Throughout the Time-Crunched Cyclist books, I have argued against traditional base training because it is incompatible with the busy lifestyles of so many athletes. Traditional low-intensity base training works, but very few full-time working parents can increase training time to 12-20 hours/week for 2-3 months. A well-structured program of short, high-intensity intervals works, too, and the fact one works doesn’t mean the other can’t. It means different paths allow different people to achieve similar goals. For time-crunched athletes in the real world, here’s what you should and shouldn’t do to build a bigger and more powerful aerobic engine.
Don’t Do This…
Don’t Ride only low-intensity rides
The premise of aerobic base training is that accumulating a large volume of work at a low intensity will result in increased capillary density (greater perfusion of oxygenated blood into muscles) and greater mitochondrial density. The latter is important because more and bigger mitochondria in muscle cells increase your capacity to break down carbohydrate and fat into usable energy more quickly. Processing more fat and carbohydrate per minute through mitochondria increases maximum sustainable power or pace. It also means you can operate at a lower percentage of your VO2 max at your “all day” pace, which may help you rely on a higher percentage of fat for energy and conserve stored carbohydrate.
Does it work? Absolutely. Will it work for you? Probably not.
When traditional base training works, it only works because increased training volume (12-20 hours/week) contributes to greater total workload or greater focused workload, despite reduced intensity. However, when training volume is held basically constant by an athlete’s training availability, reducing intensity by spending the same number of hours at a lower power output than they are already habituated to only results in reduced workload, and therefore reduced training stimulus.
Don’t devote too many weeks to unstructured training
Some proponents of traditional low-intensity base training say one of the benefits is giving athletes a break from structured interval workouts. A period of reduced structure is great, but it doesn’t need to be eight to 12 weeks long! For one thing, many time-crunched athletes are already coming off a period of reduced training load and structure over the Holidays. For another, time-crunched athletes don’t need and won’t benefit from more than a few weeks of reduced-intensity training; you need the intensity to maintain the workload necessary to retain fitness. Could you attain this intensity through harder, yet still unstructured, endurance rides? Yes, but structure helps most time-crunched athletes accomplish the goals of training more efficiently.
Don’t Starve Yourself
Many athletes look to base training to strip away several pounds of weight gained between September and New Year’s, so they combine endurance training with calorie restriction to create an even bigger energy deficit. The rationale is that you need energy to perform hard intervals, but you don’t need a lot of energy to ride easy, so a period of reduced intensity is a good time to double down on calorie restriction.
The problem is, adequate energy intake is essential for positive adaptation to exercise stress. Inadequate energy intake diminishes the work you can do during rides, recovery between exercise sessions, and immune system functionality (during cold and flu season, no less). The quality of your training hours still matters more than the caloric deficit, even during a period of more generalized endurance training.
Do This Instead…
Incorporate interval training 2-3 times per week
Most amateur and masters racers compete in criteriums, road, cyclocross, and mountain bike races lasting 45 minutes to 3 hours. In those events your limiting factors are your power at lactate threshold, your power at VO2 max, and how long you can maintain those intensity levels. All three can be improved with a lower volume (8-10 hours a week) and higher intensity program. These includes a mixture of 8-20 minute lactate threshold intervals and 1-4 minute maximum-intensity intervals, along with some endurance and recovery rides, of course.
The science is well established that short, high-intensity intervals can increase mitochondrial density. It will add sustainable power output in a fraction of the time it takes to do so with a high volume of low-intensity exercise. For instance, Helgerud showed that high-intensity efforts are more effective for improving power at VO2 max than moderate-intensity training (Helgerud, 2007). Researchers like Burgomaster, Gibala, and other have shown that these same short, high-intensity intervals improve oxidation of fat and carbohydrate by mitochondria to a similar degree as traditional, lower-intensity endurance training, but in a fraction of the training time. Practically what this means is that by working at the highest end of the intensity spectrum you can improve performance at all intensity levels below that, making it a very effective use of your limited training time. Similarly, lactate threshold workouts improve power at threshold and improve power for endurance intensities, too.
Ride long-ish once a week
A popular Time-Crunched Athlete schedule consists of three interval workouts per week and one 2-4+ hour endurance ride. For athletes who can ride both days of the weekend, this often translates to Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday/Sunday, with Sunday being the long ride. This way there is a recovery or rest day before each interval day, which helps improve workout quality. There’s no magical duration for a weekly long ride, but there is evidence to show a moderately experienced cyclist benefits most from endurance rides longer than two hours and shorter than 6 hours. Another way to plan your long-ish ride is by kilojoules. I recommend aiming for at least 1500 kilojoules at an endurance pace for this ride.
Incorporate endurance blocks
Short blocks of long, back-to-back days on the bike are an important complement to that interval training. Endurance blocks lasting anywhere from four days to two weeks are great for applying an effective stimulus to the aerobic system. A long weekend of four solid 4-plus-hour rides gets the job done and is easier to arrange with work and family than 8 weeks of higher-than-normal training volume. A weeklong training camp is a great option, too. Most of my winter rides are 90 minutes with intervals, but I’m headed to Maui, Hawaii on January 21 to ride about 80 miles a day for six days. My interval training will enable me to ride those 480-ish miles at a higher average power output, which will bump up the training stimulus I get from the week, and lead to stronger intervals after a short recovery period.
Manipulate Carbohydrate Availability: Sleep Low
While it is important to support your training with adequate energy intake, there may be some merit to seeing how you respond to manipulating carbohydrate (CHO) availability. You want high CHO availability for interval workouts, but you can get away with and may benefit from starting longer, moderate-intensity rides with low CHO availability.
I’ve written about Train Low in more detail before, and the difference with Sleep Low is that you train with high CHO availability on one day, consume protein and fat but very little CHO after that workout and through the night, and then start a ride the following morning with lower-than-normal muscle glycogen. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat as normal during the ride. If there’s a benefit, it’s from starting with partially depleted glycogen stores, not from avoiding exogenous carbohydrate while riding. If you want to give it a try, do your Saturday interval workout later in the day with high CHO availability, then start your Sunday endurance ride with low CHO availability.
The most important takeaway is that pushing traditional base training as necessary is a disservice to the massive proportion of the cycling community that cannot fit the additional hours into their lifestyles. The proven solution that improves aerobic performance and that’s compatible with the lives of more amateurs and masters cyclists combines interval training, a long-ish weekly ride, and endurance blocks where you can fit them in.
Head Coach of CTS
Burgomaster, Kirsten A., Scott C. Hughes, George J.F. Heigenhauser, Suzanne N. Bradwell, and Martin J. Gibala. (2005) Six Sessions of Sprint Interval Training Increases Muscle Oxidative Potential and Cycle Endurance Capacity in Humans. J Appl Physiol. Jun; 98 (6): 1985-90.
Burgomaster, K. A., Howarth, K. R., Phillips, S. M., Rakobowchuk, M., MacDonald, M. J., McGee, S. L., & Gibala, M. J. (2008). Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans. The Journal of Physiology, 586(Pt 1), 151–160.
Dudley, G. A., W.M. Abraham, and R. L. Terjung. (1982) Influence of exercise intensity and duration on biochemical adaptations in skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol. Oct; 53 (4):844-50.
Helgerud J, Høydal K, Wang E, Karlsen T, Berg P, Bjerkaas M, Simonsen T, Helgesen C, Hjorth N, Bach R, Hoff J. (2007) Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Apr;39(4):665-71.
Stöggl, T. L., & Sperlich, B. (2015). The training intensity distribution among well-trained and elite endurance athletes. Frontiers in Physiology, 6, 295.