A Case for Base

by Jonathan Puskas

It’s January and you’re being dropped by your team on a weekend group ride while attempting to keep your heart rate under control. Your teammates begin to egg you on: “Can’t you pick it up?…You aren’t riding hard enough…What’s that coach got you doing?” You are tempted to “blow off” your training program and simply ride. After all, your legs already hurt from the weight training – why shouldn’t you?

There are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t overdo it on group rides during your base period, above all is that base training is the most important training you’ll do all year. Many cyclists believe that by riding hard, fast, long and hilly all the time, they’re training to be the best rider that they can be. Unfortunately, they are wrong. To improve, it is necessary to vary our training volume and intensity throughout the course of the season. In short, if we train the same way all the time, our bodies adapt and we don’t see continued improvement.

Just as the name base implies, it is the FOUNDATION upon which your season rests. Without a base of both endurance and strength, the body is unable to handle the demands of hard training and racing. Most cyclists plan to begin racing in the spring or summer. Therefore, October through February are traditional months to focus on endurance/base-building rides. These rides are longer in duration (time), but low in intensity (heart rate).

This can be a challenge on the road, because an endurance pace for most riders is slow and doesn’t allow much climbing. With teammates (who aren’t on your training plan), it’s just so tempting to hammer, push “just a few hills,” or mix it up at every border sprint. However, to build base properly, it’s necessary to be committed to your training program, extremely disciplined, and spend the majority of your time on the bike at a lower (read slower) intensity.

An endurance ride can be a real challenge, both mentally and physically. Wenzel Philosophy prescribes training in time, rather than miles, since there are too many variables (hills, drafting, weather) that will affect your pace and thus your distance. During an endurance ride, the “work” is not in raising your heart rate. Rather, it’s the mental discipline required to maintain a STEADY HR in zone (not spiking and dropping) while focusing on proper pedaling technique such as spinning a nice easy gear at 100 RPM.

Endurance rides also help your body adapt to the stresses you’ll impose later in the season, preparing your muscles, connective tissue, and joints, and improving balance, posture, and flexibility. Not to mention helping you adapt to long hours on the saddle!

If you are bouncing off the walls and want to go fast…You are not alone! Racers generally HATE going slowly. Heck whenever you put 15-20 racers in a group, it’s likely that the pace will rise and the pack will stretch. Don’t give in to the pressure. Stick with your training plan and reap the rewards at the races that matter during the summer.

What exactly does base-training do for our riding? Primarily, endurance rides improve capillary and mitochondrial density. The result is that your body functions more efficiently and improves aerobic performance (by improving oxygen and fuel delivery). Greater capillary and mitochondrial density means higher aerobic power — being able to go faster without feeling that one is going hard. That, along with endurance, comfort and rapid recovery, is a primary goal of base training. A corollary is that intense riding breaks down capillaries. In fact, recent studies suggest that ANY time at a higher intensity will break down any increase in capillary density.

The second physiological result of endurance riding is that at a lower intensity, your body will burn a higher percentage of fat as fuel (as opposed to glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate). Thus the popular term “fat zone” or fat-burning ride.” So relatively, you burn more TOTAL FAT at a higher intensity (since the caloric total is higher).

But the key here is that our body’s first choice for fuel during higher intensity exercise is glycogen, and exercising at a lower intensity level helps your body become more efficient at burning fat for fuel. This is critical in longer road races where the body’s glycogen stores are insufficient to sustain a rider by themselves. By training your body to utilize fat as a fuel, you’re effectively stretching out your body’s glycogen stores to be used for a longer period of time (or for the efforts when they are most needed during a race).

Finally, during base rides, you can train your pedal stroke most efficiently. Unfortunately, years of racing has shown that “as the HR goes up, the IQ goes down.” Now is the time of year to build the base, improve the pedal stroke, and develop the discipline which will serve you well for the remainder of this season and in seasons to come.

Happy riding,