Experimenting with Tom Osler’s Base and Sharpening Training

I previously mentioned reading Sky Waterpeace’s Lazy Man’s Guide to (Ultra)Marathon Running. While obviously not that lazy myself, Kindle Unlimited granted me free access to the Kindle version. The somewhat insightful book got me experimenting with keto, which was fine for the month I actively practiced it.

But Sky also harps on the writing and work of an accomplished marathoner and ultra runner named Tom Osler. Sky’s principles are based considerably on Osler’s principles. As an appendix, Sky included a 28 page booklet written in the late 60’s by Osler about his fundamental training approach called The Conditioning of Distance Runners. You can now find the booklet on Amazon and other sources.

Along with being a precursor to today’s gumroad e-books if you think about it… Osler’s booklet, however esoteric and outdated on the surface, outlines a sound approach that in some form has been both practiced and ignored in the decades since, to this present day.

There are two camps in endurance runner training. One emphasizes a healthy dose of recurring harder workouts alongside your easy and long runs from day one. The idea is that the harder, faster workouts are what makes you faster and fitter, that without regular fast running you cannot possibly get faster, and possibly even get gradually slower. This approach is far and away the most popular of the two, because people generally aren’t patient, and coaches traditionally have learned to always train this way (plus it’s harder to be hands on when all the pupil’s running is easy running).

The other camp argues to initially emphasize a large volume of (often exclusively) easy training, only introducing harder workouts after having built a sizable easy running base over months. The understanding that developing your slow-twitch aerobic mitochondria is what improves your natural fitness and performance over time, and that speed/tempo work should build upon that base fitness after it has been developed.


Let me throw some arbitrary labels on these two camps for ease of discussion. I’ll call the first camp “Speed and Base”, as the two are utilized in tandem each week. I’ll call the second camp “Base then Focus”, as the theme is you spend months running easy at first to build a base, then only utilize harder training when closer to the goal event(s).

Below are some examples of writers or coaches whose approaches fall into each of the camps. Again, it’s worth noting the lion’s share of coaches and writers traditionally fall into the Speed and Base camp. For them I could name dozens of coaches, but I’ll stick to four.

Speed and Base:
Fitzgerald
Gaudette, aka Runner’s Connect
Daniels
Pfitzinger

Base Then Focus:
Hadd
IronFit
Osler
Primal Endurance

Side note: The popular Hal Higdon is a weird case, where his easier plans are exclusively easy running, while his intermediate/advanced plans introduce and feature some speed or pace work from day one.

Galloway is another, where what little pace work he features isn’t particularly demanding, and the plan is basically all easy running (and walking).

The other extreme is Furman University’s FIRST (Run Less, Run Faster), which is basically all hard running mixed with supplementary cross training. No easy running. You could in a sense lump them in with Speed and Base, since they focus from day one on harder running, even though there’s no easy running in their training plans.

While tempted to file Hansons under Base then Focus, as their Method plans do initially start with a couple weeks of easy running before introducing speed/tempo work, the ‘base’ is so short (usually 2-3 weeks) I feel like it almost doesn’t count. The Base Then Focus approach is about spending extensive time running exclusively easy while building mileage before doing any speedwork, multiple months. Those initial Hansons weeks come nowhere close to the time period in mind. So that’s another weird case.

Believe it or not, I wouldn’t lump Lydiard in with Base then Focus as most would think to do, despite his preaching/principles appearing to align with Base Then Focus. Even with Lydiard’s (ridiculously) high volume of easy running, most of his training plans also include a substantial dose of harder running from week one.

End side note.


So, back to Thomas Osler, who turns out is one of the godfathers of Base Then Focus training. Base Then Focus never got popular in large part because exclusively easy running isn’t sexy like a track workout. The latter is what people have always thought when it comes to serious training. And again, that’s traditionally what every serious runner and coach has been taught to do in the first place.

Whether or not coaches like the late Hadd read The Conditioning of Distance Runners, the basic principle has been applied and practiced over the decades since, practically underground due to the mass popularity of the traditional Speed and Base approach. If not for the Hadds of the world (and to some extent the subtext of Hal Higdon’s work) the approach probably would have died decades before now.

