Winter Base Training Q & A

This month rather than expound for several pages on a single topic, I’ll present short responses to some frequent questions in winter training. If you race you probably have thought of some of these yourself and applying these answers will make you a better cyclist. If you don’t ride much, they’ll give some insight into the thinking of successful cyclists. Several of them are as much about attitude as about training technique. Here we go:

Questions About Training Time

Q. How much base is enough?

A. How fast do you want to be? More is better so long as you can recover in time for the next ride and not mess up other things like your job or family.

Q. My plan calls for three hours today. Given the lousy weather, I’ll ride my trainer. Riding trainer is more efficient, so I can train less for the same benefit, right?

A. Yes, trainer riding is more efficient because there is no coasting, nor waiting at stoplights, giving more work in the same ride time, but if you set aside three hours, use it. Rather than thinking about doing less, think about doing more.

Q. I hardly have any training time. Should I ride hard every moment?

A. No. Base training brings improves recovery. No base equals slow recovery. Hard rides leave low-volume riders tired for several days. When another training opportunity arises sooner, they can’t take advantage of it. Ideal intensity allows riders to just recover in time for the next possible training session and also has the desired physiological effects: Riding above LT does very little to develop aerobic ability.

Q. I don’t have a lot of time to train so I’m thinking about cross training. I need 2-3 hours to get a good bike workout, but I can get a good running workout in 45 minutes.

A. Wrong. Unless you just want to be exhausted, the fact that a workout leaves you tired doesn’t make it good. Generally the best workouts leave you ready for more. There’s no single measure of the quality of a workout but in base season, muscle movement cycles and Calories expended are a decent place to start. Forty-five minutes of running is no more valuable than 45 minutes of cycling, but it does more effectively use up your motivation for the day, so if anything running is less productive than a ride of the same length that leaves you able to train again later. If your plan says three hours and you can run for an hour, you need to ride or do something else for two additional hours.

Q. I’m scheduled for 2 hours today but the day got away from me and I’ll only get an hour if I get on the bike now. Should I just bag it and train tomorrow?

A. If it’s been a week or more since your last day off, rearrange your schedule to take today off. Otherwise, get out there and get that hour. Then avoid blowing it again. Any ride longer than about 30 minutes is better than no ride. Occasional single days off are good for fitness but skipping multiple days in a row leads to little progress compared to more consistent riding, even when total volume is similar.

Q. Work went crazy and I missed almost a week of riding, but I have plenty of time this weekend. How much should I train?

A. Riders in this situation are tempted to “make up” the missed training, but they can’t. On any given day there’s a maximum amount of training a rider can do before gettng tired enough that continuing is a waste of time. When getting back on after a short lay-off, rather than try to get all the hours you missed, ride until you get a little tired and then go home at an easy pace. After a layoff of more than four days, plan to go short the first few days. I’ve seen several riders injure knees by going long the first day back after a longer layoff.

Q. I’m pretty worn out from a big day at work. Should I go home and sleep or do my ride?

A. Do your ride, but shorten it to one hour or so, and keep the intensity low. If you are already tired you really don’t need the extra stress of a longer ride, but doing no ride at all will slow your fitness development. If you find yourself in this state frequently, it’s time to ponder the depth of your desire to race bikes. If you are serious about bike racing, figure out how to get your work stress under control.

Q. What about the new “Lower volume, higher intensity” training? I’ve read that some guys have been kicking butt with that. Is base still necessary?

A. The jury is out on this one, but here’s my perception: The riders doing these plans and succeeding say something like, “I cut way back on volume and I’m riding as well or better than ever”. That has two implications; yes, they are riding lower volume, but they previously rode higher volume. Current fitness does not come only from the most recent days, weeks or even months of riding. Rather it is the residue of all exercise, eating, and riding, among many other things, that an individual has experienced. Base lasts for several years. The guys who report doing better on lower volume programs are actually doing better on programs consisting of several years of extensive base, followed by a year of reduced volume. Riders who have done those years of base might consider reducing volume, especially if they’ve been unable to control fatigue. New riders should not start a cycling career with low-volume, high-intensity training.

