Base training season may be one of the most important times of the year. When races are few and far between, athletes must still find the motivation to saddle up and put in the time. The work that athletes do during base training season isn’t always glamorous, in fact, some may wonder what the point is at all. But the work you do during base season will stay with you all season long. As a coach, the best way I find that I can motivate athletes to put in the work is to explain what’s happening during those long hours in the saddle.
What is base training?
Base training is the foundational work that will carry the weight of your higher efforts all season long. If you think of your training like a pyramid, then your base training will be the wide foundation of the pyramid and the top part of the pyramid will be those high-intensity efforts and race-specific preparation. For this reason, your base foundation must be solid before moving on to different types of work.
Base training is lower intensity, longer work. Therefore, base training rides will usually last between two and six hours in length, depending on your experience and time availability. Base training is completed in an aerobic state, meaning that base training should be completed ‘with oxygen.’ In other words, during base training, you should feel like you have control over your breathing most of the time.
Why base training is important
Exercise where you don’t have to breathe too hard? It almost seems counterintuitive, but it’s so important. When you train your body aerobically your body makes specific adaptations that cannot happen with higher intensity training. Base training can help your heart pump more blood per beat, thus slowing your heart rate. It also increases the number of capillaries and increases the efficiency of those capillaries, which increases blood flow to active muscles. Finally, your respiratory rates will decrease and your mitochondria will increase in size and number which gives your body more available energy.
If all of those physiological changes and adaptations aren’t enough to convince you that base training is a critical part of making you a better athlete, consider the fact that base training will allow you to be more resilient all season long. If you usually experience a dip in fitness part-way through the season, consider building a larger base pre-season or even re-visit base training for a short period of time in the middle of the season.
Can you skip base training?
While some athletes consider skipping the base period because of their athletic history or other time constraints, it’s not recommended. Base training can benefit athletes of all levels and abilities, although the base training strategy and plan will vary from one athlete to another.
How much can I build?
Inevitably, base training should have some sort of a build component. If you are already training six hours a week with intervals, and you simply eliminate the intervals but still train for six hours a week at a lower intensity, you won’t get quite the adaptations that we are looking for. That said, if your schedule allows it, you want to increase your training load gradually, over time, during the base training phase.
Consider increasing your training load approximately 10 percent from one week to the next and having a recovery or de-load week every 4 weeks during that build. If you are looking for year-over-year progression, an amateur athlete may try to increase their overall volume during the base training phase anywhere from five to 15 percent from one year to the next.
How to do base training with time constraints
If you have already maxed out your training time, then all is not lost, you just need to get a little bit more creative. First, see if you can squeeze out any more hours in the day. Keep in mind that they don’t always need to be consecutive. If you can get in 1.5 hours before work and another hour when you get home then that time will add up quickly to increase your overall volume.
Once you know that you have maximized your time, start looking at the type of work that you are doing. While someone with unlimited time may be able to strain their aerobic system with long, six-hour endurance rides, someone with a maximum of two hours a day will likely need to add in some tempo and sweet spot intervals. Tempo and sweet spot are the perfect type of intervals to use during the base training phase because they are still completed using the aerobic system since they are under threshold. A combination of long endurance rides with intervals (under-threshold) may be the ideal recipe for base training.
Try it for yourself and remember that everyone’s life is a little different so your training will need to be too. Try a strategy this season and make note of how you feel during base training, after base training, and mid-season. Often times the best research we can do is track and monitor ourselves.