I initially gave Osler’s booklet a read when I read Sky’s book, and moved along. I’ve given Sky’s and Osler’s work cursory reads since over time, usually on the spin bike during recent summer workouts.

As Vegas recently began cooling down, I switched from cross training to more regular running, and took my running back outside from the treadmill. Following my established 3 day and 21 day cycles, I gradually added distance to easy hilly runs near work after work. These were comfortable to complete at a zone 1-2 effort.

However, my efforts to add running volume produced some extended fatigue and even a bit of soreness, something I thought I had built myself to avoid. The hills weren’t terribly arduous, and again I was running easy.

It was clear I was building too quickly, but I didn’t want to dial back to 15-20 miles a week and have to spend months adding 10% a week with stepback weeks, nor did I want to dial back my planned volume and run fewer days per week or keep my runs too short to aerobically build for marathons. I responded best to everyday workouts and everyday running, but I didn’t want to risk injury and burnout just trying to power through these runs.

Osler outlines an approach to building an initial base training schedule. I had initially considered trying it before electing to stick to my 21 day easy/medium/tough format… the one that was now proving too tough to maintain while building needed volume. (He also recommended an ‘easy” 7 minute per mile pace, outdated advice which I will address adjusting later)

Osler’s base schedule approach (in my words and interpretation; his of course can be read elsewhere):

  • You spend no less than 12 weeks base building. After this, you can maintain this 12th week volume indefinitely, prior to a 7 week “sharpening” period ahead of one or more goal race(s).
  • You could jump into sharpening right off 12 weeks base training, but Osler’s strong implication is that you stay at your week 12 base mileage for a little while, weeks/months.
  • Start with your average weekly mileage over your prior 90 days, i.e. 13 weeks… not the mileage you want, but what you actually have done over the last 13 weeks. Get a calculator and your training log and actually figure it out.
  • Take 90% of that number. That’s roughly the mileage you will start with on week 1 of base training.
  • You then break up your mileage for the week like so:

Day 1: Short, 5% of week’s total mileage
Day 2: Medium, 15% of week’s total
Day 3: Long, 30% of week’s total
Day 4: Short, 5% of week’s total
Day 5: Medium, 15% of week’s total
Day 6: Med/Short, 11% of week’s total
Day 7: Race or Time Trial

With the exception of the race/trial, all these runs are done at easy pace and effort.

While Osler in the booklet recommends 7:00/mile pace, bear in mind he wrote this for competitive track runners who raced 2 miles in 10:00. Using estimates from the Daniels Tables, I converted this by VDOT/VO2max and found Osler’s 7:00/mile pace would line up to about 65-70% VO2max for a 5:00-miler, which is about 70-75% max heart rate. Whatever your easy pace is at that effort is the actual pace you should run. (I would run a much slower 11:20ish per mile, for now)

For the above schedule, Osler lists those days as Monday through Sunday. But that puts your long run on Wednesday, and most of us can’t do that (Osler like a lot of competitive runners had a more flexible schedule that allowed a Wednesday long run).

For a Saturday long run, I’d recommend adjusting the schedule like this:

Mon: Medium, 15% of week’s total
Tue: Med/Short, 11% of week’s total
Wed: Race or Time Trial
Thu: Short, 5% of week’s total mileage
Fri: Medium, 15% of week’s total
Sat: Long, 30% of week’s total
Sun: Short, 5% of week’s total

And for a Sunday long run, I’d recommend this:

Mon: Short, 5% of week’s total
Tue: Medium, 15% of week’s total
Wed: Med/Short, 11% of week’s total
Thu: Race or Time Trial
Fri: Short, 5% of week’s total mileage
Sat: Medium, 15% of week’s total
Sun: Long, 30% of week’s total

As an example, I’ll use the Sunday schedule and use a starting total of 20 miles per week, fairly close to what my starting weekly average is.

