We’re all familiar with the tales of cycling base training over winter. Of professionals and amateurs alike spending hour upon hour in the saddle every week putting in the base training miles to improve their racing performances and endurance for the next season. But what exactly is cycling base training and do you need to do it?
Essentially, base training for cyclists is a training block of low intensity riding designed to build your aerobic fitness. It provides a training base for your body to be able to handle higher workloads and more intense sessions later on in your training. Think of cycling base training as the foundation of your fitness and your training, i.e. your aerobic ‘base’, or your aerobic endurance.
Developing your aerobic base is key to improving your fitness and later on your ability to push yourself and more intensely in training or during a race. And it’s not just for climbers and ultra-distance riders, even power house cyclists like sprinters need an aerobic cycling base on which to build on. It increases the amount of work your body can do using oxygen without going into your anaerobic system.
This low intensity cycling training is usually within the following power and heart rate zones:
- Zone 1 - 0%* to 55%
- Zone 2 - 55% to 75%
*% of your functional threshold power (FTP)
Heart rate zones
- Zone 1 - 0%* to 76%
- Zone 2 - 77% to 82%
*% of your functional threshold heart rate (FTHR)
Theoretically, you should be able to handle a conversation and feel quite relaxed while you’re cycling. The difference between this and other periods of easy cycling throughout the year is the sheer volume - you’re building a training base, and this is essentially done through high volume. Professional riders have more time than amateurs to train, and thus can dedicate fully to a base training block.
So what is it about base training for cyclists that draws us riders to it every winter to boost our fitness? And is it worth doing, or is it just another older retired pro in the club run myth? What exactly are the benefits of base training?
In essence, it helps you to ride more efficiently. When you cycle at a low intensity, your body uses fat as the main source of fuel rather than carbohydrates. During high intensity efforts, your body switches to glucose sourced from carbohydrates (glycogen), which is stored mainly in the muscles (mostly the leg muscles due to their size). Riding at lower intensities but for longer will help your body to increase its ability to metabolise fat as a fuel due to higher oxygen availability.
Further physiological benefits include adaptations such as increased mitochondrial function, increased capillarization, and improvements to your fat metabolism. While your body can transport and utilise oxygen more efficiently, it will always use carbs. But, with aerobic base training, it will be able to metabolise carbs at a higher rate as your base fitness improves. And as your ability to produce energy increases, your ability to metabolize fat will also improve.
And this type of base training for cyclists can help you to ride longer without needing as much flapjack or ride fuel to keep you going. Or, at the very least, your ability for glycogen sparing will improve slightly. It isn’t something that will only benefit racing athletes, either. By improving your aerobic system and your fat metabolism, it’ll help you ride more efficiently and build your endurance so you can enjoy your time on the bike more.
While the paid professionals don’t have 9-5 jobs to worry about and thus can ride the equivalent hours of a job during their week, you don’t need to go to those extremes and start riding 20 hours a week to get the benefits of cycling aerobic base training.
If you can only squeeze in between 8-12 hours a week to train, you’ll still reap the rewards from this type of cycle training and improve your base fitness - leave the 20 hours+ to the professionals. Base training is usually done at the end of the season after a short break as a way of rebuilding towards the next year. Thus, you want to begin this block of your training plan between 6-12 weeks before your first event. This gives your body enough time to adapt and make the physiological gains necessary to improve your base fitness ahead of your goals next season.
You might hear stories of past excursions of pro riders like Eddy Merckx and his infamous base training plan where he took teammates on century rides almost daily just to get the most training miles in as possible over winter and increase his training volume. Luckily, you don’t need to rack up the miles to that level anymore to reap the performance benefits of base training. And if you’re a time-crunched amateur you don’t need to base (pardon the pun) your entire winter training on cycling over 20 hours a week. But, there are some benefits to allocating some of your training time to base hunting. So how can you do it?
