The Best Workouts During Base Season for the Time-crunched Cyclist
As much as we’d like to ride 25-30 hours a week like the pros do during the base season, the reality is that most of us simply don’t have the time. For many years it was thought that nothing could substitute for logging long miles on the bike during base season. Many people in recent years have turned to intervals, thinking that if they ride harder they’ll be better off come race season. While that’s true, it is important that you do the right type of intensity during base season. Smashing yourself with VO2 max and threshold intervals in December won’t bode well when you hit the important races in June. Below are the two best types of workouts that you can do during base season. It is important that even those with limited training time take 2-3 months to build up their base before starting higher intensities. These will give you performance gains similar to traditional base miles, but can easily be incorporated into your work-week rides. They will also limit fatigue and reduce risk of burnout, helping you build a good foundation for higher intensity later on.
Tempo (Riding at 75-90% of FTP, also commonly called Zone 3) is a great way to build your training load during the off season without creating too much fatigue. There are a few things that make tempo the ideal “go-to” workout for base season.
Firstly, it can be maintained for long period of time. It’s not uncommon to work your way up to 90 minutes of tempo in one workout. Since it doesn’t demand too much from the body, it can be done several times per week in order to really build that training load. Tempo workouts will turn you into a diesel-powered beast, and build an excellent foundation for your higher intensity workouts closer to the racing season.
Also, tempo workouts can be a blank canvas for additional stimulus. You can incorporate tempo at low cadences of 50-60rpm in order to build strength; doing tempo at high cadences greater than 100rpm can improve your pedaling efficiency. We can even switch between the two during a single tempo interval to really amp up the benefits. I also like to do tempo intervals with sprints interspersed in between. This simulates following accelerations during a hard road race, or riding in the breakaway. Some athletes may need to work more at higher cadences; others can benefit more from strength building. A coach can help you identify which tempo workouts are right for you, and prescribe the proper dose.
Training your sprint during the offseason will not only improve your sprinting, but it also has a multitude of great benefits for the time-strapped racer. Performing sprints in combination with a weight training program during the offseason can help transfer your gym gains to the bike. They also will create a more efficient pathway for your brain to recruit your muscles. But wait, there’s more! Sprinting during the base season can improve your VO2-max aerobic base as well. Studies have also shown that sprint training can dramatically improve your insulin sensitivity, which may help you to lose a few extra pounds. For individuals who are limited on riding time, sprinting can have a similar effect to logging long miles on the bike. In order to see these sorts of gains from sprinting, it’s important that you rest for about 4 minutes between sprints. Any shorter than that and you won’t be able to produce maximal power, any longer and you will lose many of the aerobic benefits of sprinting. Sprints should last from 10-20 seconds.
A word of caution: These intervals are the best “bang for your buck” in terms of ride time during base season. However, that doesn’t mean that they are all you should do. There are still many fitness improvements that can only be seen by logging some quality endurance miles on the bike. I recommend doing your tempo and sprint work on your shorter rides during the work-week and then getting out for a longer endurance ride on the weekend. After 2-3 months of quality base building, you should have a solid foundation to begin your higher intensity intervals (VO2-max, Threshold, and the like). For master’s athletes, I recommend including one VO2-max workout per week during the base season in order to maintain your top end. Five to six intervals of 2-3 minutes in duration is more than enough to help maintain your VO2-max.
Sloth, M., et al. “Effects of Sprint Interval Training on VO2maxand Aerobic Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” , vol. 23, no. 6, 2013, doi:10.1111/sms.12092.
Tanaka, Hirofumi, and Douglas R. Seals. “Endurance Exercise Performance in Masters Athletes: Age-Associated Changes and Underlying Physiological Mechanisms.” The Journal of Physiology, vol. 586, no. 1, Jan. 2008, pp. 55–63., doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.141879.