, it became possible to quantify training effort more easily.  John ‘Hadd’ Walsh recognised that measuring heart rate was a good-enough proxy for measuring lactate.  The pace which you can sustain for an hour without appreciable upward drift of heart rate corresponds roughly to lactate threshold pace.  Hadd developed a high volume (80-100 miles/week) base-building program  in which the majority of the sessions are at an easy pace well below lactate threshold, while two sessions per week (which he designated ‘work’ sessions) consist of running 10 miles at near to lactate threshold.   Typically at the beginning of base-building, lactate threshold is at around 80% of maximum HR.  In Hadd’s program, the easier runs that form the major part are typically run at around 75% HRmax. (It is also noteworthy that it is probably the acidity assocated with anaerobic metabolism rather than the lactate itself that impedes muscle contraction.)

In light of the principles established by Lydiard and subsequently quantified more precisely by Hadd,  I decided that the key component of my base-building program would be easy paced running at around 75% of HR max.  However, I faced a serious challenge in adapting the program to fit my circumstances.    Despite being untroubled by illness in 2012, I had found it very difficult to increase training volume above 40 miles per week.  I had on a few occasions increased to around 50 miles per week, but subsequently experienced profound exhaustion that lasted for several weeks.  In the 18 weeks of base-building in spring and summer I had averaged barely 40 miles per week.  In view of my lower level of fitness at the start of base-building this year, it was clear that if I was to have any chance of achieving my ambitious goal, I needed to aim for a weekly volume during base-building that was higher than I was able to maintain in 2012.  Therefore I made three major adaptations to a typical Lydiard/Hadd base building program.

First, I decided to sacrifice the speedier components the programs of Lydiard and Hadd.  My joints felt too fragile for Lydiard’s wind sprints, while including anything resembling the Waitakere hill run, or Hadd’s two ‘work’ sessions each week would  almost certainly prevent me achieving a weekly volume of even 40 miles per week.  So planning running pace was simple.  The majority of my runs would be short or medium length ( 8-10Km) at an easy pace – typically with heart rate near to 75% of maximum.  A weekly longish run was clearly essential, but at the beginning of the program I found that my endurance had deteriorated even more markedly than my aerobic capacity.  It was clear that I would have to do the longish run at whatever easy pace I could manage.

Secondly, I decided that I would augment the volume of running by adding several sessions on the elliptical cross trainer each week.  The elliptical utilises similar muscles to running but avoids the damaging eccentric contraction experienced at footfall.  I set a target for total training volume equivalent to 50 miles of running per week, calculated on the assumption that consuming 100Kcal of energy on the elliptical is approximately equivalent to running 1 mile.  While I hoped to do no more than about 20% of the total training volume on the elliptical, I was prepared to adjust the proportion of elliptical cross- training as required to avoid the accumulation of damage to my joints and muscles.

Thirdly, in light of the fact that both Lydiard and Hadd recommend a minor but regular amount of running near lactate threshold during base building, I decided that one of the weekly elliptical session would be designed to get me near to lactate threshold.  Because I find interval sessions of the elliptical are much more interesting than long sessions at a steady rate, I have developed various aerobic interval sessions.  In these sessions I push vigorously for a short period to the level where a small amount of acid has accumulated and then allow a recovery sufficient to dissipate the acid, thereby avoiding bathing my muscle fibres in acid for sustained periods.  For example, I do 25 repetitions of one minute at a work load which would get me above lactate threshold if I were to sustain it for several minutes, alternating with one minute of easy recovery pace during which heart rate falls back below 70% of maximum.  Even after 25 repetitions, there is minimal upwards drift of peak HR during each effort epoch, suggesting minimal accumulation of stress.  This session is modelled on the 200/200 fartlek session which Hadd recommended during base-building.

After a slow build up of training load on the elliptical as the arthritis resolved, I was ready to start systemic base-building in mid-March. I was unsure how long a period of base-building would be required because I did not know how quickly my fitness would return.  However, last year, I had not left enough time for race specific preparation before the HM.  If I was to reserve adequate time for race specific preparation this year, I could afford little more than 10 weeks of base-building.  Over the five weeks from late March to the end of April this year, I steadily built up training load to my target of 50 miles (equivalent) per week.   By that time, I had managed to cut the proportion of my training on the elliptical to about 40% of the total.  In the subsequent five weeks I did at least 50 miles (equivalent) each week, without accumulating exhaustion or aching joints.

By the end of May I had achieved a total of 502 miles (equivalent) in the 10 weeks since the beginning of regular base-building.   55% of this training had been running – a slightly lower proportion than I had hoped for, but I think that reverting to the elliptical whenever my connective tissues were starting to complain too much, made it possible for me to meet my target training volume.  In the 10 weeks, I had done 12 long runs (greater than 15Km) and 18 aerobic interval sessions on the elliptical.  Testing using the elliptical version of the sub-maximal test described in my post of 25th June demonstrated that my aerobic fitness had improved by about 5% over the 10 weeks.