Mon: 1 mile short
Tue: 3 miles medium
Wed: 2.2 miles short/medium
Thu: Time Trial, 1500m up to 5K
Fri: 1 mile short
Sat: 3 miles medium
Sun: 6 miles long

  • Doing the math it’s clear there’s 19% of weekly mileage left over for the Time Trial day. At this point, you may allot the full mileage for that day and just warmup/cooldown enough to run it. Or you could just do less mileage as desired and just make that day short by however much you need. In my case there’s 3.8 miles available, which would allow for a short warmup (I often won’t run a full mile), then a 5K and a walking cooldown. Or I could warmup longer if the Time Trial is a shorter distance like a mile, or 1500/3000m, perhaps do a jogging cooldown.
  • Now, that’s week 1. You will increase some mileage on some runs each additional week, until week 12.
  • Each week, the long run increases by 1 mile. Osler recommends you can go up to 22-25 miles. Unless you’re naturally fast and can cover that kind of ground in 3 easy hours, I would not go that high, even in marathon training. Osler himself recommends reducing or stopping weekly increases once the run becomes suitably difficult. In my example you would get to 17 miles by week 12, and that’s probably a fine cruising altitude for marathon runners.
  • Every 2-3 weeks (weeks 3, 5, 7, 9, 11… or weeks 4, 7, 10), you increase the medium runs by 1 mile. In my case I did it every 2 weeks: the Tuesday and Saturday 3 milers become 4 miles on week 3. Though in theory these medium runs can increase indefinitely, I would recommend capping the medium run mileage once it takes about 90 minutes to complete them. In my case I get to 8 miles by week 11 (the last medium increase), and that coincidentally takes me about 90 minutes to run, so it works fine.
  • You do NOT increase the short runs or race/trial run at all. Those always stay the same distance. The race/trial is demanding enough as-is, and the short runs are intended as recovery runs, so adding to them compromises that.
  • The med/long run (11%) is a pivot run. You can increase this if desired, or you can leave this the same like the short runs if desired. Some people need that extra easy day, and some people want that extra volume. Up to you. I personally left that day alone.
  • After week 12, you do not need to increase any mileage at all. By this point you should have a strong base of weekly mileage, with no need to increase for the time being.

In my example, here is what my week 12 would look like.

Mon: 1 mile short
Tue: 8 miles medium
Wed: 2.2 miles short
Thu: Time Trial, 1500m up to 5K
Fri: 1 mile short
Sat: 8 miles medium
Sun: 17 miles long

That would put me at around 41 miles, a pretty good base for Marathon Shape per Runalyze at my given VO2max.

Hal Higdon fans will also notice medium-long runs on both weekend days, just like his intermediate marathon plans. Higdon probably wasn’t specifically thinking of Osler when he programmed these, but they probably come from the same essential mindset. In Osler’s approach those runs are more gradually built, and should be more comfortable once you’re running that long.

Sharpening:

  • Sharpening introduces speedwork. Osler, like many, is partial to track repeats, even insisting on his particular blend of 880yd (800m) repeats. I think it’s not a problem to be more flexible on your speed/tempo work of choice. You may elect to do intervals, fartlek or similar. You can also do race pace runs, fast finish runs, whatever suits your training needs.
  • However, there’s several of these runs and they’re back to back, so don’t go crazy with planning workouts. Make sure you leave enough in the tank that you can run moderately the next day.
  • In fact, if you’re averse to speedwork, doing all of these speed workouts as Higdon-style tempo runs (an easy run where you speed up in the middle for 5-10 minutes) probably is fine.
  • You still do the race or time trial day. Osler in his booklet presumes you’ll be racing on this day. If marathon training, I’d stick to time trials or just using the day as a tempo or marathon-pace run.
  • You could also revert to Osler’s original Monday-Sunday schedule in the booklet if you want to race multiple weekends, by permanently reducing the long run to 90 minutes max so it can be done Thursday (or Wednesday, if you race on Saturday). This means you’re doing three 90ish minute runs during the week, along with the pace runs and the multiple speed workouts. That’s a lot! And it’s why this is considered more of a short-term well-timed phase.
  • Otherwise, the daily mileage in sharpening stays the same EXCEPT for the long run, which during the first 3-4 weeks should be shortened to 75% of its week 12 length, returning to full length once you’ve gotten comfortable with the new speedwork. In my case, that coincidentally puts the long run at 12.75 miles, very close to half marathon distance. This would allow for one or more Sunday half marathons, though I’d recommend changing the Saturday run to a short easy run so you’re rested to race a Half.
  • You could begin sharpening right after week 12 of base, though again Osler recommends you stick with the week 12 base training for a while for maximum benefit.
  • The Sharpening phase is 7 weeks long, done right before one or more races you care about.

