Base Training

Base training over December is the process of gradually developing a fitness platform. Base training forms the base of the pyramid and it is therefore the foundation upon which everything else rests. This phase of training is the longest macrocycle within your training plan and it is a way of preparing the body for the high intensity sessions to come. The bigger and stronger the foundation the higher your peak form can be and the harder you will be able to train further down the line to make those adaptations. Essentially you will be getting more out of your Hurtbox and HIIT sessions when the time comes.

This form of training is predominantly focused on steady efforts in your Zone 2 and the aim is to improve efficiency through adaptations that allow the use of more oxygen as well as the use of fat as a fuel source. These adaptations include amongst others, building a larger more efficient capillary network to enable effective transport of oxygen-rich blood to your working muscles. High stress experienced in Zone 5 & 6 breaks down these capillaries and this is where base training is required to allow sufficient time for growth of your capillary network. Another vital adaptation that occurs during Zone 2 riding is the increase of the number and size of your mitochondria. Recall our Exercise Physiologist Zac van Heerden wrote an article about this in a previous newsletter. Your mitochondria are the parts of your cells that produce energy, similar to batteries charging the muscle cells.  These cells hugely influence your endurance ability. Another critical adaptation well worth mentioning is that the enzymes that remove lactate only develop in Zone 2. You also churn out more enzymes that help turn stored fuel into energy. In addition, this will also assist with post-exercise metabolism. Lastly, you will also increase stroke volume which enables your heart to pump more blood with each beat. The result: You can ride faster and longer.

Many riders are in a hurry to get right to the high-intensity work because let’s face it, Hurtbox and HIIT sessions show quick results, it makes you feel like a superhero when riding with your mates when you keep dropping them on the climbs and it’s just way more fun! The problem with this course of action is that high-intensity training is not sustainable, if you keep pushing your body to its limits throughout the whole year you will burn out in May! We often see ex-pro’s drawing on this huge aerobic reservoir they have built up over years of high-volume training and most of us don’t have such a long training history. It is important to remember this before you miss out on vital parts in your annual training plan.


The question you are all asking is “so, how must I do this”?

Strong base building starts with solid rest. We usually refer to this as the Transition phase, it is essentially a physical and mental break, where you have maximum flexibility with your training, you leave the HR monitor at home, you just need a break from hard efforts and structured riding so you can repair the body and recharge those batteries. Now is the perfect time to take 2 weeks to catch up on life. It is important to back off enough to recover, but not so much that you completely lose fitness. Part of building a solid base also requires that you work on other key fundamentals, like general strength and technique, which are essential for long rides. Here are some guidelines for December and January:

  • Zone 2 Riding:

Your endurance zone is roughly 65 to 75 % of your maximum heart rate or about 2 or 3 out of 10 perceived effort (RPE).  The key here is to keep your intensity steady which means one should avoid coasting and hard efforts up hills. After a few weeks of this type of riding, you would of build a decent endurance engine and possibly rid yourself of a few extra kilos in the process. About 70% of your week should be spent in this zone during your base phase. Your rides are usually a bit longer than your higher intensity efforts. Don’t be fooled, duration is relative. It all depends on how much you ride, there is evidence that 45min of Zone 2 training is sufficient to show great aerobic adaptations. Often the more years of riding you have the more hours you need to see further gains in aerobic ability but, it also means you need less base training time before you can start hammering on the pedals again as quantity becomes way more important with experienced athletes than duration. This zone of training is about 40% of your weekly training time should be at Level 2 during base building.

  • Traditional base training approach vs. high intensity training

There is quite a bit of debate about the traditional base training approach that focusses only on long rides in your endurance zone vs. supplementing the aerobic training with Threshold and Tempo work during this phase. If you spend too much time only riding in your lower training zones the lack of stimulation in Z3 & 4 will cause you to detrain and you won’t be able to handle forcing this body into this level of effort when you move into the pre-comp phase. It will take a lot of time and effort to get those adaptations back but, if you spend 30% of your training week in Z4 & 3 it will allow you to not only maintain these gains but hugely increase fitness over the base phase where your FTP can actually increase. This will allow you to attain higher fitness levels year after year.

  • SweetSpot Training

Dedicate two sessions per week for seated, lower-cadence hill climbing in your sub-threshold or lower zone 4. This can be done indoors or outdoors, if you do them outdoors try and find a drag of a climb like Northcliff hill or Breedts Nek where you can sustain your Threshold HR for at least 8-10 min. Intervals should start at 10 min X 4 sets with 5 min easy pedalling and then gradually build up to 2 X 20 min Threshold intervals at 95% FTP.  One session per week can be dedicated to a fun-fast group ride for a few hours in your Zone 3. An occasional sprinted effort will also keep you awake, so build one in every few weeks, just not too often to avoid peaking too early.

  • Take the time to work on your technical skills and improve your pedal stroke

This is an excellent time to work on your form and economy. Develop a consistent force all the way around, imagine scraping mud off your shoes while you pedal. It is also time to hit the trails, mountain biking creates a smooth pedal stroke because you need to keep your force even so as not to skid on loose terrain. Otherwise, try aiming for a cadence of about 95 revolutions per minute on your rides. We have many fantastic bike parks in Joberg to choose from where you can improve your technical skills such as Heia Safaris, Thaba Trails, Avianto, Big Red barn just to name a few.

  • Strength & Conditioning

Riding a bike for significant lengths of time requires strength and power. Choose functional movement exercise that simulate pedalling action, like squats, leg presses, and step-ups. If your knees can take it, also do some low cadence hill climbing in your big gears during some of your Threshold sessions. Don’t forget to bring in core and upper body training such as planks and pull-ups.

  • How Long is this Macrocycle?

There’s no magic number for how long a base-building period should last. You need at least 6 to 12 weeks and it depends on your training background. Joel Friel recommends that you use your heart rate monitor to measure when you have built a sufficient base. This will enable you to monitor your efficiency factor (EF) which is a measure of the output (watts) you produce for the input (heart rate), says Friel. Have a look at your race reports that you receive after your CycleZone sessions, there is an EF measurement there after every session. If you have a power meter on your outdoor bike you can find yours by dividing your power number for a given ride by your average heart rate. According to Friel, the absolute figure doesn’t matter; you want to see an upward trend. “When it stabilizes, you’re ready for the next training phase.” Another effective way to do this is to keep an eye on your speed, if you have a regular loop that you usually ride in a certain time frame and you start covering that distance in a shorter time period but, still in your endurance or Zone 2, then you are making progress. Once you get to a point where it plateaus you need to move to the next Macrocycle in your training plan.


Nadine Visagie – Sport Scientist and cycling coach

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