Fig 1 shows aerobic capapcity duirng the three levels of the sub-maximal test, presented in the form of heart beats per watt-hour.  The data is the same as that depicted in figure 3 of my post on 25th June describing the elliptical sub-maximal test, but this form of presentation matches the form of presentation that is most convenient for comparison with the running version of the test described in my post on 17th July.  For a person of my weight, 40 beats/watt-hour is roughly equivalent to 700 beats per Km when running, though this conversion is only a crude approximation based on the assumption that the metabolic efficiency of concentric muscle contraction is 25%.

Figure 1: the improvement in aerobic capacity produced by 10 weeks of base-building.  Aerobic capacity is represented by the number of heart beats required to generate an output of one watt-hour on the elliptical cross trainer, at each of the three work rates employed in the sub-maximal test.  For purposes of a crude comparison with running, 40 beats/watt-hour is roughly equivalent to 700 beats per Km when running.  The average improvement across the three levels was 5%.

Figure 1: the improvement in aerobic capacity produced by 10 weeks of base-building. Aerobic capacity is represented by the number of heart beats required to generate an output of one watt-hour on the elliptical cross trainer, at each of the three work rates employed in the sub-maximal test. For purposes of a crude comparison with running, 40 beats/watt-hour is roughly equivalent to 700 beats per Km when running. The average improvement across the three levels was 5%.

The encouraging conclusion is that I had achieved approximately half as much percentage improvement over 10 weeks at a volume of 50 miles (equivalent) per week as Hadd’s much younger protégé, Joe, had achieved during 16 weeks of base-building at a volume of around 80 miles per week.  Thus, I derived slightly more percentage benefit per mile of running than Joe, though a little less benefit per hour of training, on account of my much slower pace.  The other encouraging thing was that my body had coped well.  Although at times I had felt tired and my connective tissues had been a bit achy, my joints no longer felt fragile.  On the other hand, it was disconcerting to note that that my aerobic fitness was still far short of what I had achieved last year and I was finding it very difficult to run any faster than 6:15 min/Km pace during long runs.   My endurance was very poor, probably as a consequence of only a modest total volume of running. Typically, I was feeling very tired after about 19Km.  Ideally, I required a longer period of base-building.

I regard progressive long runs reaching a pace near to race pace in the final few Km as the key session in HM preparation.  Last year, in my race specific preparation I did not manage to include even short periods of race-paced running in any of my long runs during training.  This year, I am determined to achieve at least three such progressive long runs before the target race in September.    So by the beginning of June, it was time to make the transition from base-building to race specific training.  In particular, this would entail some faster running, starting with aerobic interval sessions together with a weekly progressive run, initially of only 10 Km but subsequently increasing the distance.  I am now six weeks into that program and am beginning to see some evidence of benefit, but I will reserve the description of that for my next post.

10 Responses to “Base-building for a half marathon: an ambitious goal”

  1. Ewen Says:

    That is an ambitious goal, but I think achievable. 100 minutes for a half marathon at 67 is significantly better than the same time at 61. I’d love to run that at 56!

    I’m pleased to see the combination of running & elliptical work has enabled you to build a base. The ‘effort level’ is not a great deal different to what I’m doing using Maffetone. My MAF HR is about 80% of my maximum HR. One thing I’m doing is gradually increasing weekly volume so time spent exercising remains the same and doesn’t fall as I become faster at MAF HR.

    That’s interesting about the hop test not improving despite the increased strength. I’m surprised! I wonder if modest plymetrics as part of a warm-up drills session would be better than lifting weights?

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comments. I am puzzled about the poor hopping test result. As far as I can gather, lifting heavy weights should be good for improving tendon elasticity. I have not given up yet, but have deferred regular lifting while I focus on aerobic development and endurance. I am also doing a small amount of skipping and trampolining but not enough to have a great deal of effect at this stage. In October I will make another determined effort to see if I can improve elastic recoil.

      • Ewen Says:

        I wonder if it could be due to overdevelopment of type 2b fibres from lifting the heavy weights? The slow movement used when lifting the weight? Perhaps faster movement with lighter weights would be better neurally? (as an alternative to explosive plyometrics such as box jumps)

    • canute1 Says:

      These are interesting possibilities.

      With regard to type2b fibres, I think these should improve both speed and elastic recoil (which is greater with greater strength). It is possible that too much development of type 2b fibres will result in greater use of glucose and hence less fuel efficiency in long races. My apparently poor endurance at present might conceivable be due to over-development of type 2B, but I suspect that the period of low intensity base-building has shifted the balance back to type 1.

