Often Discussed, Never Explained: Base Training, Part I

It's not necessarily that inaccurate conclusions are being drawn about base training, but more that some conclusions are misguided.  I’ve decided to write a bit about base training because it's important to understand the correct reasoning behind those conclusions as well as what the alternatives to base training can do for athletes. Everyone has unique circumstances that affect how they can train, and training should be manipulated around each individual accordingly. While a lot of recent articles have made some fair conclusions about why some athletes shouldn’t use base training, I think there's a huge misconception about aerobic training being spread widely by poor descriptions of what base training actually encompasses. I’ll cover base training in a 3-part article.

Part 1 is largely a description of what base training is. Part 2 will cover when, why, and for whom base training works best, and Part 3 will provide alternatives to the traditional base training periodization model, which simply doesn’t work for everyone.
Base training is a term used to describe endurance training that consists of long duration, low to moderate intensity, and enough volume to provide a significant aerobic training stimulus. While some of you begin to train at higher intensities, you may see some athletes riding slow and assume they are engaging in base training.  However, most athletes do not have the available time in their
schedule to execute traditional base training.  This means a slow ride is exactly what it looks like; riding slow. As you can see below, the adaptations to high volume, with an implied lower intensity (base miles) versus high intensity can be very different.


Many articles lately have been claiming to debunk or otherwise disprove the effectiveness of base training. These tend to miss their goal by the fact they take the high volume component out of the equation and end up with something that is definitively not base training as most of us know it.  

Training volume is a combination of duration and intensity. Training adaptations take place when the systems being trained are overloaded and slow (low intensity) and short (duration) rides do not provide appropriate volume for overloading the aerobic system that is being targeted.  Therefore, base miles only work as an aerobic training tool when the intensity and duration create sufficient training volume needed for improvement. For base miles, this balance between intensity and duration is tipped more towards duration than intensity. That said, long duration and low to moderate intensity is not the only way to provide an appropriate volume. For example, in one study, below, the results showed that a more moderate intensity during intervals, each 8 minutes, provided greater benefits in time trial performance and other metrics, within the given study, remember, than high intensity intensity intervals of 4 minutes or lower intensity intervals of 16 minutes.


One glaring fallacy, at best an oversimplification, spreading through the cycling community this winter, as in many before it, is that even if base miles DID improve your aerobic engine, it isn’t necessary to possess such a big aerobic engine for shorter events anyway. In fact, it does improve your aerobic engine, when placed into a training program correctly alongside other types of training. I do love hearing things like this because it gives every athlete I’ll coach an advantage over those who don’t believe cycling is a primarily aerobic sport. The demands of bike racing, outside of sprint events such as BMX and track sprinting, are such that the aerobic system is where most of the energy production comes from. At the very least, I want athletes to understand what the sport demands, in all disciplines. Ideally, athletes should train to maximize aerobic development for their racing season. The following chart shows which energy system (simplified to anaerobic and aerobic) is used for a given duration.


Base training is a part of elite endurance sports, and it’s here to stay. Still, what’s important to remember is that there are often a lot of different ways to make the same performance adaptations. At Source Endurance, our focus is on using science that’s gathered from general cases and making it applicable to the individual. Sometimes, base training isn’t the answer for an athlete, but sometimes it is. In Part 2, I’ll talk about when base training makes sense, and a little more about what makes it an effective method to improve performance in racing bikes.

As an Exercise Science student at the University of Texas, Mitchell Sides assisted coaching the university cycling and triathlon teams. Since graduating, he raced professionally for Elevate Pro Cycling and started his coaching career at Source Endurance.  Mitchell has been using TrainingPeaks and WKO4 analytical software to help optimize workouts for each athlete. His athletes range from masters to college freshmen in cycling and triathlon. Learn more about Mitchell.

*Further reading: Guadette, Jeff. "A Historical Case For Aerobic Development - Competitor.com." Competitor.com. 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.
Laursen, P. B. "Training for Intense Exercise Performance: High-intensity or High-volume Training?" Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 2010.20 (2010): 1-10. Web. Dec. 2015.
Foster C, Farland CV, Guidotti F, et al. The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity. J Sports Sci Med. 2015;14(4):747-55.
Simmons, Alex. "Anaerobic Stuff." Alex's Cycle Blog. 16 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2016.
Coggan, Andrew. "Demands of the Individual Pursuit, Parts 1-3." Training and Racing with A Power Meter. 30 Apr. 2010. Web. Dec. 2015.
Craig NP, Norton KI, Bourdon PC, Woolford SM, Stanef T, Squires B, Olds TS, Conyers RAJ, Walsh CBV. Aerobic and anaerobic indices contributing to track endurance cycling performance. Eur J Appl Physiol 1993; 67:150-158.
Støren Ø, Ulevåg K, Larsen MH, Støa EM, Helgerud J. Physiological determinants of the cycling time trial. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(9):2366-73.
Meyer T, Auracher M, Heeg K, Urhausen A, Kindermann W. Effectiveness of low-intensity endurance training. Int J Sports Med. 2007;28(1):33-9.
Seiler S, Jøranson K, Olesen BV, Hetlelid KJ. Adaptations to aerobic interval training: interactive effects of exercise intensity and total work duration. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013;23(1):74-83.