The purpose of base training is to establish a foundation of fitness that will allow cyclists to build towards their physiological potential for a goal event. It may seem counterintuitive to revert to base training every year after reaching new heights of performance, but this strategy pays dividends come race season.

Why Base Training is Important

Much like a pyramid, our fitness is built in a hierarchal fashion with the initial work serving as a critical foundation that will eventually support a higher peak. This foundation is achieved through effective base training in which a cyclist raises their fitness level. During this phase there are various transformations happening on different levels, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll just focus on the efficiency of muscles to transform energy into speed on the bike.

As you focus your training on developing your aerobic capacity, you train your body to become more efficient at turning fat into a fuel source with oxygen. This transformation takes place within the mitochondria in your muscles. So, as you spend more time stressing your aerobic energy system, your body creates more mitochondria that are more efficient. The best news of all is that your mitochondria are involved in turning energy into speed at higher intensities as well as low intensities.

The Traditional Approach

The traditional approach to base training has athletes putting in long hours on the bike at lower intensities (less than 75% FTP) so that they are using as much of their aerobic energy system as possible. It’s a logical solution that has additional benefits that include an increased dependency on fat as a fuel source, and an opportunity to mentally reset from an arduous season of training and racing. It can be effective, but it is hindered by a number of factors that affect the large majority of cyclists.

Firstly, this type of easy riding requires a completely different mentality than a racer’s mentality. After a season of hard racing at high intensities, it can be extremely demotivating to spin easily for hours on end, turn down a friendly city limits sprint with your mates or avoid going for PRs on your favorite climbs. What this does is label base training as a period of necessary evil during your training plan, hence the bad reputation base training has earned.

However deterring the mentality may be, it is nowhere near as restrictive as availability. While there are plenty of cyclists that have more than ten hours to train per week, they are a very small minority amongst cyclists around the world. Most people are time-poor with greater family and professional responsibilities that limit their available training time. The reason this is so limiting in the context of traditional base training is due to the fact that the improvements you are chasing only come through a very large amount of volume. If a cyclist is training at these low intensities without high volume, then they are doing very little to build their aerobic capacity.

The Sweet-Spot Approach

Nearly all cyclists have schedules that don’t allow them to put in the necessary training volume to get the desired adaptations out of a traditional base training approach. But that doesn’t mean cyclists shouldn’t dedicate time to base training. The Sweet Spot approach foregoes the high volume – low intensity approach for one of low volume – high intensity, allowing cyclists to build their aerobic capacity in less time while preparing for the intense demands of race season.

The way this is accomplished is through higher intensity intervals that fall inside or around the Sweet Spot power zone (84 – 97%). These are far from all-out efforts and although the anaerobic energy system is beginning to be utilized, the aerobic system is still being relied upon to a large degree. Even with higher intensity efforts like this, when the aerobic system is being stressed, groundwork is being laid to increase aerobic capacity.

This greater intensity allows cyclists to increase their aerobic capacity in less time while also building their anaerobic capacity. It’s hard work, but it’s engaging and very effective at preparing cyclists for a successful season of racing.

Listen to Certified Cycling Coaches Discuss Base Training

“Can I skip base training?” is one question we answered in last week’s episode of Ask a Cycling Coach. Listen to the episode’s full recording below to hear this and other questions from cyclists get answered by our certified cycling coaches.

Additional Notes

TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast is dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. It gives you the chance to get answers to your cycling and triathlon training questions from USAC certified coaches Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee and special guests. Learn more about other topics we covered in the latest episode with our resources below:

For more answers to your cycling training questions, listen to our podcast Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.

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Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is a Level II USA certified cycling coach and the host of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. His background in the sport of motocross has translated into a passion for cycling, mountain biking and all things training. If you have a training question, submit your question for Jonathan to answer on the next episode of TrainerRoad’s podcast.

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