How to Base Train

Q. Can I do group rides as base training?

A. Sure, as long as the group is doing a pace that works as base training for you. If strong pros are base training on the ride and you are not similarly strong, or if the local hammers are racing the ride, skip it until you reach the higher intensity months of your program. For now, invite like-minded and similarly fit riders to go base training with you. Find guys or gals who want to ride a controlled pace. The goals of base training include, among other things, increasing the percentage of energy released from fat and decreasing the percentage from carbohydrate at any given rate of work. Later that turns into better endurance and saving glycogen “matches” for the harder bits of races. Base training also increases the mass of mitochondria in the muscle cells and develops the capillaries that bring oxygen and fuel to the muscles. These training effects occur only if one rides at a mostly aerobic pace.

Q. Can I hammer occasionally during base development?

A. Yes, but not much. We used to think that riding above lactate threshold actually reversed aerobic fitness development but I’ve not seen scientific evidence for that from studies of aerobic athletes. More likely, riding hard is tiring and decreases enthusiasm for larger volumes of training that would be more beneficial. Many times I’ve had riders go harder than they should, only to find that they have to cut volume because they are getting busier at work or they have things that need doing around the house. When the same riders control training intensity, suddenly they have more time to train. It seems crazy, but fatigue affects motivation subconsciously and harder rides can mess up training for several days. As such, going hard perhaps once per month can add some fun and only mess up a small fraction of total training time, but I prefer riders to just control themselves until racing season comes around.

Q. Does cadence matter in base training, or do I just need to ride below 80% of maximum heart rate?

A. Cadence does matter. Do most of your base riding over 90 rpm. If your knees are good, after a few weeks of spinning base do one or two rides per week where you pedal roughly 70 rpm after a spinning warm up. Riding higher cadences trains neuromuscular coordination and efficiency. You learn to turn muscles on and off just where they are needed in the pedal stroke, conserving energy and delaying fatigue. Low cadence riding at controlled heart rates recruits more fast-twitch fibers to make higher forces and develops their oxidative capacity. Then when you race you’ll have aerobic power and the coordination to pedal faster with force.

Q. I’ve got a fixed gear bike.

A. Good for you. If you have access to flat or nearly flat roads, fixed gear riding is a fine way to add variety and to broaden your power band. That is, fixed gear riding will develop your ability to turn cadences both higher and lower than you would most likely choose otherwise. Avoid spinning out though. If you live and ride in hilly country, save the fixie for the Velodrome. Chasing the pedals downhill can injure your hamstrings in ways that cause them to stay tight for months or even years. You can get the benefit of fixed gear riding without that risk by sticking in one gear on all sorts of terrain on a free-wheel bike. Don’t ride fixed gear bikes without a front brake on the road.

Q. I don’t know if I can stand another week of trainer riding, but it’s so cold that there’s no way I can ride all my hours outside either. Help!

A. Here are a few of the many ways to deal with this. 1) If you haven’t done so already, get really functional winter cycling gear. The stuff you wear for training doesn’t have to be “cycling” clothing. You can keep toasty warm while training through a sub-zero winter while not wearing anything that was made specifically for cycling. 2) Split your rides into indoor and outdoor chunks: Warm up on the trainer, ride outside for as long as you can stand, and then come back inside to finish your time. Riding trainer is very effective for getting warm after cold outdoor rides since you can make more heat internally than you can absorb from a shower or bowl of soup. 3) Split your outdoor rides: Ride outdoors, come home for lunch and warming up, and then go out again in dry clothes. 4) To keep trainer riding effective, use a giant fan, cool air, cold towels and whatever else you can figure out to keep cool. When you are hot enough to sweat, you produce less power for a given heart rate and training is less effective. Make the trainer more tolerable by watching videos, having friends over for a “Tour de Garage”, and taking breaks periodically.

Eating, Drinking and Weight Loss

Q. I need to lose about 10 pounds but I’m not going to worry about it right now. The weight will come off when the intensity goes up in the spring.

