How to Maximize Your Winter Base Training
I would love to build a huge aerobic base the old fashioned way, but I love my wife and I'm pretty fond of my kids and my career. To ride 12-20 hours a week these days I would have to pull the nuclear option on my life and that's just not going to happen. I'm not alone. In fact, after 15 years in the coaching business I'd argue there are more athletes like me - both competitors and non-competitors - than there are athletes who are consistently devoted to more than 8 hours of weekly training.
Yet the concept of "base building" still persists as the training standard for endurance athletes in the winter. Let me put this as simply as I can: Riding the same weekly training hours that you are already habituated to (because that's all the time you have) at lower intensities than your fitness can already support won't produce a stronger base of aerobic fitness.
Base training, a high volume of low to moderate-intensity training sessions, only works when you can accumulate significant weekly hours at those intensities. In a traditional endurance periodization plan, these foundational months of training are filled with long rides. You're putting in the long miles in the winter so you can support the higher-intensity, shorter, race-specific interval workouts that come later in the spring and summer. But when your other priorities cut down your training volume and you still continue with predominantly low-intensity training, you are not generating enough total workload (training stress) to produce the adaptations you're looking for.
One of those important adaptations is an increase in the size and density of mitochondria, the organelles in muscle cells that process fat and carbohydrate to usable energy. They also finish the process of reintegrating lactate into normal metabolism, breaking this partially-burned carbohydrate the rest of the way down to usable energy. Having more and bigger mitochondria means you can do all of the above faster, and that means more usable energy per minute during exercise - at all intensity levels! You want to go faster, more energy per minute means higher power output. You want to go longer, bigger mitochondria mean maintaining a moderate pace is less fatiguing and more reliant on fat for energy.
The alternative to Traditional Base Building for Time-crunched Athletes
The goal is the same: we want greater mitochondrial density. The pathway is just different.
Instead of long and easy to moderate intensity rides, time-crunched athletes need three interval sessions per week and no more than 5 workouts total (most time-crunched athletes struggle to consistently schedule more than four anyway). A Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday interval schedule with a longer ride on Sunday is pretty typical.
Lactate threshold intervals (6-12 minutes each) progressing to VO2 max intervals (30-second to 4-minute max efforts, short recoveries) produce the necessary training stress. Remember, even though you're not peaking for a January or February event, high-intensity intervals stimulate aerobic system development as well as high-end power. At this time of year your primary goal is the aerobic system development so prioritize the accumulated time at high intensity rather than reaching for absolute peak power outputs with each interval.
This is important! The traditional endurance periodization plan is a long, gradual ramp up to a high peak. That's why high-volume athletes can and should spend months focused on base building. Time-crunched athletes need shorter, focused periods of higher intensity followed by substantial (4 weeks) periods focused on recovery and moderate-intensity rides. So an 8 or 9-week period of progressively increasing workload (with a rest week about week 4) should be followed by a 4-week period that's focused on endurance. Over the course of a year this yields incremental improvements in sustainable power at lactate threshold with each successive build period. During those 4-week periods between builds, be sure to maintain your training schedule even if the intensity is lower; once that training time is siphoned off to other activities it is difficult to get it back.
Answers to Commonly Asked Questions
Q: What about strength training?
A: Most time-crunched athletes struggle to find enough time to devote to on-bike training, let alone a strength program. If you have some extra time, focus on strength training that supports an active lifestyle rather than one that's specific to cycling.
Q: Will intensity in the winter lead to injuries?
A: Athletes get injured when their training load is too high and they are not adequately recovered, not because it's winter. High-volume athletes sometimes risk injury by training hard in winter because they are not adequately recovered from the previous season. Time-crunched athletes don't typically generate enough fatigue to need such a prolonged recuperation period.
Q: Aren't long rides better for training my body to burn fat?
A: Potentially, yes. But if you don't have time available for those long rides, and particularly for enough of those long rides, it's a moot point. Work to optimize the impact you can have on your fitness in the time you have available to train. If you have limited time, focus on increasing the power you can produce and accelerating your ability to process fuel and oxygen.