Base Training: Why You Need to Build Up Slow If You Want To Go Fast

Categories: Periodization, Strength Training, Training Programs, Training with Heart Rate, and Training with Power.

So you’ve signed up for a charity ride, gran fondo, or a mountain bike marathon with your mates. You’ve heard about the benefits of High Intensity Interval Training and thought “That’s for me!” More speed and big fitness in half the time. Be careful, though. If you don’t keep your training at lower intensity – for at least part of the time – and establish a solid base of endurance, your progress will drag to a halt and burnout is a real prospect. Base training builds a solid foundation for sustained superior performance and helps you keep your head in the game.

Avoid These Base Training Mistakes

As with most things in cycling, there is some disagreement over the best way to set up your base. Advocates of the “time crunched” methods popularised by Carmichael Training Systems paint classic base training as lots of boring long slow distance for 2 or 3 months. They criticize it as time inefficient for busy people with young families, and for making riders slower, not faster. They promote the use of lots of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) instead to get quick results.

On the surface that looks like a valid criticism, and who doesn’t want quick results?

My problem with that approach is threefold.

  • Firstly, it misleads on how base training really works. Advocates of HIIT training are correct that long periods of Long Slow Distance make your slower, but as you’ll see below speed skills and muscular force form vital parts of the package.
  • Secondly, unless a substantial component of endurance is included your fitness doesn’t have any depth. When it comes time to burn your matches in a race or event, you just don’t have as many in the box as those who have invested in building their base. With a solid base you will get more out of higher intensity work later in the program.
  • Thirdly, after 6-12 weeks of HIIT it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain focus on it and you then start to slow down. So the time to do it is closer to the event. With a bigger base of endurance fitness you can handle a greater load of HIIT closer to the event, for a better outcome.

Short term fix with short term results

So if you only have 6 weeks then the time-crunched HIIT approach it has its merits, but ultimately making it the sole focus of the Base period is a bit of a bandaid. This is OK if you’re an occasional cyclist only targeting a specific event, but if you ride all of the warmer months (or year round in more temperate climates) a longer term view is needed. Otherwise you can put the rest of your season at risk of injury or burnout.

Going slow makes you slow

Long Slow Distance isn’t what we’re doing and is another big mistake that many riders make when doing base training. It is definitely not recovery pace “walk in the park” riding.

Base building is not doing the same thing for 12 weeks straight. There is solid progression, and once your aerobic engine has started to develop, Muscular Force and Muscular Endurance are introduced incrementally in preparation for the Build phase. In the Build Phase high intensity intervals are added back into the mix, and when placed on top of your foundation of base endurance has the strongest and longest lasting impact on your ability to go faster for longer.

Besides, early base building tends to be the most fun and social part, where you can hang out with mates and recharge the mental batteries.

Build your aerobic engine

The entire purpose of base training is to build a foundation of aerobic endurance. As with any structure, the more solid the foundation the stronger the result. The bigger base you build, the greater depth your fitness will have and the higher performance you can achieve.

Base Training isn't all just low intensity and big kilometres

Improve efficiency at burning fat

The body has substantial fat stores that it can use to fuel the muscles, and it can run on them for lengthy periods of time. These fat stores outlast the other energy systems the body uses by multiples.

However, the rate at which fat can be converted to usable energy is limited. When effort levels rise above the fat-burning threshold the body switches to burning glycogen, which for most athletes is limited to 45 minutes to an hour unless topped up during the ride.

So why not just burn glycogen instead, and top up those levels by eating and drinking as you go? The short answer is there is a limit to the rate at which your body can refresh glycogen stores through consuming carbs on the bike. Try to exceed this and nausea, stomach troubles and difficulty eating will crash the party, putting you in a dark and horrible place.

By training we can lift the threshold at which the body switches from burning fat to glycogen, meaning it will be possible to go harder for longer without using as much of our glycogen stores. This leaves you with more in the tank when you need to lift your intensity towards the end of the event, when others are fading.