A. Yes but… In base season you are, or should be, riding in ways that use a lot of fat as fuel. If you don’t replace it, that becomes fat you’ve lost. Training does not suffer. Recent research suggests that doing base while carbohydrate-depleted once in a while enhances fat metabolism and mitochondrial development. As the racing season approaches, you’ll do higher intensity training that relies on glycogen as fuel. If you don’t replace that glycogen, your high-intensity training simply won’t work at all. That means that while you use more calories and can lose weight faster in season, you can’t do it without compromising training and fitness. The rest period and base season are the time to lose fat. Get started now.

Q. Do I need to eat or drink on short rides?

A. Need to? No. But should you? Yes. Think of short rides as practice for longer rides and get in the habit of eating and drinking roughly 225-350 Calories per hour. Eat and drink around corners, on climbs and descents and in tight groups. These are essential skills for road or criterium racers.

Q. If I don’t eat on rides that forces my body to metabolize fat and I lose more weight while developing fat burning ability, yes?

A. Yes, but only do it once in a while or you won’t get fast. Your body will work on its limiters first. If the rate of fat metabolism is the limiter on a given ride, you will improve fat metabolism, but you will not be pushing hard on the pedals, and you won’t be training the muscle fibers that are needed when you do want to push hard on the pedals.

Q. Are there any supplements or special foods I can use to get stronger faster?

A. No, at least nothing magic. A balanced diet of good quality foods including plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and adequate (not excessive) protein and carbohydrate will help you get as strong as you can possibly get. There are lots of products that claim to increase VO2-max or power at LT or to make you burn more fat. They won’t do anything for you that “real” food won’t do. “But, but , but look at the ads”, you might say. Yes, look at them and remember that the supplement industry was raking in more than $10,000,000,000 (10 billion dollars) per year a decade ago and has grown since, and that they are free to say whatever they want in their ads so long as they don’t make health claims that are not supported by research. If you could tell the truth and go out of business or lie and make a few million dollars, what would you do? Is everyone as honest as you?

Strength Training

Q. What about strength training? Should I do it?

A. If you are really busy and are struggling to get category-appropriate riding volume, you’re better off staying away from the weight room and riding more. If you have generous time to train, time spent in the gym can do wonders for your sprint and your ability to make efforts up to a few minutes duration, like final laps of crits or the final mile to the crest of a hill. One study found that athletes (rowers unfortunately) roughly doubled the time they could sustain the power output corresponding to VO2-max, from about three minutes to about six minutes, after a few months of specific strength training. Strength training also helps with injury prevention. Talk to an experienced coach about a strength plan suitable for you.

Q. Won’t strength training make me slow and kill my spin?

A. Yes, but after you stop lifting those effects will clear up in a few weeks and you’ll still have the increased ability to make and sustain power.

Q. Shouldn’t I do my strength work “On Bike” to make it as specific as possible?

A. Yes and no. On-bike strength work is time efficient. If you live in a part of the world where you’d comfortably spend a few hours in the gym in winter, but not outdoors, time efficiency is not the key variable. If you live somewhere that outdoor riding is pleasant year round, on-bike strength is an okay way to go. I still like the gym because you can closely control and advance the resistance you push and because you condition some muscles that might not get worked regularly in base training but are recruited during harder riding.

Getting More Advice

Q. Two guys who have been riding cat fours for several years told me about their plan to ride only fixed gear all winter like the old-days Belgian heroes, or to do hill-sprints every week to build VO2-max, or to ride 600 miles in one week or… Should I join them?

A. No. There are many reasons guys stay fours for years, but other than sandbagging despite dozens of wins, none of them make the guys authorities on training. Get your advice from an experienced coach, or at least from someone with a higher level of cycling success.

Good luck with your off-season training and your next racing season.

The above is a small sample of the sort of advice you can get from Scott Saifer, M.S. or any of the coaches of Wenzel Coaching. If you like it and want some training weight lifting or nutritional advice designed specifically for you and your situation, check out our website at or call 503-233-4346. Training plans with Scott start at $99 per month and he is currently taking clients.