Why Cyclists and Triathletes Need to Stop Talking About Base Training


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

Traditional aerobic base training needs to go the way of the dodo. Long, moderate intensity rides are fun and good to incorporate into training, but even if you’re a pro it is a fool’s errand to devote the winter to low-intensity training in the hopes of building a stronger aerobic base. For the rest of us who are time-crunched amateur racers and enthusiasts, traditional base training is a waste of time.

The premise of aerobic base training is that accumulating a large volume of work at a low to moderate-intensity will result in increased capillary density (greater perfusion of oxygenated blood into muscles) and greater mitochondrial density. The latter is important because more and bigger mitochondria in muscle cells increase your capacity to break down carbohydrate and fat into usable energy more quickly. Processing more fat and carbohydrate per minute through mitochondria increases maximum sustainable power or pace. It also means you can operate at a lower percentage of your VO2 max at your “all day” pace, which may help you rely on a higher percentage of fat for energy and conserve stored carbohydrate. Those sound like the exact goals of endurance training, so what’s the problem?

Doing Less With More Doesn’t Work

As an endurance athlete you have already habituated to a certain volume of weekly training hours, likely because that’s all you have available. Training the same number of weekly hours (because you don’t have the time to add more) at lower intensities produces a lower total workload than you have already adapted to. As a result, it won’t stress your aerobic system enough to stimulate a positive adaptation.

When base training works, it only works because increased training volume contributes to greater total workload (or at least greater focused workload) despite reduced intensity. These longer rides are slower because of the inverse relationship between intensity and duration: you can go harder for shorter durations, but as rides get longer sustainable intensity naturally decreases. When volume is held basically constant by your training availability, reduced intensity only results in reduced workload, and therefore reduced training stimulus.

You Don’t Need a Huge Aerobic Base Anyway

While time-crunched athletes struggle to build a big aerobic base, the good news is that most amateur and masters racers simply don’t need one to win or be competitive in criteriums, road, cyclocross, and mountain bike races lasting 45 minutes to 3 hours. Your limiting factors are your power at lactate threshold, your power at VO2 max, and how long you can maintain those intensity levels. All three can be improved with a lower volume (8-10 hours a week)and higher intensity program that includes a mixture of 8-20 minute lactate threshold intervals and 1-4 minute maximum-intensity intervals, along with some endurance and recovery rides, of course. The reason pros still need to spend a lot of time combining high volume with high intensity is that they need to make race winning moves after 200km of racing. Aerobic endurance is a limiting factor for them because of the power demands required in the final hour of much longer elite-level events. You’re not a pro and you can be completely prepared for the demands of your shorter events without a huge pro-style aerobic base.

Even ultradistance competitors, like 100-mile mountain bike racers, 200-mile gravel racers, and Ironman triathletes, benefit more from training that elevates power/pace at LT and VO2 max compared to performing more volume at low-intensity. In a well-trained endurance athlete more volume at low-intensity will no longer result in greater mitochondrial density (they’ve already adapted to the intensity level required) (Dudley, 1982). To get faster they need to stimulate mitochondrial development with higher intensity efforts. (Burgomaster, 2005) Very long training sessions are still necessary, but more from an experiential standpoint than a physiological one.

Going Slow Makes You Slow

Focusing your training on a particular intensity for a block of time is the basis for periodization, and there are benefits to focusing time at several different intensities. In that sense, base training is just a block of low-intensity endurance training, and the only real problem is that it’s typically too long. For amateur athletes, two- to three-week endurance blocks can and should be incorporated into training throughout the year. That’s different than a single 2-3 month block of low-intensity riding, during which you will see your power and pace at lactate threshold and VO2 max decline significantly.

