The importance of base training

Your athletic base is the foundation of endurance upon which sport and event specific fitness is developed. Confused? If so that’s hardly surprising. Base is a poorly defined concept, further complicated by a growing belief in much of the popular literature that it is both an outdated concept and is far from the optimal way of spending your training time. Read on to discover the PBscience concept of what base training is and its importance as part your training.

What is ‘base’

Base training refers to a period of time spent working on endurance training, typically involving high volume, lower intensity training (zones 1-3). A word on the use of the term endurance here. Part of the argument against base training is that it does not improve fitness per se – fitness usually being defined in terms of VO2 max, MMP or any of the commonly used thresholds. Endurance is a different characteristic than that measured by lab or field testing – quite simply it is the ability to endure a specific intensity. For example, consider two athletes with a lactate threshold at 200W. The first athlete can complete 2hrs riding constantly at lactate threshold whereas the second can ride for 4hrs at the same intensity – in other words the second athlete has better endurance.

Another term often used in place of base training, especially in discussions on periodisation, is general conditioning. Sports scientists and coaches are generally agreed that the period of training that will have most effect on your race day performance occurs in the timeframe from 4-12 weeks out from your event. General conditioning then, occurs before this final period of race specific training – the aim in this phase is ‘training to train’. Rather than building race specific fitness by completing high intensity workouts replicating race demands (as these are best saved for the crucial 4-12 weeks out window) instead we are building our capacity to complete more of this work when the time comes. By working on building endurance, you will be able to better tolerate the race specific workouts and reduce the time taken to recover – the net result that you will be able to complete more specific training and obtain a higher level of performance.


Why is endurance work important?


It builds capacity to do work – as a general rule the more training you can complete and adapt to, the fitter you will become. Many training manuals advise against increasing training load by no more than 10% per week – this progression is a gross overestimate of what is possible in athletic populations! Instead a better rule of thumb is an increase of training load by 10% year on year for athletes who are already training at a reasonable level. As part of a strategy for Long Term Athlete Development, a solid foundation of base training each year will build this capacity to complete the training loads ultimately needed for successful performance.

Allows rest from physical and mental demands of HIT – in case you hadn’t noticed, interval training is HARD! A period of base training (while still fatiguing) will build the structures to physically tolerate the high levels of stress this sort of training causes, for example increased glycogen storage, capillarisation, increased mitochondria etc, but will also save your mental strength for when it counts – that crucial training period from 4-12 weeks out from your goal event.

Brings improved efficiency – remember that endurance performance is governed by maximum aerobic capacity, the ability to sustain a high percentage of that maximum (e.g. high lactate threshold) and also efficiency. Physiologists are not certain as to the best ways to improve efficiency but the highest levels are generally found in high mileage riders, in other words those riders with a consistently high training volume over several years. Base training is a chance to complete such a period of increased volume with the aim of improving your efficiency.

Characteristics of elite athletes – studies of elite athletes consistently show that endurance athletes across a range of sports (x-country skiing, cycling, running, rowing) have a polarised range of training intensities. Typically 80%+ of total training time is spent at intensities below 80% VO2max (i.e. zone 3 and below) with the remainder comprising interval training at 90%+ VO2max. Some might argue that this has little relevance to amateur athletes training alongside family and work commitments but given the consistency with which this finding has been observed across a range of endurance sports it seems foolhardy to ignore the findings completely. Time starved athletes may be best served training at the top end of the suggested intensity range but the basic principle still holds.

How do I build my base?

Hopefully by now you are sold on the benefits for devoting time in the off-season to building a solid base. Here are some tips on the most effective ways to do this

Train in zones 2 or 3 – base training is not about logging junk miles. The end goal for building your base is the capacity to complete back to back rides in zone 3 over several days – with well developed endurance it should be possible to complete up to 3 x 3 hour zone 3 rides on consecutive days. It may take several seasons to build to this level so start out trying to log as much time in the window 5bpm (or 10W) below your LT HR (or power). Once you can complete long rides at this intensity with minimal ‘decoupling’ (see the fact sheet entitled ‘The relationship between heart rate and power’), then add in some blocks at mid zone 3 before finally progressing to entire rides in zone 3. This strategy is explained in more detail in the fact sheet ‘Pushing and Pulling’ and see ‘Training in zone2’ and ‘Training in zone 3’ for more on the physiology.


