Laying the Foundation
The notorious “base season” is a staple of endurance athletes’ training. This period can be neglected by many athletes due to a variety of reasons, including weather, daylight, and motivation. However, this is one of the, if not most, crucial times for developing year over year as an athlete.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to log world-tour-level hours. We know that’s unrealistic for most people. You can leverage some other tools to make this winter successful by laying the foundation for a healthy, strong year to come. An analogy to tie it all together is to think of your training cycle as a pyramid: the broader and stronger the foundation, the higher and better the peak.
While we are going to treat this article as a winter training guide for the common cyclist or endurance athlete, this may not be the phase you are in. If you’re just now coming into your prime then don’t fret! It can be a valuable time for developing some fitness and speed that will carry you into the new year.
The Goals of Winter Training
For everyday athletes, the main goals of the winter season should be two-fold: to improve aerobic fitness/efficiency and develop strength. In layman’s terms, this first goal means making your body better at using oxygen + fat to fuel you and improving your ability to accomplish work in an aerobic state. If you can stay in an aerobic state for longer and harder efforts, you are increasing the work you can do efficiently.
To get a little more nerdy, this comes with many improvements to your body; namely:
- Increased mitochondrial function/density
- Better fat utilization
- Improved capillary system
- Overall cardiac output increases
The second goal is much easier to explain, but not always the easiest to get endurance athletes to buy into. Improving your strength and functional ability is key to maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system, avoiding injury, and improving power.
Often, endurance athletes think, “it’s “one or the other…I’m either light and fast or bulky and slow”. This isn’t true - we weren’t meant to be horse jockeys. In fact, weight training can improve your power:weight along with a multitude of other life-improving factors. When the weather takes a turn for the worse, this can be a great time to get in the gym.
Focus Areas of Winter Training
This is the lynchpin of base training. It is usually defined by slogging through lots of hours on the bike at a steady, Zone 1-2 effort level – it can be monotonous. Your goal is to keep the body in an aerobic state and avoid excessive effort/volume in an anaerobic (without oxygen; aka. really hard) state.
If you have the time, then building volume over a 12-week period is ideal. However, many do not and have to accommodate jobs/families/etc. during the course of the week in addition to waning daylight. In that common case, utilize your weekdays for time-efficient structured rides and strength training, and then open up the weekend days for big adventure days! This works for indoor training as well.
I’m a huge advocate of strength training for all athletes, disciplines, and ages (especially masters level). Contrary to belief, strength training serves both the endurance and strength aspects of our training. Not only does a proper strength plan make a stronger muscle, it makes a more “durable” one. Don’t think of the two (endurance and strength) as separable. Additionally, as you rack up miles, get into race season, or are aging, your body will thank you for the “insulation you have packed in the walls” to avoid injury and deterioration.
An unsung hero of the base phase that I use as a coach is the neuromuscular + power development work on the bike. This comes predominantly in the form of pedaling efficiency drills and PCr sprint work. I use both of these in the early season phase to help prepare athletes for the work to come. The cadence drills (both high and low) help to train your efficiency and “cleanliness” in the pedal stroke. The short, neuromuscular-level sprints improve the body’s reaction and response to the call for effort (quite literally the brain-to-legs connection). These are super short sprints where you “snap” your legs up to speed and max effort for a bout 5-10sec.
This time can be great for mixing in alternative activities that support a healthy, strong body. Trail runs, long hikes or weighted rucks, Nordic skiing, and other activities can provide both a mental break and a new physical stimulus. They keep the winter months exciting and loose while allowing you to support your body in other ways. There are plenty of benefits to supplying new stimulus for your body and can keep you active when things get iffy outside.
Adapt Your Training
The base phase can be daunting to look at, but work within your means and keep it simple. Just because you live somewhere with rough weather or have limited training time, this is one of the most beneficial periods of your year and set you up for success. Ride “long and slow” when you can, keep strength training a priority in the plan, and add in some fun intervals along with it occasionally. A little structure goes a long way.
Curious about how this affects your fueling? Check out this article to learn how to adapt your fueling plan. Happy training!