Base Miles vs High Intensity Training in the Winter




Mitochondria are small structures found in most cells and are often referred to as the “powerhouse” of the cell. Mitochondria transform energy from food into cellular energy. Exercise increases the number of mitochondria improving your body’s ability to produce energy. This is the aim of the winter – to develop your Mitochondria density. There are two schools of thought as to how best to do this – Long Steady Base Miles vs High Intensity Training.

Should the winter (off-season) be for base miles and the summer for high intensity training? Or is this an old fashioned view on the world of cycling? Either way – the goal is to develop that Mitochondria!


Tight for time?

The key is to make the most of the time you have available to train – we are not all pro’s with 20+ hours a week to train. However, even for amateurs with full time demanding jobs – the winter is all about getting in lots of hours on the bike – plenty of base miles – 4-5 hour rides at a low intensity? This is certainly the approach that the majority took as recently as 5 years ago, however as we become increasingly educated and scientific in our approach to cycle training – there is much debate as to how you should spend your winter on the bike.

Traditionally, winter base training is characterised by a large volume (many hours) at a relatively low intensity (low effort / power output) – i.e. a club run. On a club run, the majority of the time you sit in the wheels, riding in Zone 2, putting a little stress on the body to promote physical adaptions – development of an aerobic base, which you then follow up with intervals that are more specific later in the year.

23-12-2015 Pen Y Lan Cardiff Rowe and King Promotional Images Luke Rowe Team Sky and Dani King of Team Wiggle Honda on a Training Ride Rowe & King
23-11-2016 Pen Y Lan Cardiff Rowe and King Promotional Images
Luke Rowe Team Sky and Dani King of Team Cylance Pro Cycling on a Winter Training Ride
Rowe & King
Photo Credit- Huw Fairclough Photography

Base Miles

The issue with this approach is that to develop significant physical adaptions, you need to spend many hours in the saddle, which most of us do not have time for.

The good news is that if you cannot commit to the traditional ‘lots of steady hours in the winter’ – base training approach, it does not mean you cannot improve on a diet of short, intense workouts. Rowe & King pride ourselves on being smart with the limited amount of time most people have to ride a bike – we ensure that you are rewarded for every minute you put in to cycling.

There is no single approach to high intensity winter training that will give you the optimum physical adaptions – it is very much dependent upon you as an individual, which is why Rowe & King do not prescribe off the shelf training plans – that is what google is for.

By training smart and going through the correct phases – it is possible to compete in the world’s biggest races as a World Tour Pro on a diet of 10 hours cycling. So there is no reason why you cannot smash your next Sportive, 10 Mile Time Trial or Road Race next year without banking 6000 miles this winter.


Photo Credit- Huw Fairclough Photography

High Intensity Training

Now you may be able to skip those 6000 Base Miles in near freezing temperatures – but the alternative is challenging in its own way, but it is fantastic for those of us who are tight for time.

With high intensity training, the sessions are often mentally challenging, and it is a fine art in completing a mix of the right type of efforts. This is where a well-structured, periodised training plan comes in to its own.

What we all want to do when we train is increase the size and density of the mitochondria, in order to convert more fuel into usable energy. If you are successful in doing this then you will see improvements at all levels of performance, not just at an aerobic or endurance level.

A Scientific Study

A 2008 study by exercise physiologist Karl Burgomaster showed that a HIIT (high intensity interval training) programme gave similar benefits in the quantity of oxidative enzymes (the substance in the mitochondria that processes oxygen) compared with traditional base training. What that means for you and me is that if you have limited time to commit to training (and we are talking roughly eight hours a week or less), you can still hope for bigger things next season.

Of course, the low intensity/high volume model will still boost your fitness, it’s just those riders who use high intensity training are just taking a different route to the end result and there are pros and cons to each model.

The trouble with base training is that the time required to put enough stress on our physiological system to bring about significant gains is not practical for the majority of people who have other commitment outside of cycling. High intensity training, on the other side, also serves to stimulate more physiological systems within your body than endurance training.

What that means is that by using HIIT you will maintain a high level of aerobic fitness (just as you could if you commit to a high volume programme) but also keep your VO2/anaerobic adaptations alive at the top-end of your fitness. If, when doing base training, you weren’t to stress the full range of physiological parameters for months on end, then as you get closer to your target event, you may find that it takes 2-3 weeks just to adapt to the new intensity before you even start to ‘build’ your fitness at a higher intensity. Doing intermittent bouts of high intensity training throughout the winter will not just maintain a base fitness but also make sure you are already adapted and ready to make big gains as you approach your major goals and up your training once again to work on top-end form.

Am I doing too much?

The fear is that by training intensly, you may ‘burn out’. The reality is that 4 hours out in the elements at a moderate intensity will put a greater stress on your body compared with 90 minutes of measured intervals.


Enjoyment Factor

What is the reason you cycle? Likely because you ‘love it’!! So its vital that you keep some of what made you fall in love with the sport, within your weekly training. If you love getting out with friends on the weekend for a 4 hour ride with a cafe stop – don’t neglect it in favour of a 90 minute turbo session having read this article. Variety is the spice of life – keep it fresh and make sure you maintain some of what you really enjoy.


There is no right and wrong approach, however in order to get the most out of the usually limited time we have available to train – it’s the high intensity approach that works best for the majority of us, which is why at Rowe & King, we live by ‘Train Smart – Not More’.

It is still advantagous to get at least one low intensity, aerobic session in each week – so if training for less than an hour a few times during the week, coupled with a longer road ride on the weekend sounds like you – the good news is that next year could be your best yet!

Just remember – if your target event is a few months away, you should avoid hitting peak form by ensuring you have a well-structured training plan to take you through the phases of; Strength > Power > Speed, in a controlled and sustainable manner.


Ride Out.


Article Written by Rowe & King Coach Jake Siddall.