Toolbox: Building the Base
After taking some much-deserved time off during October and November to see how the other half lives, many of us take the completion of American Thanksgiving as an informal start to next season. First and foremost is building as big an aerobic and mental base as possible, and we lay out the blueprint here.
Strength and Endurance
Base is the most crucial time of the training year and everything you do for the rest of the season will be limited by the quality of your base. Remember the analogy that the base period is like the foundation of your house. If the foundation is built on quicksand, it’s not going to support any weight. Alternately, think of it like a pyramid. Without a wide base, the pyramid isn’t going to be able to achieve any height.
The base phase is used to improve strength and of course endurance. Generally, there is little intensity (although research has demonstrated that specific intensity work is NOT harmful and may be greatly beneficial) but the length of the workouts build steadily throughout. It consists of 3 to 4 days a week of moderate riding, l to 2 days of cross training and 2 to 3 days a week in the gym.
Cross-training and gym work is important, so do not confine your training only to the bike during this phase. Pedaling a bike is such a specific exercise that a relatively small and carefully defined group of muscles are used over and over again. Depending on how active you are off the bike, those neglected muscles can become very weak. Working on those muscles during the off season can improve your cycling and keep you body healthy for the long haul.
What are Base Miles?
I think many riders neglect to get all they can out of their winter rides. The idea of the Long Slow Distance (LSD) ride needs to go by the wayside. Riding slow is a great way to train your body to ride slow. Of course it will build some endurance, but since most of us have a limited amount of time on the bike, it is not the most efficient way to do this. Moderate or Zone 2 rides are not what I would necessarily call easy. You shouldn’t be completely exhausted from them the way you might be from an interval ride, but you should definitely feel like you are pedaling the entire time.
This is also a great chance to improve your leg strength. I have all my athletes do their winter riding at 70 to 75 rpm. If they did this during the season, their legs would feel like blocks of cement and they would have trouble recovering between interval workouts, but during the winter, I can get away with this because performance is not a major objective. By doing all your riding at a low cadence, you will make significant improvements to your strength and muscular endurance. Although you may notice a temporary drop in road speed, once the season comes along, all it takes is a few weeks of high spin and all that strength will turn into power and speed.
Regular Pez readers will know we’re huge fans of PowerCranks, and they are a fantastic tool to use during this phase of training, The gains in strength and pedaling efficiency you will get from a 2 hour Zone 2 PowerCranks ride can easily be compared to what you might get from a 4 to 6 hour ride on regular cranks. That’s because there’s no hiding bad technique and your legs are working through the entire pedal stroke. Couple this with the lower cadence you tend to ride with PCs, and you’ve got a great combination of technique and leg strength in every workout.
Muscular Endurance Intervals
Fortunately, there are several elements of base that go beyond the usual zone 2 death marches. First, there are on the bike Muscular Endurance intervals. I recommend spending at least 3 weeks doing muscular endurance intervals or “low cadence intervals”. A typical interval will last 10 minutes and should be done below threshold at a cadence of 50 to 55. I call this weightlifting on the bike because that is what it feels like. It is best to find a steady mild grade of 2 to 3 %, pop it into the big chain ring and pedal until your legs feel like they are going to explode. It is important that you keep your upper body relaxed and still and to do all the work with your legs. Depending on how you recover from these, you can do 2 to 3 sets per workout and 2 to 3 workouts per week.
The second workout that I recommend for the base period is the controversial zone 3 interval or tempo ride. For many years, riding in zone 3 (about 10 beats below threshold) was considered the “gray” zone. Too hard to be considered endurance training, but not hard enough to get any real training effect from. That line of thinking has changed and I had great success personally doing a lot of these over the winter. Basically, these are endurance workouts but done at a slightly harder tempo than usual to help improve stamina and speed at the same time. These usually last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half and can be done once or twice per week.
To Lift or Not to Lift?
I believe resistance training is a crucial element of off season training. First, it provides a mental break from the monotony of base riding and second it provides the opportunity for strength gains that can’t be achieved from riding alone. There’s not enough space here to describe each exercise and how to do them, but here is a brief overview. I highly suggest hiring a qualified personal trainer to guide you through at least one workout during each phase to prevent potential injuries. Each phase lasts 4 to 5 weeks. Gym workouts should never last longer than 1 hour.
1) Adaptation –It is important to go relatively light at first to prevent injuries and get your body used to the gym. Since you’re not lifting extremely heavy weights during this first phase, I take this opportunity to work on core and stability. I do this by only using free weights and doing as many of the exercises as possible with one foot resting on a physio or Bosu ball. In each session do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps of various versions of exercises such as squats, lunges, reverse lunges and split stance squats.
2) Max Strength – After about 4 weeks of Adaptation, put away the free weights and the balance balls and move into the Max Strength phase. This period is best done using machines like the leg press, leg curl and leg extension. The reason is that you will be doing low reps at a very heavy weight and unless you have a couple good spotters it is safer to use machines. Do 5 to 7 sets of 4 to 6 reps. Leg press is really the core of this phase of training and you should see a steady increase in strength. If you find that the amount of weight you can lift is stagnating or decreasing, you probably need to give yourself a rest.
3) Power – Some coaches use this phase to work on plyometrics in order to build up fast twitch muscle fiber and explosive strength. However, these exercises can be dangerous and it is hardly worth risking the season in the gym in December. Instead, I suggest focusing on just moving a lot of weight. This means 5 to 6 sets of 12 to 15 reps at the heaviest weight you can handle. This is a very hard phase but it is essential to help begin the transformation of strength into useable power.
Remember to take in a little extra protein while you are lifting and to switch around the order of your exercises every 2 weeks to force your body to continue adapting. Also make sure you end every workout with some core work on the ball. Sit ups on a mat are not considered core work as they really only work the abs.
You will probably hear more on this from me and from other coaches in the future. A good training program must incorporate both physical and mental training. Just like periodized physical training that leads to a peak for a pre-determined event, mental training can be designed to build towards a peak to achieve the perfect mental state for a priority event.
The winter is a great time to work on affirmations. The relaxed, focused state that we enter during a long base ride is very similar to the trance like state that is obtained during meditation and self-hypnosis. Use this time to work on positive affirmations or mantras. Start by identifying a few weaknesses in your mental game and write some statements that counter these negative self thoughts that have been ingrained in your subconscious. Try to set aside half an hour during each ride to repeat these mantras to yourself. Solo rides are obviously ideal for this and while repeating the mantra in your head can be effective, the best way is to say them out loud and with conviction. Although this may seem a bit hokey to most of you, it is a highly effective way of transforming the limiting ideas you have about your abilities and erasing doubts and anxiety.
Try this one to start out with. “I am a confident, experienced cyclist”. As the winter goes on, you can hone in on more specific weaknesses such as a fear of descending or pack riding, or maybe you’ve managed to convince yourself that you are a poor climber. This is absolutely the easiest thing you can do to produce profound improvements in your performance, not just on the bike but in all areas of your life.
Finally, perhaps the most important thing during the winter is to be patient. Don’t let others tempt you away from your low intensity base miles and don’t worry if you see your buddies out-climbing you. If you stick to your program and have faith in the science behind it, you will achieve whatever goals you set out for yourself.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com