Useful time to focus on speed skills

Since on-the bike efforts are generally low intensity during base training, they present an opportunity to focus on pedal stroke smoothness and speed drills. These can comprise single-leg pedalling (on the road or in a trainer) and high-cadence spin-ups (pedalling fast at low loads without bouncing in the saddle).

These drills should be used to iron out pedal technique issues before the high intensity work starts in earnest, and should be done frequently during the base training period. For mountain bikers, technical skills such as bunny-hopping, jumping, descending and cornering skills should be practised as drills during this time to improve efficiency and economy out on the trail.

Complements MS Phase strength training periodisation

In addition to aerobic endurance and speed skills, there needs to be an emphasis on muscular force. During the first half of the Base Training period (Base 1) you should be well on your way to lifting heavy weights at low reps in the Maximum Strength phase of your weights program. With the riding volume still being relatively light, it should not overstress you to run both together.

During Base 2, weight training moves into Muscular Endurance or Power Endurance phases, before shifting to strength maintenance mode as Base 2 ends.

When should I do base training?

Base training is where you start after any significant period of inactivity, or after your annual break and downtime to recharge from the year’s racing.

  • For southern hemisphere riders this annual break normally coincides with the Christmas and summer school holidays.
  • For many northern hemisphere riders, adverse weather at the same time of year commonly makes riding outdoors impractical.

This break is an ideal time to re-engage with weight training and other cross-training activities like swimming, skiing, or other sports.

How often should I train during the week?

  • Beginner athletes start with 3 to 4 workouts a week.
  • Intermediate athletes with some experience will usually train 4-5 times weekly.
  • Elite athletes will work out 6-7 times per week. Some will even do twice daily workouts at this point of the cycle.

3 sessions a week is the bare minimum and the primary workouts need to be separated by 48-72 hours to allow for recovery and supercompensation (the mechanism that leads to fitness improvement). Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday produces much better results than Friday-Saturday-Sunday.

Four workouts a week produces much better results than 3. After that, there are still improvements to be had, but there are diminishing returns.

There are natural limits due to lifestyle and capacity to train – listen to your body.

How long should base training workouts last?

Choosing where to start depends entirely on previous experience. Workout duration should be set by time rather than distance to avoid the temptation to complete the distance as fast as possible – that’s not the goal here.

If you are going from couch potato to starting your first event, starting with as little as 30 minutes a day at an easy pace will get you on the right track. Cross-training with weights on the off days and one complete day off per week will round out your first few weeks.

More experienced athletes should be looking to start with a weekend endurance ride of 2 to 3 hours. Midweek rides will be shorter and more intense.

Base Training Basics

Pacing

The key to getting results is to keep the pace at Zone 2 or Endurance Pace, being 69-83% of your threshold heart rate or 55-75% of your Functional Threshold Power. No hard efforts, and – this is crucial – no coasting either.

A few weeks of this builds a big aerobic engine.

Speed skills

Speed skills drills focus on training the brain to fire the big and small muscles with the correct timing to produce smooth pedalling technique without wasted movement. For mountain bikers, learning to negotiate technical terrain quickly and efficiently is also crucial to efficiency.

  • High cadence spin-ups – pedalling as fast as you can in an easy gear without bouncing in the saddle
  • Single leg drills. These help you focus on muscle recruitment by making “dead spots” in your pedal stroke stand out. If you don’t have access to a section of roadway free from traffic, these can be done with the bike in a resistance trainer

Since these are low-effort, they can be included in any ride.

Mountain bikers should also include drills that focus on bike handling skills: bunny hops, jumping, wheelies or manuals, slow speed balancing and slalom cornering. If you have trouble with any of these, attending a skills workshop to learn specific drills you can take home and practise can really accelerate your acquisition of these skills.Bike handling skills are an important component of base training

Muscular Force workouts

In Base 1 Muscular Force workouts are the Maximum Strength weights sessions.