      With regard to speed of contraction and plyometrics, in general slow movement is better for tendon repair. I think it leads to better alignment of collagen (which when well aligned constitutes an array of coiled springs acting together) but this is an issue I want to explore further. It appears that many years of endurance running might lead to impaired performance – many of the best elderly runners have taken a break of several decades (eg Earl Fee, Ed Whitlock). Maybe this suggests that too much moderately rapid, relatively lightly loaded movement over many years is causes deterioration. As far as I can see, sprinters tend to age better than distance runners. On the one hand, this suggests that the explosive action of sprinting is good for muscles and tendons; on the other hand it might be that sprinters do a higher proportion of resistance training.

      Clearly genes play a big role in aging. The ‘use it or lose it’ argument certainly has some validity but only part of the story. I am inclined to think that the way in which you ‘use it’ might also play an important part, though the best approach might differ between individuals –eg compare Fee and Whitlock.

  2. Robert Osfield Says:

    It’s good to see you making progress despite the set back with Arthritis.

    One thing that did occur to me when reading you post was whether oher types of cross training might help. Specifially I recall that in your younger supper quick marathon days you didn’t do a big volume of running, but did alot of time walking and climbing in the mountains.

    This makes me wonder if adding in some rambling/hill walking as a form of cross training. In particular hill walking requires a good range of motion and coordination, strength and on a uphill march can even test the upper end of aerobic system. While you do stress different muscles groups than running there is a big overlap. Hill walking can also get you out for many hours of relatively low intensity exercise. It might not seem like training but I’m sure it’d count a long way torwards building a good aerobic base and strengthing soft tissue. Finally it’s gotta be a lot more fun than some of the indoor alternatives.

    For my own training, it too has been interrupted so have struggled to build and maintain fitness. Mixing up walking, cyling, swiming and running seem to help spread the stress. Running for sure is still by far the best event specific training amoungst these, but when you can run as much as you’d like that alternatives can keep you active both physically and mentally.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert, Thanks for your comment. I agree that walking, especially hill walking, is a good form of cross training and is enjoyable in its own right. In recent years I have done some very enjoyable long walks in the hills in addition to a substantial amount of local walking. This year there just doesn’t seem to have been enough time so far for long hill walks. Maybe that has contributed to the fact that my endurance is poor this year.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        Time certainly does seem to have a trick of disappearing faster than anyone could hope for, especially for one training for an event. I now have just 10 days left till I run the Devil O’Highlands and I’m sorely under trained for it, if only I could find a few more weeks!

        On the lack of endurance, what specifically do you find limiting your endurance? Muscle fatigue, glycogen exhaustion?

    • canute1 Says:

      Good luck with the Devil. In distance, it is only a moderate increase compared with the Dirty Thirty which you managed well about six weeks ago. After completing the Fling last year, completing the Devil this year will set you up for the full West Highland Way race in the future, though the time commitment in preparing adequately for WHWR is not trivial.

      I think my current lack of endurance is due to poor conditioning of my legs. So far this year, I have found that by about 10K into a long run, my legs feel tired and unresponsive. I have been somewhat encouraged by the fact that in the final Km of my most recent 19Km run I managed to increase pace to 5:15 min/Km fairly comfortably, with a HR well below that at 19Km in the RH half marathon last year (though pace was around 4:48 /Km at that stage of the race last year). During training last year, I never managed any pace faster 5:30 min/Km during long training runs. So at first sight, it appears that still have a long way to go in improving endurance, though in some respects, I am doing better than at this stage last year.

      On the one hand, I am encouraged by the fact that last year I made dramatic improvements after a few weeks of sharpening up. On the other hand, last year the problem felt more like a simple lack of fluency at all distances; this year it feels more like a lack of endurance leading to tired, unresponsive legs in the later stages of long runs, in addition to the moderate lack of fluency over any distance. In my next post, I will describe my strategy for tackling both problems.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        A “moderate” increase?~o The Devil is the Lochalsh Dirty 30 plus a half marathon and another 3000ft of ascent/descent just to make sure your quads are well and truly fried 🙂

        The longest I’ve ran since the Dirty30 was a 15 miler two days ago, this had 1500ft ascent/descent and have had DOMS for the last two days. Feel pretty out of condition… I’m planning another 15 to 20 miler tomorrow or Saturday with 3000ft ascent/descent thrown in to provide some final conditioning of the quads and the rest of my soft tissue. Fingers crossed it’ll be enough.

        For yourself I think a big hill descent would be a good way for toughening up the legs. Some faster short runs would help provide some general tune up.

    • canute1 Says:

      I had not intended to under-estimate the effort required in the Devil. I appreciate that your training has been limited, but nonetheless think the evidence indicates you will rise to the challenge well. However, your legs might complain for a few days afterwards. If the temperature remains similar to recent UK temperatures, the heat will add substantially to the challenge.

      Thanks for your suggestions regarding my training. In my current phase of training I have included both down and up- hill sessions to help condition my legs. I am also doing intervals, but have not yet added in the planned tempo runs. There are some signs of improvement though progress is slow.

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