What's Cool In Road Cycling

Low Intensity: Big Gains

It seems that our ToolBox feature is becoming more popular than the Psychic Hotline as a source of training advice, with our mailbag getting flooded with questions and comments for our sport scientist Stephen Cheung. One recurring question is the importance of low intensity training…

The Importance of Base
Dear PezCycling News,
I have really been enjoying your articles on PezCyclingNews. Keep them coming!
I was wondering if you might have any advice for my girlfriend, who just started competing in cycling last year. She comes from a running background, specializing in the half-marathon. She is completing her residency in emergency & critical care veterinary medicine, so she doesn’t have much time to train and race. I have tried to help her out with cycling training, but one of the things I always struggle with is her endurance training. When she rides, her heart rate is rarely below 155. I have told her that even with her limited training time, it would benefit her to do some lower intensity training, but she tells me that she feels that it is too easy and a waste of her time and “she might as well be asleep”.

My question is, it is really necessary for her to do all that low-intensity endurance training, especially since most of her races as a Cat. 4 woman are under 35K? Is it possible that given her size (1.57 meters and 45 kg) 155 is a low heart rate?
Thank you!
Colin Sandberg

Hi Colin,
The worst mistake many cyclists make is living by the “no pain no gain” mantra and making every workout hard. This does not permit you to hit peak levels of fitness and also very easily leads to staleness and overtraining.

The big question is why is base or endurance so important even in-season? Well, the higher the intensity (e.g., wattage) that you can ride while relying primarily on aerobic metabolism, the more you have in reserve when the hammer really drops. If I can ride at 40 km/h while being predominantly aerobic and you ride 40 km/h while tapping deep into your anaerobic metabolism and building up a lot of lactate, who do you think will 1) last longer at 40 km/h? 2) be able to handle 45 km/h better? The answer would be me both times, and that’s why it’s important to both build a base of endurance and devote a huge amount of effort on improving your lactate threshold before focusing on high-intensity work.

If she’s been running competitively for a number of years and has a good endurance base set up, then she doesn’t need to focus solely on building base like many new cyclists. I suspect this is the case if she’s been focusing on half-marathons. The heart itself is rather “dumb” in not caring about whether you drive it up to 180 bpm through cycling, rowing, or running. However, cycling has a specific pedal action and use of muscles that require the legs to be built up specifically for that pedaling motion. Therefore, it is still critical to have at least one long, steady ride a week to build that cycling-specific base. I would also recommend some particular training specifically to improve her pedaling action. These drills can include one-legged pedaling, working with CompuTrainer’s SpinScan feature, or doing intervals/rides specifically with high (>110rpm) cadence.

If her races are primarily 35k or less, then she probably needs at most to build up endurance levels of 1.5-2h of riding. She probably never needs to do more than that until she upgrades.

So in summary, I would encourage her to spend one ride a week going about 2 h in a steady effort that is not piddling along but also nowhere near her lactate threshold. The talk test is a good gauge – if you can’t keep up a conversation, the pace is likely too high. This training has the benefit of building up her fat metabolism (i.e., weight loss), improving her aerobic system, and allowing her hard efforts to be much more effective and beneficial.

Thanks for writing!


About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at [email protected]

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