After much ado, here Osler’s original basic sharpening schedule (remember again he puts the long workout on Wednesday):

Mon: Easy run
Tue: Speed workout
Wed: Med-Long easy run
Thu: Speed workout
Fri: Speed workout
Sat: Med easy run
Sun: Race

Notice the clump of speed workouts around the (Med-)Long run, which stays easy. Again, if racing a half on that day I’d just make those surrounding days short and easy.

Here I adjust Sharpening to my aforementioned Sunday schedule, based on the Week 12 mileage (minus 25% on the long run):

Mon: 1 mile speed/tempo
Tue: 8 miles speed/tempo
Wed: 2.2 miles short
Thu: Time Trial, 1500m up to 5K
Fri: 1 mile short
Sat: 8 miles speed/tempo
Sun: 12.75 miles long (which goes back to 17 miles after about week 3-4)

  • The 1 mile speed/tempo day can be very minimal, maybe after half a mile I speed it up for a minute or two, then slow back down to finish.
  • The 8 mile speed/tempo provides plenty of room for a full workout of any choice. 800 meter repeats, a 6 mile tempo or marathon-pace run, 6 miles easy then a 2 mile fast finish, an 8 mile fartlek, etc.
  • Again, if you turn the long run into a half marathon race, turn the surrounding speed/tempo days into easy runs, short runs also as needed.
  • This seems like a lot of speed/tempo work, and it is. Osler emphasizes this for maximum stimulus and benefit, taking full advantage of the short 2-3 month window where a well-trained body can respond best to this training off a solid base volume.

After this sharpening base, and after your goal race, Osler advises going back to your original easy base training, reducing/maintaining/increasing the mileage as desired.

The strong subtext/hint from Osler is that if you want to increase your mileage, you want to exclusively do it during base training, NOT during sharpening. The mileage you begin sharpening with is the mileage you need to finish it with (except of course for the shortened long run returning to normal mileage after a few initial sharpening weeks).

It’s also entirely possible to subsequently take a break or offseason of lighter training, then repeat Osler’s 12 week base training starting with 90% of the average overall mileage from the prior 90 days (which includes your lighter offseason). Either way, repeating a 12 week base building cycle allows you to reset the length of the short runs to match an improved weekly running volume.

But the idea is to basically live in this state of easy regular base training, going into sharpening training on a brief and seasonal basis for key races. This matches what Sisson and Kearns preach in Primal Endurance, as well as what Hadd emphasized with his Phase One training.


So I gradually shifted to following this approach in recent weeks, and I’m now feeling better thanks to most of my days being lighter mileage. I just ran 6.4 miles today (Sunday) after running 3 miles yesterday. And granted, I’ve napped a lot since it’s my weekend. But I definitely feel less beat up, like my body is catching back up and recovering. The 6 miler was not hard at all.

My performance log’s Workload Ratio tracking also shows that the scheduled increases in mileage are easier on me than I what had previous planned. That tells me this is probably a better approach for me to follow for now.

So yes, I’ve shifted back to a 7 day schedule from the 21 day cycle, which I still like and will probably utilize down the road. I do want to work with Osler’s approach for the time being and see how it progresses my fitness. It has worked well for me in the early going. In time I can certainly adjust it for a 21 day cycle (and write about it!) if it ends up working well over time.

I plan to strength train Monday and Friday, and supplement as desired with the spin bike once or twice a week in the morning. I can do really short Monday/Friday runs on the treadmill after strength training, no problem (and that will help some with maintaining heat acclimation, as I’ll eventually have to run Vancouver next May in warmer weather).

Thursday is mostly open so I have some flexibility with scheduling that weekly time trial. This is a key component: Even though I want to focus on easy base training, I do want to have some weekly fast running scheduled. It also works in a couple weeks, as Thursday is a Turkey Trot I plan to race.

We will see how this goes. In the meantime, I found Osler’s work very insightful.

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