The basis of aerobic base training is staying in the endurance cycling zones. This might be measured using heart rate or by power, but essentially you want to stay within the lower intensity Z1 and Z2. It’s actually a little trickier than you think to begin with due to the level of concentration you need to not accidentally push it into a moderate intensity ride or above while training. If you’re focusing on staying in these lower zones you want to try and reduce the amount of surging you do - so those short climbs or setting off from traffic lights need to be kept controlled. This phase of your training is not the time for any Strava crown hunting!
You might find that you need to focus a little more on not pushing into a moderate intensity, for example, Z3 or above on these base training rides, but that’s ok. It takes some practice to restrain yourself on a ride, especially if you find yourself being overtaken - trust in the process, all these steady long rides are building your base - and will pay dividends come spring. Try and stay consistent, and if you can, enjoy it! You finally have time to slow down and look at the views during base training rather than concentrating on your high intensity training efforts.
If you struggle to stay entertained on your steady long rides, perhaps you could create mini challenges for yourself on the road during your base training rides, like how long can you stay in steady Z2 on a particular bit of road rather than slipping into a moderate intensity? You could also mix up your cadence, drop it in the little ring and spin quickly and then back into the big ring for some slower reps. This type of cadence work helps to improve your pedal stroke and efficiency and given the time you have during the base training phase of your training plans, it’s worth getting to grips with the basics of cycling now rather than later in the year as the training volume decreases and the intensity training is increased.
For a lot of cyclists, the hardest part of aerobic base training isn’t the training itself. It’s the constant comparing of your performance to others, or wondering if this low intensity endurance training is going to benefit you and your base fitness. But the best thing you can do is to try and trust the process, knowing that you’re building the foundations for solid performances for the coming season.
Like any endurance specific training plans, base training is best used as part of periodisation, or phase training. What this means is that you incorporate this type of low intensity cycling into a specific part or phase of your season (or off-season). This is typically after the season has finished, and you have no more races or events for at least three months.
The best way to get the most out of a training program is by planning in advance. Look at your events and plans for the next year and decide when the best time would be to begin this low intensity cycling training. Once you’ve decided when to begin, you need to structure your weeks to incorporate the right amount of base training. For most of us, the longer endurance rides, which are key to improving your aerobic fitness, will come at the weekend, when we have the most available time per week.
Once you know realistically when you’ll be able to ride long and slow, you can begin to form your week around this. If you’re short on time, you might want to look at stringing a series of sessions together throughout the week instead. But we’ll look at this in greater detail.
It’s no secret that most of us are time crunched these days. In between parenting, working and having a social life, finding a couple of spare hours to yourself and fitting the right type of training in is difficult if you want to keep a healthy life balance. But there are ways that you can incorporate base training into your cycling training program without needing to disappear to Mallorca for three weeks for a training camp.
Unless you’re riding pro level hours each week, you might want to consider incorporating some intensity into your training in the form of intervals. Why? You need to make sure that you’re not reducing your overall workload compared to other parts of the season, otherwise you could lose your ability to work at higher work rates and at a higher intensity. If you’re a time-crunched cyclist that can only ride say four hours per week, incorporating some moderate intervals during the week will help you to see improvements.
Base training is good for providing the foundation upon which your riding fitness and top end power will be based, but you shouldn’t be solely relying on it if you’re not riding professional levels of time each week. The types of intervals you might want to consider are things like sweet spot efforts. These are intervals just below your FTP and help to improve your aerobic base without the fatigue that more intense efforts bring.
Base training is a great option for any cyclist looking to enhance their fitness over winter. Whatever your goal, be it racing or improving your endurance etc., there is a way of incorporating base training into your riding for every cyclist. You don’t need to reside yourself to hours of low intensity turbo sessions if you don’t have the time to dedicate to this. Instead, you can (and you should) or your coach should introduce some intensity in the form of intervals in some shorter rides during the week. Your main aerobic gains will come from those long slow rides in Z1/2 at the weekend, but to maintain your workload levels you shouldn’t solely rely on these to tide you over until spring.
If planning your own base training this winter seems like it’s too complicated, or you want to make sure you get it right, why not download Spoked for a free 14 day trial? It takes the guesswork out of training and costs a fraction of the price of a coach. It’s available on the App Store and Google Play.