Cut out or limit HIT – it can be very difficult psychologically to let go of your top end fitness but have faith that stripping back in the off season will allow you to rebuild to a higher level the following year. By completing intense training alongside your base work you risk sending mixed messages in terms of the adaptive processes. The signalling processes that lead to improved fitness/endurance are very complicated and there is a large body of evidence suggesting that training different characteristics at the same time means that you don’t get the full benefits of either. There is also the increased risk of overtraining using mixed intensity training programs – the combination of volume and intensity makes it much more likely to overstep the balance between training load and adequate recovery.

High volume – to get the most out of your base training you will need to hit a relatively increased training volume. You may be familiar with tables such as above highlighting that training in zone 4 (and above) is the most potent stimulus for the adaptations we desire such as increased numbers of mitochondria, lactate threshold, capillarisation etc. However it is important to note the results of research such as that published by Dudley in 1982. This research group showed that although training at higher intensities was more effective at improving endurance for training sessions of up to 1 hour (as measured by increases in oxidative enzymes), beyond that the ability to sustain the lower intensities for longer outweighed the benefit of extra intensity. To get the most out of your base training, aim to complete as many rides of 2 hours + as possible!

Cadence – try to train at a range of cadences during the base phase. This will place extra demand on muscle recruitment patterns with the aim of developing pedalling skill and efficiency. Introducing sessions such as “fast pedals” and “cadence pyramids” at this stage will allow you to develop new muscle firing patterns without the complication of high levels of metabolic stress. When you come to move to higher intensities sessions like this will help ensure that gains in efficiency are readily transferred.


Other things to consider during base training

As we have already seen, base training is about preparing to complete the race specific training characterising the final months before your event. On one hand there is the preparation of your physiology to cope with the requisite training load but there is more to performance than just training. Here are some suggestions as to other things you may wish to consider but this list is by no means exclusive!

Bike fit – if you want to make changes to your position, now is the time to do it. Whether this involves a visit to the wind tunnel, a professional bike fit or some personal trial and error with some different components, completing any changes at the beginning of your base training allows you time to build mileage in the new position. Efficiency is position specific – to become more efficient on your bike you must train in the position you race in.

swiss-ball-dorsal-raise21Flexibility – perhaps you know that tight glutes/hamstrings are preventing you from generating power in a low, aerodynamic position. The reduced stress outside of the race season may offer the opportunity to attend yoga classes or develop your own routine to alleviate any tightness.

Strength training – whether simply some basic core stability or specific work to develop limb strength you may benefit from some winter strength training, if not for performance gains then at least for general health and athleticism.

Body composition – the off season can be a time for a cyclist’s weight to ‘balloon’. If improved body composition is a goal for next season then at the very least try to prevent excessive gain over the winter months. Rather than simply maintenance of body weight, the off season can be the

best time to trim any excess body fat. Whereas restricting dietary intake in the season can hinder recovery from racing and HIT, there is some evidence that restricting calories during endurance training blocks is less of an issue and potentially a means to enhance the adaptive processes to such training. See the fact sheet entitled ‘Train low’ and speak to your coach if this goal resonates with you.

Mental strategies – as well as training your body, now can be a time to train your mind. Try incorporating psychological strategies such as imagery or mental rehearsal around your training at this time of the year and by the time competition arrives your routines will be well honed and feel like second nature.

To summarize

  • Train in zones 2 and 3, building intensity as your endurances grows
  • Aim for every pedal stroke ‘in zone’, returning with average power/heart rate in zone is not enough
  • Train at a range of cadences
  • Make an effort to work on weaknesses in terms of position/flexibility etc
  • Keep your volume as consistently high as possible
  • Look for changes in your power:heart rate relationship as signs your endurance is improving
  • Limit or remove any higher intensity work