The off-season doesn’t exist to many racers on structured training plans. It’s a period to race cyclo-cross and/or recover for a short bit before prepping for the next season’s races. This period can also be tremendously beneficial in gaining fitness. However, the elements are against most racers with cold weather, snow and ice, and jobs and families to get back to. Couple this with flawed anecdotal training, and valuable saddle time is wasted.
As stated in previous articles, and likely your coach, a primary goal of this period is to ensure athletes are recovered. This means from injuries, training, as well as psychologically. In the same way this early training can help build an athlete, it can also contribute to failure if these recovery demands are not met.
The term “base training” is usually applied to this early season work. Professional cyclists usually throw this around as the emphasis of early saddle time. The concept often encompasses long rides of low intensity. But, there are several faults with this thought process, especially when applied to amateur athletes with regular jobs and life demands.
Principals of training include intensity, frequency, and duration of training. This combination must involve some form of overload in order to see adaptations leading to improvement. In the stereotypical base training, the athlete achieves this overload through a high amount of volume with low intensity. This can be effective if the athlete is able to train sufficiently. But the reality is that most athletes are not able to make the commitment to this quantity of saddle time and end up riding slow and short rather than the slow and long that is required to provide sufficient volume. And as an athlete, the maximum must be gained for the time available for training. So, an overload must be provided by altering some other aspect of training—intensity.
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At first glance, several legitimate question arise regarding this principal. These regard specificity of training to the competitive events and the periodization format that drives structured training. Under the periodization structure, training starts with a higher volume and lower intensity and adjusts with more intensity and lower volume as competition nears. Additionally, most cycling races involve hours of saddle time come race day. So, it would seem natural that a block of high volume, low intensity training would fit the bill. But, the amount of time required to provide an overload is not practical for most individuals. The value of longer rides and adaptations that can occur with high mileage can not be negated, especially when you’re looking at a three or four hour race. As a result, these adaptations need to be sought in a more practical means.
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Its been documented in several studies that many of the adaptations that occur at low-intensity exercises occur more rapidly at higher intensities with less training time. With this in mind, athletes could justify swinging to the other side of the spectrum and do hard, short workouts. And, that’s exactly what some do in the winter driving home VO2 max type workouts on the indoor trainer. But, this approach isn’t necessarily effective either. While increased intensity can provide an overload in less time, all training adaptations are not the same. With the present emphasis on HIIT (high intensity interval training), this concept is lost when gross generalizations on performance are made similar to a political candidate saying “Americans will have lower taxes.”