Base Training Part 1: What, Why, and How does it make me Faster?

So it’s November, the nights are getting longer and the weather is getting colder, to the racing cyclists this means only one thing, time to start that Base training block. To many Base training is the period over the winter involving long slow miles with friends, warming coffee stops and less breathing through ones arse on Sunday.  But what is the point of Base training and how should it be done?

The aim of your Base training is to improve efficiency on the bike, by improving your aerobic energy system and neuromuscular system. Targeting these two factors early in the training year is the key to unlocking potential in your later season training as they provided a base of fitness, hence Base training, from which your harder more race focused workouts can be performed.  Also the fitness trained during the Base period is much easier to maintain whilst targeting other areas of fitness than it is to do so the other way round.

Training the Aerobic System

So what training should be done in Base training? Let’s start with training targeting the aerobic energy system.  In order to train and subsequently improve the fitness of one of your body’s energy systems training intensities must be at the level where the targeted system is most used.  For the aerobic system this is a relatively low intensity in comparison to race pace, with training ideal training being performed in Power or Hear Rate Zones 2, 3 and the lower end of 4.  As these intensities do not quickly tire the muscles this allows Base training workouts to be longer.  We can describe these workouts as being your endurance workouts, with those in zone 2 being your basic endurance workouts which tend to work your aerobic system more than your muscles.  And those in zones 3 and 4 being your muscular endurance workouts working both your aerobic energy system and your muscles.

So how will this sub race pace training make you faster? Training the aerobic system causes physical and chemical changes in the body which improves your fitness.  The body becomes much better at delivering oxygen to your working muscles by both increasing the amount of blood going to those muscles and by increasing the bloods ability to carry oxygen to those muscles.  Your heart also becomes larger and stronger, meaning again that more oxygen is able to get your muscles faster.  Your muscles become more efficient at using fuels (carbohydrates and fats) with the oxygen to produce energy for your muscles to work.  These changes mean that over time riding at a certain speed, say 18mph, feels easier than it was before, as the process by which you produce the energy for cycling is more efficient.

Through the muscular endurance training your muscles themselves also become both stronger and more resistant to fatigue. This means that they can now push you faster and for longer, adding to that feeling of it being easier to ride at a certain speed.

Neuromuscular Training

Your training of the neuromuscular training aims to improve the way in which your nervous system operates your muscles. Think of it as upgrading the operating system of your computer, without the bugs and glitches, to make it faster and more efficient.  Neuromuscular training can be done in two ways during Base training, weight training and on bike technique drills.

During the early part of your Base training weight training focuses on building maximum strength through lifting heavy weights in the gym. This might sound counterintuitive to Base training, as you are doing hard high intensity work before you have a good fitness base.  But there are few reasons for doing this sort of strength work now.  Firstly as the intensity of these workouts is very high they require a good amount of recovery to make sure the right changes take place.  Mixing these workouts with the low intensity workouts of the early Base training allows for this recovery time.  Secondly as maximum strength is not a primary concern for the cyclist these improvements will help your cycling, with your later more focused training maintaining theses gains.  Again as maximum strength is not a primary concern for cycling performance improving it now means that closer to race day you can focus on more pressing elements of your fitness.

So why bother to do this maximum strength training if it is not that important to your performance?  Increasing the maximum strength of your muscles does two things to your cycling performance, firstly it means that a given workload below your maximum will become relatively easier, as it less of the maximum than before, which adds to that feeling of a given speed being easier.  Secondly the improvement to cycling performance comes from how your maximum strength increases.

Maximum strength of muscles increase by both the muscle itself become bigger and stronger and also through the nerves controlling the muscles becoming much better at working the muscle. It is this second process that is of most use to cycling performance.  Research has shown that in maximum strength weight training the initial increase in strength comes from this improvement to the nerves that work the muscle, as it takes longer for the muscle to gain size and strength.  Effectively what is happening is your nerves are learning the best way to get the most out of what they have.  As the maximum strength training phase does not last very long in the Base training period most of the improvement comes from this change in the way the nerves work.  This change in the way the nerves work is maintained by on the bike training later in your training, meaning that the muscles get used more efficiently when cycling, again making it feel easier at a given speed.

The second type of neuromuscular training is on the bike technique drills such as, high cadence drills, one legged pedalling or easy sprints. These drills are again designed to change the way in which your nervous system recruits your muscles when pedalling.  These drills train different parts of the pedalling technique that when put together make the overall more efficient and your faster.

In Part 2 I will discuss how to build a Base training programing to get the most out of these gains to the neuromuscular and aerobic energy systems


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