The old premise of periodization was that you needed the big base of aerobic fitness before you could handle the stress of higher workloads. Hence, the schedule of base training first, followed by lactate threshold training, and then race-specific high-intensity speed work. The more modern view is that the pathways to producing energy are intertwined and you can improve performance in either direction. For instance, Helgerud showed that high-intensity efforts are more effective for improving power at VO2 max than moderate-intensity training (Helgerud, 2007). Researchers like Burgomaster, Gibala, and other have shown that these same short, high-intensity intervals improve oxidation of fat and carbohydrate by mitochondria to a similar degree as traditional, lower-intensity endurance training, but in a fraction of the training time. Practically what this means is that by working at the highest end of the intensity spectrum you can improve performance at all intensity levels below that, making it a very effective use of your limited training time. Similarly, lactate threshold workouts improve power at threshold and improve power for endurance intensities, too.

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Base Training Was Never About Improving Fitness

There is some validity to the notion that too much intensity can lead to overtraining (better thought of as under-recovery) and increased risk of injury, so one school of thought is that a long period of lower intensity is safer than year-round structured training. There was a time when this was smart advice, but now that we have better tools for measuring and monitoring workload, fatigue, and recovery, the risks of pushing an athlete (or pushing yourself) over that edge is much lower. And for time-crunched cyclists, both the need for prolonged recuperation and the risk of overtraining are already reduced because your busy work and family schedules result in relatively low training volume and abundant time for recovery.

But perhaps the most pernicious reason the idea of base training is still around is that it has long been the refuge for athletes who just want to ride their bikes. Base training is largely unstructured, low-intensity cruising. In an effort to escape structure after a season of interval training, athletes fall back to the comfortable and antiquated idea of base training. There’s a difference, however, between desiring less structure and needing less workload. If you want a break from intervals, that’s fine. Let your mood, the terrain, the wind, or the group you’re with dictate the intensity; just make sure there’s some intensity!

Burgomaster, Kirsten A., Scott C. Hughes, George J.F. Heigenhauser, Suzanne N. Bradwell, and Martin J. Gibala. (2005) Six Sessions of Sprint Interval Training Increases Muscle Oxidative Potential and Cycle Endurance Capacity in Humans. J Appl Physiol. Jun; 98 (6): 1985-90.

Burgomaster, K. A., Howarth, K. R., Phillips, S. M., Rakobowchuk, M., MacDonald, M. J., McGee, S. L., & Gibala, M. J. (2008). Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans. The Journal of Physiology586(Pt 1), 151–160.

Dudley, G. A., W.M. Abraham, and R. L. Terjung. (1982) Influence of exercise intensity and duration on biochemical adaptations in skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol. Oct; 53 (4):844-50.

Helgerud J, Høydal K, Wang E, Karlsen T, Berg P, Bjerkaas M, Simonsen T, Helgesen C, Hjorth N, Bach R, Hoff J. (2007) Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Apr;39(4):665-71.

Stöggl, T. L., & Sperlich, B. (2015). The training intensity distribution among well-trained and elite endurance athletes. Frontiers in Physiology6, 295.

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Comments 19

  1. Pingback: Cycling Base Training Do’s and Don’ts for Amateur and Masters Cyclists - CTS

  2. Pingback: Why October-November Is Base-Training Season (Not January!) - CTS

  3. So many things we read and hear about regarding training (and diets) seem to focus on the “average athlete,” or some non-specific “weekend warrior.” And while there is some value in this, it’s not all that helpful in specific cases over the long run in my humble opinion.

    The fact is we’re all very similar and very different; at the same time. Point being is that endurance athletes be they runners, cyclists, swimmers, all three combined, etc., need to understand their own physical and mental raw material and then adapt their training (and diets) to maximize that material specific to their chosen sport(s). Racing a bike (road) is a very different animal with significantly different demands and skill-sets than is participating in an open water swim event or, for stark contrast, a marathon cross country ski race. Even within the road cycling realm there are significant differences in racing crits, road events, or time trials. Racing a mountain bike is yet again a completely different bird. Then, consider running an ultra marathon or an event such as Pikes Peak. While these are all endurance sports, they are very unique in the specific demands and skill-sets required to be proficient, let alone competitive, vis-a-vis age and training programs. Point being, I would argue there is most definitely a place for “base-training” and it will vary by the demands of the sport and the goals one has (or will have whether they know it or not).

