Why Base Training in Winter Will Never Make You Fast

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By Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach and co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and “The Time-Crunched Triathlete”

I would love to build a huge aerobic base the old fashioned way, but I love my wife and I’m pretty fond of my kids and my career. To ride 12-20 hours a week these days I would have to pull the nuclear option on my life and that’s just not going to happen. I’m not alone. In fact, after 15 years in the coaching business I’d argue there are more athletes like me – both competitors and non-competitors – than there are athletes who are consistently devoted to more than 8 hours of weekly training.

And yet the concept of “base building” still persists as the training standard for endurance athletes in the winter. Let me put this as simply as I can: Riding the same weekly training hours that you are already habituated to (because that’s all the time you have) at lower intensities than your fitness can already support won’t produce a stronger base of aerobic fitness.

Base training – a high volume of low to moderate-intensity training sessions – only works when you can accumulate significant weekly hours at those intensities. In a traditional endurance periodization plan, these foundational months of training are filled with long rides. You’re putting in the long miles in the winter so you can support the higher-intensity, shorter, race-specific interval workouts that come later in the spring and summer. But when your other priorities cut down your training volume and you still continue with predominantly low-intensity training, you are not generating enough total workload (training stress) to produce the adaptations you’re looking for.

One of those important adaptations is an increase in the size and density of mitochondria, the organelles in muscle cells that process fat and carbohydrate to usable energy. Oh, and they also finish the process of reintegrating lactate into normal metabolism, breaking this partially-burned carbohydrate the rest of the way down to usable energy. Having more and bigger mitochondria means you can do all of the above faster, and that means more usable energy per minute during exercise – at all intensity levels! You want to go faster, more energy per minute means higher power output. You want to go longer, bigger mitochondria mean maintaining a moderate pace is less fatiguing and more reliant on fat for energy.

The alternative to traditional base building for time-crunched athletes

The goal is the same: we want greater mitochondrial density. The pathway is just different.

Workouts: Instead of long and easy to moderate intensity rides, time-crunched athletes need three interval sessions per week and no more than 5 workouts total (most time-crunched athletes struggle to consistently schedule more than four anyway). A Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday interval schedule with a longer ride on Sunday is pretty typical.

Intervals: Lactate threshold intervals (6-12minutes each) progressing to VO2 max intervals (30-second to 4-minute max efforts, short recoveries) produce the necessary training stress. Remember, even though you’re not peaking for a January or February event, high-intensity intervals stimulate aerobic system development as well as high-end power. At this time of year you’re primary goal is the aerobic system development so prioritize the accumulated time at high intensity rather than reaching for absolute peak power outputs with each interval.

Periodization: This is important! The traditional endurance periodization plan is a long, gradual ramp up to a high peak. That’s why high-volume athletes can and should spend months focused on base building. Time-crunched athletes need shorter, focused periods of higher intensity followed by substantial (4 weeks) periods focused on recovery and moderate-intensity rides. So an 8 or 9-week period of progressively increasing workload (with a rest week about week 4) should be followed by a 4-week period that’s focused on endurance. Over the course of a year this yields incremental improvements in sustainable power at lactate threshold with each successive build period. During those 4-week periods between builds, be sure to maintain your training schedule even if the intensity is lower; once that training time is siphoned off to other activities it is difficult to get it back.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What about strength training? Most time-crunched athletes struggle to find enough time to devote to on-bike training, let alone a strength program. If you have some extra time, focus on strength training that supports an active lifestyle rather than one that’s specific to cycling.

Will intensity in the winter lead to injuries? Athletes get injured when their training load is too high and they are not adequately recovered, not because it’s winter. High-volume athletes sometimes risk injury by training hard in winter because they are not adequately recovered from the previous season. Time-crunched athletes don’t typically generate enough fatigue to need such a prolonged recuperation period.

