Base training for cyclists: myth or must-do?

Should base rides be part of your winter training plan? We spoke to two coaches to find out

Winter training

It’s the middle of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and most cyclists could be forgiven for putting their feet up, staying out of the cold and enjoying the off season. Others, though, will be out in full winter kit, ticking off the miles in the name of ‘base training’.

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But is this pursuit of winter miles out in the elements something all cyclists should be doing? Or is it best left to the pros of the WorldTour who can dedicate 20 hours a week to training? 

We spoke to two cycling coaches to discover whether base training is a myth or must-do.

What is base training?

Base training describes the long, steady rides intended to build your aerobic fitness.

Base training also provides the foundation on which to build your form through the rest of the season. The clue is in the name – if you consider your fitness as a pyramid, base training provides a solid endurance base, while your top-end form is represented by the peak of the pyramid.

“The goal is to develop your aerobic base fitness,” explains Matt Rowe of Rowe & King Cycle Coaching. “That gives you the fitness and ability to train harder and absorb a greater workload further down the line.”

Completing a phase of low intensity endurance training prepares the body for more intense work to come, adds Matt Bottrill of Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching, allowing you to sustainably build towards a higher peak of form.

“Things like HIIT [High Intensity Interval Training] are the pillars of your future training blocks, which is how you’re going to get your peak performance,” he says. “But base training is about building those foundations so you can then take the load.”

In terms of intensity, slow and steady is the name of the game – this is no smashfest around the local lanes, chasing KOM/QOMs on Strava. Base training rides should involve riding steady in zone two.

If you train with a power meter, zone two is 56 to 75 per cent of your Functional Threshold Power; if you train with a heart rate monitor, zone two is 65 to 75 per cent of your maximum heart rate.

Cyclists on a winter group ride
Steady group rides are ideal for base training.
Robert Smith/Immediate Media

What are the benefits of base training?

As we’ve already alluded to, base training has three main benefits: to improve your aerobic efficiency, to improve your ability to use fat as a fuel source, and to provide a solid foundation of fitness on which to build your form.

Let’s take a closer look at the physiological impact on your body and how that will set you up for the season to come.

“Base training improves your endurance, so you’re able to cycle at a lower percentage of your VO2 max,” says Rowe. 

As a result, you’ll be able to produce the same amount of watts for less effort, he adds. Put simply, this will enable you to ride faster without becoming fatigued.

But it’s not just in terms of your effort-to-output ratio where you’ll see improvements as a result of base training. “It enables you to cycle more aerobically, using more fat as opposed to carbohydrates as a fuel source,” says Rowe.

When riding at a low-to-moderate intensity, the body is using its aerobic energy system, with fat as the primary fuel source. The good thing about fat is that there are almost endless supplies of it, but it takes the body a lot longer to turn it into energy.

During high-intensity efforts (be it going with a break or tackling a hill) or when fatigued, the body switches to its limited stores of glucose sourced from carbohydrates (glycogen), stored in muscles and the liver. 

By boosting the body’s ability to source energy from fat during steady efforts, it leaves your stores of carbohydrate for when you need them most – and potentially preventing the dreaded bonk. Base training will help raise the point at which your body switches from fat to carbohydrates as the primary fuel source.

A solid base will also leave you better prepared for any setbacks in training, according to Rowe: “Once you’ve got that solid base, if you have a bit of time off due to illness or injury, you bounce back a lot quicker.

“Also, when you build up the training sustainably, you hold your form for longer when starting off with a good base.”

The science behind base training

It’s clear that base training has the potential to improve your fitness, but what’s happening on a cellular level after long sessions in the saddle?

“The main physiological adaptation you’re seeking is better mitochondria density,” explains Rowe. 

“The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, and having more – and denser – mitochondria allows your body to process greater amounts of fats and carbohydrate per minute. Your [lactate] threshold increases as well, which is a positive for endurance.”

