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The purpose of base training for cycling

Base training plays a critical role in every athlete’s development and can make or break the outcome of your season.

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You either love it or you hate it. Some people thrive during the base training period; they love the lower intensities, a little less structure, and the long hours on the bike. Others would rather get straight to the point with all-out intervals and skip the seemingly arduous days in the saddle. No matter your emotional relationship with base training, it’s here to stay. Base training plays a critical role in every athlete’s development and can make or break the outcome of your season. Since base training can require a significant time commitment it’s important to understand the purpose so you can feel a bit more dedicated to the cause.


What is base training?

Base training usually occurs at the beginning of an athlete’s season. It is referred to as ‘base training’ because it lays the foundation — or base — in which all other intervals and efforts will rely on for the rest of the season. If you were to skip base training altogether and go straight to high-intensity intervals you risk injury, burn out, and fizzling out before the end of the season or even the end of your race.

Base training usually involves an endurance element so, ideally, base training rides will last anywhere from 2-6 hours in length. For the purposes of this article, base training is any ride that is aerobic, or with oxygen. This means that during a base training ride you should have control over your breathing. Aerobic rides could range in intensity from long slow distance, tempo, or even sweet spot. Base training rides should rarely — if ever — exceed threshold intensity.

Adaptations to base training

Heart adaptations: Aerobic training has the ability to increase stroke volume (the amount of blood moved with each heartbeat), decrease resting- and submaximal heart rates, and decrease the heart rate recovery period.1

In other words, during base training, your heart will adapt to the training. One of the ways it does this is by increasing its ability to fill with blood. When more blood enters the heart, the heart will have a stronger contraction to expel the blood and there will be more blood per heartbeat. When the stroke volume increases in this way, fewer heartbeats are needed to circulate the same amount of blood. That explains why your heart rate will be lower at rest and lower when exercising aerobically. When your heart rate is lower than previous times when riding at the same intensity, it is a good indication that you are getting fitter. Finally, with aerobic exercise adaptations, your heart rate will return to its resting state more quickly after intensity, thus allowing you to recover faster, even on the fly.

  • Blood flow adaptations: Base training is aerobic training which enables the body to increase blood flow to active muscles. This is achieved through an increase in the number of capillaries and more efficient use of the existing capillaries. In fact, capillaries can increase by upwards of 15 percent with large amounts of aerobic training.1 Additionally, aerobic training allows the body to increase its total blood volume to match the body’s blood flow needs thereby enhancing the oxygen-carrying ability to the muscles.
  • Respiratory adaptations: Base training can also help to decrease breathing rates at submaximal intensities by as much as 20-30 percent.1 This simply means that at the same intensity you won’t be breathing as hard as you did prior to base training. It can also help increase your ability to breathe harder when it is needed, thus laying a foundation for those higher intensity intervals later in the season.
  • Muscular adaptations: Your muscles will also adapt to be more efficient at aerobic exercise. Myoglobin, which helps carry oxygen, can be increased by as much as 75-80 percent with aerobic training.1 Most people have also heard mitochondria being referred to as the ‘powerhouse of the cell.’ These mitochondria powerhouses will increase in size and number with aerobic training and therefore help the body create more available energy.

Why can’t I go faster?

You might be looking at these adaptations and feel excited about the progress you could make in your fitness. In fact, you might be so excited that you are tempted to take your bike outside and hammer away. Not so fast, though.

Most of the adaptations mentioned above can only occur when the body is exercising with adequate oxygen levels. Meaning that if you push yourself too hard, you will by-pass the benefits of aerobic or base training all together. That’s why during base training, some athletes may even feel a bit held back when their coach prescribes the lower intensities.

When is enough, enough?

Eventually, once the foundation is laid, you will be able to begin to incorporate some higher intensity efforts. It’s recommended to have about 12-24 weeks of aerobic or base training before upping the effort to high-intensity intervals. If that range sounds broad, it’s because it is. The need for extensive aerobic training will vary from one athlete to another not only based on personal physiology, but also based on experience level.

Back to base-ics

Base training is not only essential for your cycling fitness, but it can be a nice time to slow down a bit and really enjoy turning over the pedals. In a few months, when you’re going all-out and chasing after every watt, you won’t have time to look at the scenery. Plus, if you focus hard enough, you can almost feel all of those adaptations taking place.

1. Kenney, W. Larry, et al. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics, 2015.