In Base 2 and Base 3, once the Maximum Strength weights phase has been completed, they MF workouts are done on the bike as low rep, high intensity intervals done on a short, steep hill as six to 12 revs (that is, 6-12 pedal stokes per side) at maximal effort. A workout would be 3 sets of 3 reps of 6 to 12 revs, seated, at less than 50rpm with 3 minutes or more recovery between reps.

Muscular Endurance workouts

These are best left until you are past the maximum strength phase with your weight training in Base 1, and you are well into Base 2 or Base 3.

ME workouts are along the lines of:

  • 2 x 20 minute intervals at Zone 3 (75-90% FTP, or 84% to 94% of threshold heart rate) (Base 2 and Base 3), or
  • Three to 5 intervals of 6-12 minutes long each in Zones 3 to 4 with 2 to 3 minutes recovery between each (Base 3 and later).  The first few weeks should be done on the flat, before moving to the hills.

Speed comes quickly during the Build phases that follow.

Sample base training workout plan

Recovery weeks should be scheduled every fourth week, or every third week for riders over 40.

Day

Phase

All phases
Prep Base 1 Base 2 Base 3 Recovery
Monday Weights AA Weights MS
Recovery ride (optional)
Weights PE
Recovery ride (optional)
Weights SM
Recovery ride (optional)
Weights as per Prep, B1, B2, or B3 phase
Tuesday Endurance ride
60-90 min Zone 2
Spin-ups
Recovery ride
Spinups or single leg drills
Endurance ride 90-120 min Zone 2
Spinups or single leg drills
Endurance ride 90-120 min Zone 2
Recovery ride
Wednesday Weights AA Endurance ride 90-120 min
Zone 2
Tempo: 2 or 3×20 min in Zone 3 within 90-120 mins Zone 2 Big gear seated climbs* Spin-ups, MTB skills
Endurance ride
60-90 min Zone 2
Thursday Endurance ride 90-120 min
Zone 2
Weights MS
Recovery ride
Weights PE
Endurance ride 90-120 min Zone 2
Endurance 2-3 hours Zone 2 Weights as per Prep, B1, B2, or B3 phase
Recovery ride
Friday Weights AA Recovery ride (optional)
MTB skills
Recovery ride
Spin-ups
MTB skills
Recovery ride
Spin-ups
MTB skills
Recovery ride
Saturday Endurance ride 90-120 min
Zone 2
Endurance ride
90-120 min
Zone 2
Tempo: 2 or 3×20 min in Zone 3, within 90-120min Zone 2 Tempo or Cruise Intervals* FTP test or race, short duration
Sunday Endurance ride
2-3 hours
Zone 2
Endurance ride 2.5-4 hours
Zone 2
Hilly Endurance* ride
2.5-4 hours
Hilly Endurance* ride
2.5-4 hours
Endurance ride 2.5-4 hours
Zone 2

Notes:

Tempo

On a mostly flat course, do 20 to 60 minutes in Zone 3 without recovery.
Can also be done as upper Zone 3, as 2 or 3 x 20 minute intervals with 4 minutes recovery

Cruise intervals

Complete 3 to 5 intervals that are 6 to 12 minutes long in Zone 4 or 5 with cadence in 90-110rpm
Recover 2-3 minutes between intervals. Coasting is OK.

Hilly Endurance

Choose a course with several moderate grades (4-5%), staying seated and pedalling engaging glutes @60rpm or higher
Select hills that last several minutes and choose gears that will put you into Zone 4 or 5 on the climbs
Focus on pedalling smooth form.

Big gear climbs

Steep grades (8% or more) that take 1-2 minutes to climb
Stay seated. Cadence 50-60rpm. Zone 5 or 6 effort.
Concentrate on smooth pedalling and [position on the bike
Recover 3-5 minutes after each and get in 6-30 minutes per session.
Omit if experiencing knee discomfort.

 

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  1. What You Need to Know About Training Zones - Simply Cycling Training says:

    […] use oxygen as efficiently as possible. It is the foundation on which everything else is built. The bigger your base the stronger you will be at the end of big rides. It takes time to build. Despite “The Time […]

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