Winter Base Miles? Do Them or Not?

Conventional wisdom holds that winter is the season of base training, also known as Long Steady Distance (LSD). This means countless hours riding at a steady mellow pace for weeks on end in order to lay a ‘foundation’ for the more intense training sessions in the spring and summer. Without all those base miles, the thinking goes, your body can’t possibly handle all that intensity later on. But is that true?

Fortunately for the time-crunched athlete, the supposed benefits of high-volume, low-intensity training is more about tradition and less about science. Don’t get us wrong: doing long, steady base miles can improve your overall fitness if you have plenty of time to spend in the saddle, but for those of us that don’t have 20+ hours a week to train, it’s not the best way to structure your winter training.


THE MYTH OF CREATING A “BASE”


The problem with the traditional “base phase” of many training plans is the time commitment required to see any real benefits. To see any substantive return from LSD rides you need to dedicate a minimum of 16 hours a week, with some weeks requiring upwards of 25 hours of training. Do you really have that much time?

While that might be an option for full-time professional cyclists, chances are you’re not able to get out and train that much. For you, LSD riding is a waste of time — time you don’t have.

Numerous studies have shown that when athletes with a fixed amount of training time switch from training that includes high-intensity efforts to only low-intensity training, they actually see a decrease in critical metrics like VO2 max (your body’s maximum ability to utilize oxygen). Training stress triggers adaptation and improvements in fitness. Only when you present your body with a different challenge will it make changes to become stronger and more efficient. If you are a rider with a few years of training in your legs then doing a few 10 hour weeks of nothing but Long Slow Distance rides will only de-train you.


You are riding a lot, but you are getting slower.


Many unfortunate riders have convinced themselves that doing low-intensity, high volume weekends during the winter is enough to get those benefits from LSD riding. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s not going to work. For LSD training to really work you need to be hitting those big days at least five times a week. So hitting your weekends hard and riding once or twice during the week for an hour isn’t going to cut it.


WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING IN THE OFF-SEASON?


The question then becomes, “How should I be training over the winter?”  Your off-season training should include:

  • Sessions that really push you to your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and your Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP) limits.
  • Sessions that are taxing but…manageable. This means a longer time at or near FTP.
  • Enough quality rest to prevent cumulative fatigue. Consider yoga and some light cross-training.

WHY YOU WON’T BURN OUT IN SUMMER


Can you just go into intervals without having a base? Won’t you just burn out when summer comes around? No. You won’t.

Incorporating high-intensity training into your winter program isn’t the culprit. It’s only true if you hit things too hard, for too long, too often, and overtrain in the spring. Burnout is usually more likely when a rider is already engaged in high-volume training that piles high-intensity training on top of it.


INTENSITY, NOT LSD, MAKES YOU FAST


There are tremendous benefits to high-intensity interval training. Get in, do the work, get out, rinse, and repeat. We use it because it works. By incorporating high-intensity efforts into your winter training program you can continue to increase your fitness without increasing volume, and emerge from winter with speed and stamina to go the distance.

“More is always more, but more is not always better.” 

Coach Neal Henderson


TRAINING THAT YOU PROBABLY ARE NOT DOING

BUT REALLY SHOULD


Another key area to work on year-round—and one that most athletes neglect— is neuromuscular training.  Unlike swimming or running which requires good technique, cycling is a bit more forgiving. You can be “pedaling squares” all day and still go fast, albeit not efficiently.  One of the biggest differences between elite and amateur cyclists is how efficient their pedal stroke is.  By incorporating a variety of cadence drills you train your muscles to contract when they are supposed to, and relax when they are supposed to.

The off-season is also a great time to start strength training. Consider adding a series of body-weight exercises that will help build functional strength and neuromuscular coordination. This will transfer to better efficiency and speed when the time comes to put all your training to work.

Ultimately combining quality neuromuscular training with a dash of high-intensity efforts and an assortment of “this sucks but it isn’t that bad” type efforts, you have the perfect recipe for improving your overall fitness over the winter while leaving enough in the tank so that you can crush all your goals once the arm warmers and booties come off.


Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training.  While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.

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