He adds: “There are a bunch of other scientific adaptations that happen, too. You increase muscle glycogen storage – basically more energy – so you should have more left in the tank at the end of a long ride.

“That’s important because having bigger mitochondria in the cells increases your capacity to ultimately cycle more efficiently and train harder.”

Cyclists on a winter training camp in Tenerife
Some cyclists go on a winter training camp to log base miles.
Russell Burton/Immediate Media

Who needs to do base training?

Base training has been long-favoured by professional cyclists, who have the luxury of logging winter miles on dedicated training camps in Calpe, Mallorca, Tenerife and other sun-kissed destinations.

“If you’re a professional cyclist, the traditional method of base training will help create that big aerobic base, but it takes a long time and hours of riding,” says Rowe, whose brother, Luke, rides for Team Ineos. 

So what about the rest of us?

“Everyone’s got to do base training,” says Bottrill. “If you don’t do the base, you’ve got nowhere to go with it. You’ve got to do that first phase of base training – getting the winter miles in – to get a response and take the load for the rest of the year.”

Most riders have limited time to train, however – particularly if you’re balancing family, work and social commitments alongside a training plan. While base training can be beneficial to everyone in some shape or form, Rowe emphasises the importance of variety.

“If you can train for six hours a week and that’s all the time you have available, then spending those six hours solely base training and riding fairly steady will result in a reduced total work done, so reduced training stress, which could leave you losing fitness,” says Rowe.

The key, he adds, is to combine base training with rides at a higher intensity. With that in mind, how can you introduce base training into a time-crunched training plan?

Cyclist riding under dark clouds on a winter's day
Winter miles = summer smiles.
Immediate Media

How can I introduce base training into my winter plan if I’m short on time?

If you are targeting a specific event or goal, creating a training plan to prepare you for the particular demands of that objective will ensure you’re able to produce your best performance on the day. 

However, whether you’re planning to race hour-long criteriums or a long sportive, Rowe and Bottrill both advise starting your training with a ‘build phase’ which incorporates base training.

“It’s all about periodisation,” says Rowe. “After the build phase is where you would see the most difference in the training for these two riders.”

Rowe advises combining a long weekend base ride with indoor turbo sessions at a higher intensity, with a focus on sweetspot training: intervals at the top end of zone three / lower end of zone four are said to offer the most training bang for your buck for riders with limited time.

“The trick is combining indoor and outdoor riding,” adds Rowe, who also sets HIIT training sessions for his coached riders year-round. 

Zwift complements outdoor riding – it’s not a replacement for it. You can use your weekend to develop your base endurance; a long ride, club run-type environment is fantastic. And then, in the week, you can do a bunch of sweetspot work.”

Lawson Craddock riding on the turbo trainer
Use the turbo trainer to complement long weekend rides.
Rapha

Long rides have an additional benefit beyond improving your fitness, Rowe says, particularly if preparing for an event where you’re likely to spend many hours in the saddle.

“Getting that long riding in will develop you as a bike rider – not just your legs and your energy systems but those muscles in your upper body as well,” says Rowe.

“If you’re trying to do races, events and sportives that are 4 to 6 hours long, you need to get your body used to sitting on a bike in a certain position for a long time.”

Bottrill also recommends using long rides as a way to work on any weaknesses in your technique, including cadence drills. “The winter is always about ‘what’s my weakness? I should be working on that in some respect’,” he says.

Bottrill advises warming up at a high cadence, before starting the drill: riding in a high gear for two minutes followed by a low gear for two minutes, repeated 10 times. “Generally, we’re looking at around 40 minutes of variation of cadence within a set,” Bottrill says. “Then there would be a cool down period.”

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Taking this approach to training should stand you in good stead for the season ahead by building your aerobic base, while also keeping your higher-end fitness ticking over. Time needn’t be a barrier to effective training. “I am a huge believer in quality over quantity,” concludes Rowe.