Aren’t long rides better for training my body to burn fat? Potentially, yes. But if you don’t have time available for those long rides, and particularly for enough of those long rides, it’s a moot point. Work to optimize the impact you can have on your fitness in the time you have available to train. If you have limited time, focus on increasing the power you can produce and accelerating your ability to process fuel and oxygen.

Suggested Reading

Burgomaster KA, Heigenhauser GJF & Gibala MJ (2006). Effect of short-term sprint interval training on human skeletal muscle carbohydrate metabolism during exercise and time trial performance. J Appl Physiol 100, 2041–2047.

Burgomaster KA, Hughes SC, Heigenhauser GJF, Bradwell SN & Gibala MJ (2005). Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. J Appl Physiol 98, 1985–1990.

Coyle EF (2005). Very intense exercise-training is extremely potent and time efficient: a reminder. J Appl Physiol 98, 1983–1984.

Gibala MJ, Little JP, van Essen M, et al. Short-term interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol. 2006;575:901–911.

Iaia FM1, Bangsbo J. Speed endurance training is a powerful stimulus for physiological adaptations and performance improvements of athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 2:11-23

Skelly LE, Gibala MJ, et al. High-intensity interval exercise induces 24-h energy expenditure similar to traditional endurance exercise despite reduced time commitment. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Jul;39(7):845-8.


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Comments 18

  1. is it ever a good idea to supplement this program with base miles on the front end. Looking at winter training and maybe doing some base work and THEN getting into the suffering. Are there pros/cons to this? Is it a stupid idea?

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  3. 1. Base training these days are not the “traditional base” training anymore.
    2. The other important aspect in training is gearing it towards your type of event.
    3. Also, most AG cyclists (people with family) are mentally in off mode in off season. One can easily burn out doing high intensity during winter, even with proper recovery. Physically we can take it, mentally it can push cyclists off the edge, especially indoor.
    4. If one is time crunched like 6hrs a week. He/she can rarely be able to be good at crit style racing, while also good at TT, or much longer rides. The “Time Crunched Cyclists” specifically mentioned about this.

    My personal experience. My first year of training with a coach. I did a lot of high intensity and tempo and avg 4-6hr per week. I went from 160w to 220w in just 4months. (220w is not a lot for most people but I am very light and it was my first year with structured training) I could TT at 220w, and fell off the bike after the effort felt completely depleted.

    Then I entered a 5 day event at the end of the season with just the right peaking. 1st day was 18km TT and it was easy. The next 4 days were 100km-125km/day. 1 day flat road, 2 days some rolling hills, 1 day with lots to 10%-15% and even over 20% climbs. The weather here in Thailand during that even got as hot as 42deg Celsius. It was brutal.

    My avg watt in those long rides were a miserable 130w or less each day.

    The thing is, one can have a nice looking FTP, but can he/she ride at high aerobic to mid tempo power through a century of grand fondo distance. In my case it should be 143w-170w.

    This off season (my off season is raining season, not winter. It is still warm and humid as I reside in the South East Asia) I rested for a couple of weeks, and then I started with BASE. In a matter of 5 weeks I can ride 3hrs at 150w, 2.5hr at 165w, with just 2 bananas. Only doing 6-7hrs a week. The BASE I am doing is top of zone 2, coupled with very short period in low tempo. HR decreases gradually at same power on weekly basis. I can still do 2minx10 at 120% of 220w, with a lower HR, less fatigue.

    Starting from the 7th week the BASE changed to more time in low zone 3 but still majority in mid zone 2, with the power figure in those zones raised but HR not increasing and eventually lower. A bonus, I’ve lost 5lbs already without dropping FTP. It is very hard to lose body fat doing HIIT.

    The modern knowledge of BASE training is that you don’t need to do it 12-20hrs weekly. More like 8hrs max. And it ONLY works if you have not done it before, then you can benefit greatly in the first few seasons you try it. For cyclists who did it several seasons already in great hours they won’t see benefit from it unless they push the hours to the extreme end.

