Base Training vs. Interval Training – What Makes The Most Sense?

One of the longest standing debates in the world of endurance training is what type of training will give you the best dividends from your efforts. Exploring this debate may give you some helpful ideas to broaden your view of how to train and what you can expect to gain from different types of training. 

Many coaches choose to subscribe to one philosophy about how you should train: focus on base training or focus on interval training. I suspect every coach has a different view about what is more important. Understanding the basic physiological response that you get from each type of training is important:

  • Endurance or base training is aerobic exercise done for extended periods (1-8 hours). This aerobic zone is 75-85% of your lactate threshold. Training in this zone will develop your aerobic system, allowing you to more efficiently utilize oxygen and burn a greater percentage of fat as primary fuel than high intensity efforts. You will also strengthen your muscular and skeletal systems gradually, which is helpful in preventing injury. 
  • Tempo training is done at 85-95% of lactate threshold and is close to race pace for efforts longer than an hour. These efforts are longer intervals, anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour or more in length. Tempo training will further develop the aerobic system, but it can lead to overtraining if you spend too much time training in this zone. 
  • Threshold or VO2 Max training is done at 95-103% of lactate threshold. This type of training increases your VO2 max, which is your overall engine. Training done at this level can increase your heart stroke volume, muscle capillarization and maximal cardiac output by training between 4-6Mml of lactate for repeated 3- to 8-minute intervals. To most athletes this is right at race pace for efforts up to 20 minutes.

Our debate becomes interesting when you try to take sides on the issue of which is the most important type of training. I think we can safely say that each of these systems are important to train, however you must decide on your own what makes the most sense. There are many variables that will determine the most appropriate training for you. Among those variables are: age, training history, sport experience, physiological variables (i.e. how gifted you are, how well you recover from workouts, and outside lifestyle considerations such as job, family and other stressors). Taking these things into consideration is critical, but the basic idea of what kind of training is most effective is still up for discussion.

When you choose to focus on certain types of training efforts it is essentially a case of either working from the bottom up (i.e. building your base and hoping that your aerobic system will grow to improve your fitness and race results) or working from the top down (i.e. develop your high-end fitness and hope you can carry that fitness through your longer races). As long as you realize that every workout will give your body a certain stimulus and create a certain outcome, you will be able to make better decisions about what training method is appropriate for you. 

Ideally, you should find a coach who will get to know you as an athlete and be able to guide you to a properly balanced program tailored specifically for you. Also, getting a lactate threshold test will give you invaluable information that will establish accurate training zones. If you are unable to get such a test, the next best option is to get an approximate lactate threshold number by doing a field test. After a good warm-up, do 2 x 10 minutes at maximum effort and take the average of the two intervals to plug into the heart rate zones. Retesting every 4-6 weeks is ideal to make adjustments and keep you moving forward toward better fitness. 

Written by Tim Monaco