    While the article provides some solace for the time-crunched athlete (and by extension a bit self-serving) specific to tri-athletes and cyclists (road presumably), it seems to me to miss on some important (arguably complex) individual issues. We’re all very similar in that we desire to be the best we can at the sport(s) in which we seasonally or annually want to participate. We’re also profoundly similar in that we all are subject to the same laws of physics (particularly power to weight ratios). We’re very different, however, in our age, physical raw material, the present state of our fitness, body mass index, skill-sets and ability to learn skills, and particularly our life-long history of endurance training and racing (what do we actually respond to in training, and what will benefit us not just in two or 6 months, but rather over the course of the next 3 to 5 years and beyond). These are important issues to contemplate the further down the proverbial trail one goes in pursuit of their endurance sport and, believe it or not, I think base training has a role to play in all of them – particularly in one’s early adaptation to an endurance sport.

    I would argue (rhetorically speaking) that some (almost all) endurance sports really do require long periods of relatively low intensity, progressively higher, mileage/yardage training (I would also heartily agree all plans need some degree of intensity and overall strength/flexibility work). Mental toughness and reshaping our bodies for the long run is a tough nut to crack because we’re all so different in these respects, not to mention levels of motivation and commitment. But a conscious focus on a diet that allows for using fat as fuel, coupled with long sustained workouts, builds both mental discipline and body mass to be successful at long distance events. And the more uninitiated you are to these grueling events, the more you need the discipline. High intensity training is great and necessary, but attempting it with a body mass unaccustomed and ill prepared for it increases the probability of injury and disappointment, thus totally defeating the well-intentioned purpose.

    While the article has some good and valid points it seems to me to come up a bit short as regards any solid, long-term, science relative to the myriad of athlete types and the sport specific requirements to maximize their individual training over time, vis-a-vis base training. Perhaps this is what the author was hoping readers would conclude so that it would engender more training clients, which isn’t a bad thing. Coaching can be incredibly beneficial if it’s tailored properly to the individual and comes from coaches who actually have experience and know their stuff.

  4. Great article. One of the best I’ve read on the subject!! I’m a big of high intensity for time efficiency but we need to be careful of telling people that it achieves the same thing as low intensity or that ‘enthusiasts’ don’t need low intensity like pro’s.

    The key physiological aspect that high intensity training doesn’t achieve is the increase in volume of the left ventricle of the heart. While high intensity work increases the wall thickness of the heart, thus increasing stroke volume, the high heart rate during high intensity work means the left ventricle doesn’t fill and expand enough each beat or for long enough (compared to working at low intensity for 2-3 hrs+ during base work) to increase in volume over time. The most robust aerobic/cardio base will be achieved by a combination of both low and high intensity.

    The fact is, high intensity is great at achieving a large amount of performance improvements but it’s not exactly the same as low intensity adaptations. Doing both will achieve the best results, not only for pro’s but also enthusiasts.

    I also like the intensity during the week with social, longer rides on the weekend for balance of intensity, performance, recovery and enjoyment.

  5. Some say high intensity is what you need to do and others say long low intensity Base rides, I combine both by doing high intensity work on the turbo during the week and then “treat” myself to a low/medium intensity ride at the weekend. Can’t help thinking that for amateurs just ride your bike as usual and make sure you include some hills. Long slow rides of say 5-6 hours are incredibly boring !

  6. Not everyone that reads this is a “time-crunched athlete”. Also, the upper end of MAF, which for me is 137 BPM for 3 and a half to 4 hours is not an easy cruise.