    The last 2-3 weeks of this “BASE” will see intervals sub-threshold, threshold, Vo2, still based at least 60%-80% of zone 2. (with zone 2 now getting ridiculous high actually into zone 3 but HR at zone 2)

    The goal is simple, be able to ride in higher zone (zone 3) for hours, be able to go into zone 4, 5, 6 repeatedly to stay with the peloton and recover quickly to avoid getting dropped (On the flat the AG peloton travels at 36km-45km and last 10-20km it’s a lot of attacks constantly go into high 40s and over, and go past the finish line at 58-60km/h)

    So, base training has its place even for the time crunched, but it’s done quite differently.

    Also, weight training on legs are useless. If you want leg strength just do super low cadence 60rpm or even lower at zone 3-4 for blocks of time, but make sure you combine high cadence at low zone because low cadence tempo can easily bring your natural cadence down.

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  5. I don’t know if anyone still monitors this thread, but I have started doing this program and I’m achieving excellent results with a very short time commitment. I am currently entering the fifth week which will be a rest week for me and I am curious as to exactly how I should proceed with the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth weeks. Specifically, when should I begin the V02 Max intervals? For the first four weeks, I progressively increased my interval time from 2 x 6 minutes up to 2 x 12 minutes in the fourth week. I will be done this fourth week now and will be entering the rest week. I progressively increased my interval time from 2 x 6 minutes up to 2 x 12 minutes in the fourth week. I will be done this fourth week now and will be entering the rest week. Should I begin the VO to Max intervals in the sixth week? If so, exactly what percentage of FTP should they be performed at and for what duration as well as how many sets? What specifically is the rest time I should have between each of these intervals? Finally what is the total number of interval I should perform in each session? I would very much appreciate a response to this as this is actually the first structured plan I have ever followed and I’m really looking forward to seeing what type of results I can achieve with it. Thank you very much in advance.

    1. if you are performing VO2max int they should be at 110%-125% of your FTP and it should be a 1to1 int:rest period. id start with 3min on 3min off in a block of 5.
      curious why did you start your threshld int at 6min? from what i have read it seems the shortest they should be is around 10min/5min off.
      but for you did that help. i know trying to do threshold coming from base miles can be challenging forcing your body to adjust.

  6. I’m a bit confused by periodization concept. It’s okay that in physiology (mitochondira density increase etc..) point of view I can replace low intensity-high volume rides by moderate to high (but below anaerobic or sprint power) intensity-lower volume which results the similar aerobic endurance. This is crux of time crunched lifestyle (as I have also). But what is the point then follow by 4-week recovery-endurance period? If it contains lower stress the endurance will diminish soon. One week recovery is okay it makes sense not to exploit your body fully. Maybe just maintain the fitness w/ sustained level of stress? And fundamentally: the 1st 8(9)-week period is aiming to build aerobic endurance also (but in time-crunched way of course)…can you clarify a bit the aim of the following 4-week period? thanks, Babibacsi Tso

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  8. Hi, I’ve been reading Time-Crunched Triathlete book for a couple of days and have gone forward and backward to find out what to do out of race season. However, I’ve found nothing but 8 weeks loading cycle/4 weeks recovering cycle. If my race season ends up in September this year and my first race is May 2016, according to CTS, shall I go on repeating the 8/4 weeks cycle for the whole winter/spring periods? thanks, Andreas

  9. Nice article – I see this as a sort of block periodisation routine. Of course block p. is designed for elite level endurance athletes. How do you reconcile these issues. For example – The high level of intensity 3x a week will produce a large metabolic and psychological stress to the individual. Riders with a low AC will find this type of training very difficult as they will be training at very close to max vVO2max?

  10. Love this article! I’ve been an athlete my whole doing everything from football to boxing to cycling ( my current obsession). I have trained similar to this in most of these sports and have been able to cross from one to the other relatively easily. I am like most in that my time is limited. But with these type of workouts I was able to do a 6 hour mtb race this fall without hardly any trouble. It does work.

