Base Training and Developing an Aerobic Base
Traditional base training – long and steady rides are social, good for morale and worth factoring in to your training plan, however devoting an entire winter, or even a single phase purely to this type of riding may leave you scratching your head come start of the season as to where your form is.
World Tour Pro’s need an element of traditional base training, to condition their bodies to being sat on a bike for up to 7 hours a day. However, if you are not a pro, and do not race across 7 hours, where you are required to produce big powers after 6 hours of riding – you don’t really need to spend massive amounts of time building an aerobic base. Instead, you can build your base the smart way – by training more intensely.
What does ‘Base Training’ do for us?
The idea of base training is that doing a large volume of riding at a low to moderate intensity will result in increased capillary density (greater perfusion of oxygenated blood into muscles) and greater mitochondrial density. The latter is important because more and bigger mitochondria in muscle cells increase your capacity to break down carbohydrate and fat into usable energy more quickly. Processing more fat and carbohydrate per minute through mitochondria increases maximum sustainable power or pace. It also means you can operate at a lower percentage of your VO2 Max at your “all day” pace, which may help you rely on a higher percentage of fat for energy and conserve stored carbohydrate. Those sound like ideal gains right?
Great if you are a Pro…
Unless you are a pro, it’s likely you have a finite amount of time to train, around work, family, friends, and other aspects of life that take up our time. Let’s call this amount of time 6 hours for arguments sake (its likely between 4 and 12 hours for most of us). Applying the traditional model for developing your base would see you spend all the time you have available, in this case 6 hours, training at a moderate intensity. This results in a much lower total workload and stress on your aerobic system compared with 6 hours of structured training, across all training Zones. The net result from 6 hours steady is a less training stimulus and less positive adaption.
Looking at the above Performance Management Chart from Training Peaks – the period covered within area 1 shows training intensely, towards the back end of the season at 6 hours per week.
Period 2 shown by the second smaller red shape, is also 2 hours riding a week, but 6 hours spent traditionally base training – 6 hours Zone 2. You can see the drop in Chronic Training Load (CTL – blue line), which represents a drop in fitness. Whilst this riders ‘form’ or Training Stress Balance (TSB – yellow line) is raising, this is not good for the long term fitness.
When your training volume is near constant and limited by your available hours to train per week, a reduced intensity only reduces your total work done – your Chronic Training Load (CTL). With this reduction in CTL is a drop in fitness.
What really matters is the power we can produce at lactate threshold and VO2 Max
The limiting factors to our cycling ability is generally your power at lactate threshold, your power at VO2 max, and how long you can maintain those intensity levels. These three factors can be improved with a lower volume (6 hours + a week) and higher intensity workouts, stressing all three of our energy systems, and critically engaging our fast twitch muscle fibers.
Base training only really works when you are able to significantly increase your training volume, to maintain or increase the total workload, despite the reduced intensity. Reducing the intensity and maintaining volume will see your power at lactate threshold and VO2 max decline significantly, and with that you will become a slower bike rider.
Even ultra-distance competitors, like 100-mile mountain bike racers, super endurance sportives, and Ironman triathletes, benefit more from training that elevates power/pace at LT and VO2 max compared to performing more volume at low intensity. In a well-trained endurance athlete more volume at low intensity will no longer result in greater mitochondrial density (they’ve already adapted to the intensity level required)1 (Dudley, 1982). To get faster they need to stimulate mitochondrial development with higher intensity efforts.2 (Burgomaster, 2005) Very long training sessions are still necessary, but more from an experimental standpoint than a physiological one (Jim Rutberg, Coach for Carmichael Training Systems).
A great opportunity to do some steady riding, or traditional base training comes on training camps. We head for the sun, reduce a load of life stress from the week (work being the major one) and give ourselves chance to focus on our cycling. In these conditions, we have far more time to train, time to focus on our recovery and little else to do other than simply function around our cycling.
Take our 6 hour a week example – where all our riding is intense and focused. In a training camp environment, factoring in plenty of base training and general conditioning, as a rule of thumb you can realistically triple your volume of training, whilst maintaining the intensity.
So this means, rather than your normal 60 minute turbo session littered with efforts and intervals, you can add in 2 hours of general riding for that aerobic base, but maintain the same intervals – critically not doing any more.
Once you are back from the days 3 hours of training, sure you will be fatigued, but you are in an environment conducive to training and recovery. Nutrition is critical – making sure you take on your carbohydrates (1.5g of carbs per kg of bodyweight in an intense training camp environment), plus your 25-30g of protein depending on how big you are.
A recovery shake is ideal post training ride, as they often contain all you need – nutrients and minerals, carbohydrates and protein, plus they are so convenient. Science in Sport, REGO is my personal favorite – Banana flavor.
‘Muscle protein synthesis is maximized by 25-30 grams of high quality protein during a meal’ says Doug Paddon-Jones Ph. D., a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Aim for 1.2-1.6g of protein in total per day (higher if looking to lose weight or have high energy needs, i.e. on training camp).
The key however also lies in protein timing, ensuring good distribution of 3-4 protein feedings per day, to maximise recovery.
Suggested sessions for developing your aerobic base and aerobic efficiency;
Session 1 – 2 x 15 Min blocks of Sweet Spot (90% of FTP)
Session 2 – 30 Second Zone 5 (120% of FTP) – 90 Seconds Rest x 10.
Session 3 – Cafe ride with mates followed by Session 2.
Article written by Rowe & King Coach, Matt Rowe