Take that 'Base First, Speed Second' Idea and Shove it!

Take that ‘Base First, Speed Second’ Idea and Shove It!

By Lauren Evans


Speed first, base second. Gasp! Yes, I can’t believe I actually wrote THOSE words in THAT order. Ok, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but let’s analyze…


It seems as though the idea of developing aerobic base first and speed second is the bread and butter of nearly every runner’s training regimen. Coaches base their philosophy on it, and runners follow without dispute.


The more I delve into this brick and mortar aspect of endurance sports, both through study and personal experience, the more I come to question it.


Instead, how do we epitomize the phrase ‘speed first, base second’? It’s called reverse periodization, and there are several benefits to this approach. Reverse periodization teaches form first, before the runner piles on the mileage, thus potentially reducing injury. This ‘backwards’ philosophy has applications in strength races, from 6k’s, to mountain trail races, to marathons. It all can be that much-needed breakthrough for the runner whose body has plateaued with a stagnant training regimen.


First, a personal story.


I have recently mounted a comeback from a year of what seems like injury after injury. Weight gain due to a poor diet, along with a significant loss in fitness, presented significant challenges to a bid to run a 2:46 marathon or better.


Approaching my comeback in the traditional mode, I sought to establish my aerobic base first; I took the approach of running about 60 slow minutes each day along with a slow 2 hour long run every week. Result? The daily runs remained slow, the extra pounds remained plastered to my frame, and I was frustrated to no end.


Enter reverse periodization.


I recently read an article called ‘Building Endurance: Move Forwards with Reverse Periodisation!’ in Advanced Fitness Training for Elite Sports Performance in a 2010 issue of Peak Performance. This article really got me thinking, and quickly turned into an ‘Aha!’ moment! From a personal standpoint, this was exactly what I needed in my own training, and perhaps many of you will find this beneficial to your training as well.


I began incorporating intervals into my workouts. I started with 30 seconds to 3 minute intervals incorporated into a 60 minute run (warm up for 20 minutes, do 20 minutes of intervals, cool down for 20 minutes). Two weeks later I was running 40 minutes of intervals with the same amount of time allotted for warm-up and cool-down, and my intervals had increased in length to 3-8 minutes. I even threw one 3 x 10 minute workout into the regimen.




After only a few weeks, unnecessary fat started to sizzle off my frame, my sustained runs became faster, and recovery time decreased. Most importantly, my body started giving me feedback that I could understand! Rather than the nagging exhaustion I would feel with pure base mileage, my body would tell me when it needed to rest because I would be so beat-up from a workout. Running the intervals based on time rather than distance kept disappointment at bay if I was not hitting the splits I used to hit, or the splits I planned to hit. I just ran semi-hard, hard, or very hard based on what I felt was the maximum I could do to complete the workout feeling strong. My easy runs were easier and shorter, my long run was faster, and my workouts were killer!


Why should you consider reverse periodization?


Now, I am NOT at all saying that the principal of developing an aerobic base first and speed second is poppycock. It’s a tried and true philosophy. However, I am saying that there is a vitality that can be achieved by adding speed to your base period. Besides, this is not a new idea. The legendary Alberto Salazar utilized this training method to become the best distance runner of the early 1980s. Here is a list of reasons why you should consider it:


  • It reduces boredom. Every workout can be a variation on a theme.

  • You can still incorporate key base mileage with much-needed easy runs to flush out lactic acid build-up.

  • It gives your weeks focus and allows you to plan. You know that you will have 2 key workouts a week and one vital long run. The other days are not as critical.

  • You get more bang for your buck. You burn more calories in the same amount of time.

  • You get faster. (Due to increasing anaerobic capacity1, aerobic power2, and aerobic capacity3.)


How can you apply it to your training?


Progression in length of intervals is essential. You want to develop anaerobic capacity first along with aerobic power work. Anaerobic capacity intervals are intervals ranging from 30s – 3 minutes where intensity is high and energy demand is great. This will help teach you good form and can break bad habits. By incorporating this level of training with intervals of anywhere from 3 – 8 minutes, you are also teaching your body to keep lactic acid at bay and to keep you running stronger, longer. After a few weeks, you can add aerobic capacity and aerobic capacity tempo work, which are vital to improving VO2 Max. These interval ranges are 8-20 minutes for aerobic capacity and over 45 minutes for aerobic capacity tempo. (Peak Performance)


What does it look like?


Here is an example workout for each level in the progression of interval length:


Anaerobic capacity (30s-3 min): Warm up 10-20 minutes. Run 6 x 30 seconds with 30 seconds of rest (rest = slow jogging) in between, 6 x 1 minute with 1 minute rest, followed by 6 x 30 seconds with 30 seconds rest. Cool down for 10-20 minutes. (Note: Add 6 x 2 minutes with 1 minute rest post the 1 minute intervals if you want to increase workout time.)


Aerobic power: Same warm-up and cool-down. 4 x 5 minutes at 5k or 20-30 seconds slower than 5k race pace. Follow with 6-10 x 10 s form sprints.


Aerobic capacity: 5k tempo! Run a 5k at 20-30 seconds per mile slower than race pace. You can also do 2, 3, or 4 x 10 minutes with 2-4 minutes rest (slow jogging) in between. Warm up and cool-down.


Aerobic capacity tempo (final level of work): Perform sustained tempo runs of 45 minutes to 1 hour with 20 minutes of easy base running before and after.


How do you incorporate it into your training?


My thought for an ideal week would be to have 1-2 interval workouts with 1-2 days rest in between. It is key to warm-up and cool-down with slow base mileage. Add 4-10 repeats of 10 second sprints one day a week, post-run. (Performing these post-run will increase metabolic stress since your glycogen levels are already depleted.) On rest days, incorporate aerobic activity with an easy run (20-40 minutes), elliptical, swimming, or a bike ride. 


Finally, focus on your long run! This is critical to continuing to develop endurance and adds specificity to your training.


Last piece of advice: Listen to your body! If you are tired and near injury, either scratch the workout or take it easier than you had planned.

By incorporating aspects of reverse periodization into your training, you may find the missing link that will take your racing to the next level.

See you on the roads…




Anaerobic capacity: the maximum amount of energy that can be obtained from the anaerobic energy systems (means “without oxygen”). It is the farthest you can go at near maximum effort before the buildup of lactate slows you down.


Aerobic power: is also associated with the performance of vigorous bouts of exercise in competitive cardiorepiratory events; when energy usage transfers from the anaerobic system to the aerobic system.


Aerobic capacity: also known as VO2 Max, it is the maximal amount of work involving large muscle groups that the individual can do as measured by oxygen consumption.



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