  11. I always seem to just plain run out of gas during higher intensity rides. Sucking wind so to speak, legs burn and scream obscenities at me. During 4+ hour rides at lower to moderate intensity, legs end up overly fatigued. Have always been under the impression a lot of the problem was poor base line endurance. Would the Time Crunched Training resolve all of these issues?

    1. I think the way forward is to find a period of time for when you can do a period of around 4-6 weeks of very large volume followed by high intensity training and minimal volume and then peak (taper). Recover and come again during the season with shorter endurance blocks (2 weeks) and then 2 weeks of race intensity efforts and then recover again. To race every week all season would simply destroy me – I need a period of peaks during the season (maybe 3) where you do 4-5 races in each (15-20) races a season.

  12. There are more than the two options discussed: either solid base or TCC. There’s also the 90/10 plan: 90% of time in zone 2 (or below VT1) and 10% of time above zone 4 (or above VT2). This works for any amount of time the cyclist has available. It’s not necessary to have vast amounts of time available to ride base. Of course the more time you have, the stronger you get.

  13. Thanks for a good article. I’m 68 years old. I’ve ridden bikes all my life, but nothing serious until in my mid 40s when I bought a decent road bike and a mountain bike a fair amount. But I was clueless about aggressive riding.

    When I was 52 I was invited to ride with a group of decent road cyclists – we had 4-8 riders, and rode 5 days a week. It was FUN! I bought clothes (shock therapy), and a new Litespeed Avior and computers, etc. How fun is this? It took me a whole summer of hard work! to come up to speed to where I could keep up with these experienced riders, and after a couple of seasons I was able to do my share of pulling and stay on the wheel of our fastest climber going up hills. I was elated. Rode with these guys for I’d say 8 years and then I was forced to retire from my job where we all worked. I tried to stay with this group but with my own construction work, time did not permit. Since 2007 I ride alone. And it’s gotten so bad that I only get in 1-2 rides a week, sometimes less. It’s all about TIME and I confess energy – after installing floors all day or doing trim work, siding, etc I just don’t have the energy to ride….. However my work schedule is winding down and I am beginning to have more hours available – I want to take advantage of this. I just bought 3 of your workout dvds (I had 2 vcr tapes from you for a couple of years), and have been working on my trainer since NY’s weather has gone cold. The Power Threshold, Power Climbing (tough workout), Climbing Speed (haven’t done it yet), then your mountain bike interval tape and Climbing tape…..all focus on intervals. So I’m working on getting back into a decent number of rides 3-4 a week. I like riding – and I might say NO ONE believes me when I tell them how old I am. I credit this to riding and other forms of conditioning and a good diet/supplements.

    So I did the Power Climbing training last night and this morning I’m full of energy. When I ride roads in summer, my average speeds for a 10 – 20 mile ride in summer is 17-18 mph. I’d like to get that up to 20. That’s a big leap. My ride is gradual rolling down towards Lake Ontario for 5 – 10 miles, then gradual rolling up about 500 verticle feet back home. Getting to 20mph average would be a BIG step forward.
    I think I should research a little more to find the best winter training schedule for me……

  14. I prefer shorter higher intensity training as last year it made a difference in my spring/summer/fall riding as I saw a performance improvement and did well in the Delaware Senior Olympics (swept all 3 gold medals). The other advantage is not being out as long on cold days. I am a big believer in Chris’s training advice.

  15. My teenage boys and I get so much out of your articles. In addition to cycling they are HS wrestlers. They maintain a low body fat year round and struggle to keep their energy levels up during competitions. We’d love to see you incorporate nutrition tips in with the training. Thanks for keeping us motivated and informed.

  16. Great newsletters with base building opportunities – the time crunch sessions do work remarkably well

    I think some riders just I reluctant to change mindset for results

    Keep the newsletters going all great stuff

    All the best
    brian

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