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Cycling Base Training, Part 3

As Heath Blackgrove, 2004 Olympian and long time pro cyclist, put it to me once, “if you do aerobic base right, everything else comes easily.” It’s hard to argue with results. Base training done right is a little different for everyone though. With training intensity and duration changing based on individual factors such as available time and family commitments, each athlete’s training is necessarily different. However, there are a few general guidelines to follow in order to avoid going over the line of too much base.
During base training, most rides should have a relative intensity around 65-70% of one hour threshold power. This keeps the intensity in the right range to make aerobic and metabolic improvements, but it’s easy enough that multiple consecutive days of training are possible. For most athletes, higher intensity is usually a better solution than attempting to ride strictly lower intensity base miles. Base training typically lasts 6-8 weeks before adaptation levels off or stops. At that point, a higher intensity build phase allows athletes to take advantage of the aerobic gains made from base training. These benefits include faster recovery times from efforts greater than threshold, as well as the ability to handle more significant training load with relatively lower stress.
The conclusion that low intensity base training won’t work for everyone is a valid argument. Very few athletes have the time or the freedom to ride a bike for 15-30 hours every week for multiple weeks, and that’s fine. When volume isn’t an option, traditional “base training” isn’t an option. The goal, however, remains the same: develop your aerobic engine so that your anaerobic energy reserves are intact when it matters in competition. In order to develop the aerobic engine, still the most important energy contributor to power output in all types of bikes racing aside from track sprinting, you must change the balance of volume and intensity. Base training requires high volume, so a better term for “base training” for athletes without the time available for long hours of training could be “aerobic development training.”
One of the most important parts of training is specificity to the sport you wish to compete in. This applies to cycling in several ways. If you wish to compete in cyclocross, for example, then you’ll need to incorporate technical skills work. For a strict time trialist or triathlete, technical handling skills are not so important. Similarly, your training should reflect the demands of the events in which you want to compete. Using the principle of specificity to create training plans with a focus on the type of efforts necessary for each racing discipline guarantees physiological as well as psychological improvements. Intervals at 85-95% of FTP (your best one hour power average, known as threshold) stress the system enough to raise the aerobic threshold, but not so high that fatigue builds exponentially, as is the case with higher intensity intervals at or above 100% FTP.
It’s necessary to ride harder than an easy “base pace” for a significant portion of total training time in order to get the most out of training 6-10 hours each week. Riding 4-5 hours at 80-90% of one hour threshold (known as tempo) creates a greater training stimulus, and greater improvement, than riding 8 hours each week at a low intensity of 55-75%. Tempo is noticeably harder than base riding, but it requires almost entirely aerobic energy production that produces great aerobic adaptations. Tempo training is highly effective at improving aerobic fitness when combined with threshold training. Adding higher intensity efforts on top of tempo and threshold riding further increases aerobic development as well as preparing athletes for their specific bike racing disciplines.
Base training, and other non-HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) aerobic development is not easy to quantify with research. If you’re familiar with the current literature, the research typically uses a comparison between only base training (or aerobic efforts) and only HIIT. This is where the idea that lower-intensity training doesn’t work, supposedly based on research, is often flawed. In fact, we’ve written about why this doesn’t always work for training theory in The Problem with Applying Science to Training. Besides the fact that most studies do not include long-term (greater than ~6-8 weeks) chronic benefit that results from several months, and even years, the largest benefit comes from combining these two types of training, incorporating both low and high intensity efforts. Periodization, which is a strategic breakdown of training intensities based on the timeline of racing goals and events, has shown to provide a much larger benefit than either/or. Additionally, recommendations to do only HIIT don’t consider the stress of high intensity on individuals with families and regular working hours. It’s difficult, it’s often not fun, and after around that 6 week mark, improvement is limited, if present at all. That means on a HIIT-only program, you’ll continue to work very hard, both mentally and physically, while gaining little to no improvement from the effort. Eventually, it’s just not a viable way to improve performance.
Polarization of training, instead of relying on either high intensity or high volume exclusively, allows athletes to stress, recover, and improve with adaptation. Research in the last few years has concluded polarized approaches to training result in the greatest improvements when compared to threshold, high intensity, or high volume on their own (Hydren and Cohen 2015). After a period of aerobic development, polarization of training with a blend of different workouts is the best way to maximize training time. The important thing is to maximize adaptation (recovery) while minimizing fatigue (training). This is true not only for novice athletes, but also all the way up to elites.
cycling base training chart
At Source Endurance, we work hard to stay current and well-informed about recent research and knowledge on training. We spend time discussing the science and how that affects our training prescriptions so we can better serve the athletes we coach. Our goal with each athlete is to maximize their enjoyment of training and racing by providing a consistently high level of scheduling, analysis, and feedback so that athletes don’t have to worry about the minutiae of their workouts. We build the best polarization and training balance we can into the available training schedule and keep track of what’s working and how well, constantly making the best plan given the circumstances. Training is less stressful, more effective, and more fun. The result? More podiums! That’s the whole point, after all.
Check out Source Endurance’s Tiers of coaching services.
Further reading:
Guadette, Jeff. “A Historical Case For Aerobic Development
–” 4 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
*Running is not cycling, but they’re both highly aerobic endurance sports and
performance in running is often easier to analyze scientifically due to the great
variability in cycling performance with factors like aerodynamics playing large
roles. Even so, aerobic development in running shouldn’t be overlooked in terms of
strategic application to cycling performance.
Mitchell Sides recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BSEd in Exercise Science and is the newest addition to the team at Source Endurance. He’s transitioned from a self-proclaimed overweight couch resident into a member of Texas’s first UCI continental professional cycling team, Elevate Pro Cycling. He specializes in coaching road cycling and is inspired by the mentorship aspect of the sport. Learn more about Mitchell.
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