  7. With 56 years of racing experience (30 of those years coaching) having a UCI level III International road and track coaching license, having coached four generations of elite and pro racers, my coach is in the Cycling Sport Hall of Fame for coaching athletes to ten World Championships I have never seen an athlete reach his or her full potential in the heart if the racing season without a decent base mile preparation. How do I know this? Observation. Some of my riders would race twelve months of the year due to the European Track Season and have to skip a rest period and their usual six weeks of base and every time their mid summer road results were well below their potential and would have problems with oxygen intakes during intense race periods. Conclusion? Serious bike racers need a block if base miles and a block of pre race training always increasing the load in small increments for both blocks to fully prepare their bodies for the challenges of a long hard racing season. No exception from my experience. Let me know how your short cuts and limited scientific research bodes for your elite athletes. There is a different need in being a “bike racer” and being an elite bike racer.

    1. Post

      Respectfully, you have missed the point. Base training works for athletes who have time to do it, and an athlete who is aiming to be an elite athlete or trying to maintain status as an elite athlete needs to incorporate base training. That’s in the article above. But what are we to tell everyone else? Go away? If you don’t have 12, 15, 20 hours a week to train then you should quit? Because that’s what athletes who can only train 6-8 hours a week hear when you talk about huge volumes of base training or model training plans for amateurs after what the pros and elites do. For a large and growing population of athletes, there was a need to figure out how to improve performance within their limited training time. And not necessarily because they want to win the big championship (although some do quite well). A lot of these people want to enjoy themselves on the fast group ride, do a few crits or ‘cross races, and maintain their identities as cyclist and athletes. Results matter, but not everyone is after the same results. Higher intensity, lower volume training works. It’s not a shortcut. It’s a different approach to periodization that’s backed by sound science and delivers better results than traditional approaches for athletes who cannot devote more time to training. It has worked and continues to work for thousands of our coached athletes and tens of thousands of athletes who have utilized “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” books. We have our share of World Champions, Olympic, and Paralympic Medalists, too. But rather than stick our noses up at the enthusiasts and time-crunched amateur competitors, we’ve made it our mission to deliver world-class coaching to athletes of all ability levels – even if they can only train a few hours a week. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach and co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

  8. I agree with Aaron that different athletes have different ways of handling intensity and have to stress their bodies differently.
    I overtrain by intensity, not by volume. So I have to work on my intensity, yes, but I need to be very careful about it. For me, a period of long easy rides is reset and recovery. And it is necessary.
    One statement in the article is dangerous, in my experience and observation: non-professional athletes not being prone to overtraining because they don’t have the time to overtrain. They also don’t have the time to recover, to take naps, to get the massages they would need. Overtraining, and you call it under-recovering, is much more likely with stress at work or at home, lack of sleep, bad nutrition. So yes, we have to watch out just as much, know our triggers, and know how to fix it. For me it is “dial down the intensity”, for sure. I have tried both ways.

  9. Heck, if i had the time for 3- 1hr plus interval sessions a week plus 2hr. Rides on the Weekend , I’d feel like a PRO cyclist! As a master racer i rarely have access to events over 1 hr.

  10. Killing myself on the trainer for and hour while incorporating sets of 5 minute intervals just simply makes me feel good for the entire day. It’s also allows me to hit the spring running while my friends are suffering as they hit the road for the first time. The high intensity time crunch thing is CTS’s mainstay philosophy that I have embraced on fully for it has really changed the way I cycle. I have exlerienced incredible results. I beg my riding friends to drink the Kool-aide all the time during the off season. When we find something that works in our lives the tendency is to try to spread the word like gospel. Ride the the trainer for an hour til you puke, recover and repeat. Amen. 😉

    1. But, what works for you might not work for others. So spreading the gospel is fine as long as you accept that someone proves you wrong (because their body works differently). I trie it your way and failed miserably. I need easy boring workouts in between for the active recovery.

  11. I know that this is slightly off topic as I’m talking about 2-3 weeks rather than 2-3 months, but I think there is one thing that is getting overlooked, and it is the mental aspect of training. Sometimes even for the most dedicated of people you need a change of pace for a few weeks, to recharge. Going on longer rides and getting to smell the roses is for me one of the rewards of training all year.

