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How to do basic cycling training without car closures in winter?

December 07, 2023

As winter approaches, the debate heats up among cyclists: to ride or not to ride in the cold season. Many opt to 'hibernate' their bikes, relishing the warmth indoors. Yet, some resilient souls persist, pedaling through winter with long, low-intensity rides as their training foundation.

But does this basic training really make a difference for the average cyclist? Today, we've invited three professional cycling coaches to dive into this discussion.


What is basic training, exactly? Basic training entails steady, long-distance cycling plans aimed at building a rider's aerobic capacity. Mike Cason, Chief Sports Scientist at Wahoo Fitness, describes it as "low-intensity, long-duration riding," often carried out in the winter or off-season, prized by riders focusing on spring and summer events.

This training helps maintain competitive form during seasonal gaps. Picture your competitive state as a pyramid: basic training forms the solid endurance base at the bottom, while the pyramid's apex usually involves short, high-intensity interval training efforts.

Matt Rowe from Rowe & King Cycle Coaching explains, "The purpose of basic training is to improve your aerobic athletic foundation, allowing you to train harder, enhancing performance and competitive abilities."

Intensity-wise, basic training isn't about pushing limits or chasing sprints; it's maintaining a steady pace in training zone two. For those using power meters, this zone sits around 56% to 75% of functional threshold power; if using heart rate monitors, it's 65% to 75% of maximum heart rate.

During basic training, you're operating at about a quarter of your competitive level, maintaining a conversational pace with fellow riders.

A side note: there's an ongoing debate between heart rate and power training. Generally, heart rate training is more accessible, while power training offers more precise and immediate data feedback.


What are the benefits of basic training?


Basic training primarily yields three benefits: enhancing your aerobic capacity, improving fat metabolism for power output, and establishing a robust foundation for overall health.

Let's delve deeper into the physiological effects of basic training on your body and its preparations for the upcoming season.

Matt Rowe suggests that basic training effectively boosts your endurance, allowing you to ride at a lower percentage of your maximum oxygen intake.

He adds, "Riders can produce higher power outputs in a more relaxed state, meaning they ride faster before hitting fatigue. Additionally, basic training promotes aerobic cycling, utilizing more fat as fuel rather than carbohydrates."

When riders engage in mid-to-low intensity rides, their bodies maintain a stable aerobic state, relying on fats as the primary energy source. Fats offer sustained energy but take longer to convert into fuel.

However, during high-intensity rides, the body shifts to using limited glycogen (stored glucose in muscles and the liver) for energy.

Through basic training, the body becomes more efficient at utilizing fats for energy during stable rides, ensuring sufficient glycogen reserves for high-intensity efforts when needed most.

Matt Rowe emphasizes that solid basic training also equips you better to handle setbacks and injuries during training. "Consistent basic training ensures a quicker recovery when injured. Additionally, the positive effects attained through basic training can be sustained for a long duration."


The science behind basic training


So, what's happening at a cellular level during basic training? "It primarily improves your mitochondrial density," says Matt Rowe.

"Mitochondria are the cell's powerhouses, and having more and denser mitochondria allows your body to process more fats and carbohydrates. Your lactate threshold also increases, aiding endurance," he explains.

Furthermore, cycling in the second training zone can increase the density of capillaries within the rider's body, aiding more blood flow into muscles. More capillaries mean faster delivery of oxygen to muscles and faster removal of metabolic waste, one of the sources of fatigue during anaerobic riding.


Who should undergo basic training?


Basic training has long been favored by professional riders, with many gearing up with specialized basic training sessions in sunny locales like Calpe, Mallorca, Tenerife, or other sun-soaked spots before the season starts.

Matt Rowe's brother, Luke, rides for the Ineos Grenadiers team. Matt shares, "For professional riders, traditional basic training helps enhance aerobic capabilities."

Ian Boswell, a retired WorldTour rider, feels the current 40-hour basic training per week for professional riders might be excessive. "Is it the most ideal training? Perhaps."

He acknowledges that extensive basic training suits preparing for arduous multi-day races. Yet, for enthusiasts or amateur riders focusing on single-day events or activities, extended basic training might not offer the best return on investment.

Nonetheless, Boswell advocates for everyone to undergo basic training. "On days without races, if you don't get your legs moving, you might lose the riding rhythm."

However, most cycling enthusiasts or amateur riders juggle limited training time amid family, work, and other commitments. While basic training benefits everyone, Matt Rowe stresses the importance of diverse training approaches.

"If you can spare six hours a week for cycling training, dedicating all that time to basic training might reduce overall training volume and lessen training stress, resulting in lower-than-expected training effects," says Matt Rowe.

He suggests that when time is limited, riders can combine basic training with higher-intensity sessions.


How to schedule basic training in winter when time is short?


Whether preparing for a one-hour standard race or planning a century ride, coaches Matt Rowe and Matt Bottrill recommend starting training with an "initial phase" encompassing basic training.

"Following the initial phase of training, differences between two riders will immediately surface," suggests Matt Rowe, proposing blending long-distance basic training on weekends with regular high-intensity indoor rides.

An alternative to traditional periodized training is reverse periodization, shifting the basic training phase to spring. Alternatively, better weather and longer daylight might favor high-intensity training.

Mike Cason mentions that if you engage in substantial indoor cycling during winter, reverse periodization might yield better results. "Even if you have major events in summer, engaging in some high-intensity training during winter could be beneficial. However, if you choose long-distance training in spring, reduce intensity to ease subsequent training loads."

Matt Rowe believes that 'sweet spot' training in winter might be particularly advantageous. This intensity usually falls between the top end of training zone three and the lower end of zone four, offering maximum training returns for time-limited riders.

He adds that combining indoor and outdoor rides is key. "Apps like Zwift complement outdoor riding but can't replace the real deal."


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