Toolbox: Offseason Base or Intensity?
With the off-season coming to a close and turkey dinners and mashed potatoes upon us, it is most definitely time to put some thought into your training plan for the coming year if you haven’t already done so. Within this planning session you will surely come up against the seemingly interminable argument of base miles vs. high intensity. Is there a preferred approach?
By Jonathan Lee
2015 Starts Now
The preparation for 2015 is already well underway amongst the professionals, with their first training camps providing for bonding time, media obligations, and lots of base miles in warm climes. For most of us facing winter, the ability to ride outdoors is greatly diminished or gone altogether due to weather and lack of daylight. In these cases, in addition to cross-training activities, this means indoor cycling forms the bulk of our riding.
Indoor training has massively progressed in the past couple of years and what once was a fallback plan for bad weather has transformed into the secret weapon of pros around the world when only the highest quality of training is acceptable. Gone are the days of just mindlessly riding while staring at a blank wall with only music or old racing videos for company. There are now lots of interactive options to keep you both engaged on the bike and to improve your actual fitness.
Regardless of what your indoor cycling setup, the ultimate question remains: do we build base by long aerobic efforts, or can we use high intensity training (HIT) in appropriate doses to gain the same aerobic improvements? In the end, the “low and slow” approach of traditional base and HIT have the same goal: to make you a faster cyclist.
As far as which option is correct, the response is dependent upon a number of factors and in the end, an individual decision.
The traditional base approach makes sense to our brains. It is very logical to think of your training as a pyramid that utilizes a broad and solid foundation of high volume, low intensity training. With this base in place, you are able to add increased intensity as you work towards your peak.
This is indeed the approach taken by the professionals. They have high volumes of weekly training, so they lay down this base by doing long rides to gradually raise their aerobic capacity without peaking too early, then build in additional intensity and specific intervals as the races approach. Indeed, many of the early-season races form training rather than specific racing goals.
If you have the time, willingness, and the logistics to be able to do this high-volume approach, indoor or outdoor, this is a great way to build fitness. This is especially true for beginning riders, who have not had the benefit of years of riding to build up a large aerobic base. If you have ever had the opportunity to ride with ex-pros, you’ll see how much fitness they have retained despite limited training time – they’re drawing on this huge aerobic reservoir they have built up over years and years of high-volume training.
Science also proves that utilizing high-intensity, low duration interval training can provide some benefits that are shared with the approach of traditional base. It is logical to assume that short duration, high intensity training would build anaerobic capacity, but the benefits transcend logic and have proven to benefit even aerobic capacity.
However, using high intensity interval training also requires increased diligence. Whereas the traditional base approach allows you the luxury of long rides without any specific focus, HIT will require your training to be highly structured. To look at this positively, this increased focus on quality and decreased quantity means that you can take a surgeon’s approach to training. With the help of many of the available interactive software or with access to a power meter, you can set precise power targets, interval structure and keep track of your training stress, making sure that you get the perfect workout in the perfect amount of time.
The actual focus of HIT during the off-season is highly dependent on individual needs. For example, if recovery from hard efforts is a weakness, then the focus may be on short intervals with minimal recovery. If overall threshold power is a limiter, then longer sub-threshold intervals may be the key. This is where a careful evaluation of your needs and goals with a coach really helps.
The key with utilizing HIT during the off-season is to be very careful not to burn out from overtraining, nor to peak too early. If you hit the intensity button too much over the winter period, you may be completely burnt out and lack any desire or willingness to keep to a focused training plan once the main season comes.
The Limits of HIT?
While scientific research has indeed demonstrated the efficacy of HIT, what has not been investigated is the long-term retention of fitness over a season or multiple seasons when compared to the high-volume approach. That is, can you build fitness year over year with HIT, or do you plateau quickly and find yourself unable to keep building fitness over several seasons because you lack a deep aerobic base gained through high-volume training?
Having said that, this increased focus on quality can also translate to the traditional base approach. While spending over four hours on the trainer may be difficult to do, a power meter can help keep you focused and on task throughout the training session. In addition to this, it’s not a bad idea to add short efforts of high intensity throughout your low intensity, long duration workouts. For example, periodic sprints beginning from high resistance/low cadence can aid in building muscular power, while high cadence intervals can help improve cycling economy.
If you are committing to the HIT approach, incorporating high volume base efforts when possible can also be beneficial:
• If the weather is nice and you can get outside, aim for a longer ride at moderate aerobic efforts. This might be preferable even if you have a specific indoor interval session planned.
• If you are lucky enough to be able to get away for a warm weather training camp, favor long aerobic rides. Get in that aerobic base while you can!
Deciding which option is best for you is dependent upon your goals and is further complicated by the fact that each person’s body responds differently to each type of training. If your goal is to be race ready, HIT will generally get you there faster. However, it can be hard for some people to stay motivated while training at such high levels of intensity for so long. The efforts are taxing on the body and it requires a certain amount of courage to stare down that dreaded HIT workout again. But when done correctly, you certainly won’t suffer from boredom and the adaptations can be just what you need.
What we can learn from the HIIT approach and apply to either situation is that if you are limited on time like most non-professional cyclists and had to place more emphasis on either quantity or quality, you should go with quality. Regardless of the path you take this year as you emerge from the off-season, try to eliminate as many variables as possible and hit your marks. Use the trainer as the pros do, like a secret weapon, and not just a fall back plan for bad weather. Whether you are putting in those long days in the saddle or getting your work done in an hour, measuring your output and structuring your work will make you a faster cyclist.
About Jonathan: A local to the Reno/Tahoe area, Jonathan’s background in the sport of motocross has translated to a passion for cycling, mountain biking and all things training. He holds a current Cat 1 XC license and is a certified USAC coach. If he’s not handling Marketing/PR duties at TrainerRoad, training, or racing, he’s most likely continuing his search for the perfect burrito.