  12. Chris, I want to very respectfully disagree to some of what you are professing. There’s a point that is seldom brought up because perhaps it doesn’t affect a high percentage of athletes. In simple terms it’s the ” fast burning fuel” athlete versus “slow burning fuel” athlete. The utilization rates of glycogen(fast fuel) vs fat (slower fuel) of the body at given output levels should not be underestimated. As different athletes & their bodies have different affinities for what fuel source to turn too. Disagree? Meet a fast “time crunched” athlete that thrives on intensity & intervals yet struggles to not blown up in a race lasting just over 60-90minutes. My point is there are athletes who struggles with endurance despite being intensity interval demons. Higher intensity alone is not going to solve person endurance issues of races going long than 60-90 minutes. Stay close minded to this at risk of promoting a one size fits all approach. I know this endurance issues intimately as I was/am one of these such athletes. For yrs with professional coaching guidance I kept at the time crunched intensity work & my short term power numbers increased quite nicely. But despite fueling & hydration I would have greatly reduced power once a race would go over 60-90ninutes.
    My point is only to say different athletes have different needs to train their body. Having been on the time crunched mantra for years it wasn’t until I did long rides (5hrs) with moderate intensit (at or just sub race power output) intervals (45 & 60minutes) later in the rides did my endurance abilities come around in races. So I I don’t negate that time crunched intensity programs work. I know several athletes it works splendidly for, however for the athlete who has endurance issues – despite all the best time crunched intensity – a different training approach is necessary to achieve the desired body & fitness adaptation. Maybe this is less than 5% of the athletic population. I’m passing it along to compliment & add to what what you’ve written, that one size doesn’t fit all. A single method can be very helpful but each of us is different and adjusting a training program to ones strengths & weaknesses is the key for success!! Please consider an article on how to identify, assess & adapt training to improve specific weaknesses that an athlete may have in their profile & makeup. Respectfully, Aaron

    1. The article doesn’t say you should never go longer than an hour or 90 minutes. In order to race two or three hours, you need to train two or three hours. You are what you train to be. But what you don’t need to be, and therefore don’t need to train to be, is a rider who goes slow for six hours. Going slow for six hours may help you to train into racing for six hours, once you eventually add intensity, but it doesn’t train you into racing for three hours any better than three hour rides. It’s not that you never should go long, it’s not that you can’t afford to reduce a little intensity this time of year, where you have time to pick the speed back up in a month or tow, it’s that there is no benefit in training the same volume at reduced intensity. You’re just going to get slower. Some riders think that you’ll “ruin” your base with intensity. This is nonsense.

      1. While I’m sure the article is scientifically correct, I feel it ignores a different point of the longer endurance rides. For me, the interval training builds my speed, but I need longer endurance rides to build up (frankly) my endurance. I can’t do a century in April even though I do intervals all winter. My legs need both speed and endurance training. Moreover, I find that as I build up my endurance, my ability to hold intense intervals longer improves. My winter (time crunched) program has 3 1-1.5 hr interval sessions (some threshold some VO2max) per week and 1 2 hr endurance ride on the weekend. That barely holds me until spring when I can get out longer and train for specific events.

    2. Aaron, If you are doing let’s say up to only 3 hr max rides once per week with shorter higher intensity intervals/speed work twice a week with some endurance and proper recovery (say only 10 hrs/week total) and your lacking the endurance to do a hard 1 1/2 hr race, you are absolutely doing something wrong.

      1. The strength of the anaerobic energy system has a large effect on our endurance. It can produces lactate that our muscles will use when our carbs become depleted in endurance events.Using lactate in place of carbs allows the muscles to produce ATP at high intensity levels facilitating endurance.

        1. But then you can’t train your body to process that lactate without preparing it to do so. Failure to do decent endurance training that produces adaptations allowing you to adapt to lactate facilitation will only make you overtrained.

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