Cyclists are a different breed, I grant you, but until you hear them (alright, US — you got me…) speak about their sport, you never realize the magnitude of departure from the norm. Just one conversation reveals this complex and systematic language packed with phrase after acronym whose meaning only draws credibility from the tone of confidence of the cyclist who speaks them. On the outset, you would think this language actually has basis on something firm, something solid. But as you begin to become more and more inoculated, eventually adopting it for yourself, you start to realize that 2/3 of this language is nothing more than a literary house of cards. What makes this situation even worse is the generational inheritance of our vocabulary. Propagating this language to cycling novices is one thing, but when it is based one’s own superficial understanding, they begin their cycling careers at a severe disadvantage. I hate to paint such a bleak picture, but what I plan to do is provide some clarity and understanding so that the language itself doesn’t have to be altered in any way, only used in the proper context. In doing so, you will add a level of clarity to your training that will allow you to predict, rather than guess at a solution, when something goes awry.
What I will do over the coming weeks is to devote a considerable amount of energy to deconstructing “lingua cycliste” and then rebuild it for you with simplicity and focus. There will be several terms I will dissect, but I am still waiting on you to provide me direction. Thus, requests would be welcomed with open virtual arms.
The first issue to which I plan on devoting attention is the concept of “BASE” Training. Of all the terms or phrases I hear being thrown around on a consistent basis (especially during the winter months) is “base” this “getting my base” that. One of the innumerable reasons I have respect for Dr. Ernesto LaChuga of Chainwheel University is due to the fact that, on our first meeting, he directly asked me if I held any favor towards “base training” (BT). I regretfully answered “No”. For the record and future recourse, I would like to say that that statement was a lie. My answer should have posed the following question to him- “To what type of base training are you referring?” I say this because the traditional sense of BT holds little validity. Let me explain.
WHAT DOES BASE TRAINING ACCOMPLISH?
As the heading implies, I will focus my attention away from what BT is and direct my efforts toward what BT should be and how it is designed to affect your aerobic physiology. Herein lies the benefit from such training- yes, I said “benefit”- implying that BT WILL indeed make a difference to you, your training, and your upcoming season.
BT itself is a misnomer with the emphasis of this fallacious phrase falling squarely on the shoulders of the word “base”. This word slash training ability to upregulate your aerobic system to accommodate a greater ability to ride at low intensities for long periods of time is the eventual aim of such training sessions. Ask anyone and they will tell you the same. However, to imply that you cannot have an elevated level of fitness without first solidifying your “base” is simply erroneous. What I am attempting to illustrate is the fact that many cyclists are incredibly successful with very little aerobic training whatsoever. They choose to focus their attention on maintaining as high of wattage or HR as possible for a designated period of time—basically hammering for as long as they can. Know someone like this? Of course you do. You yourself may have this badge pinned on your jersey and not even know it. Really, if your event lasts less than 90mins, this training strategy is actually quite advantageous and prescribed by many a physiologist. Thus, depending on the metabolic demands of your event, ignoring your “base” aerobic training is not necessarily a bad move. Cyclists who prefer criteriums, track racing, or time trials fall in this category. These events demand incredibly high, sustained bursts of power and strength, but also require a consistent metabolic resiliency. This latter point, I will address in a subsequent essay. Back to BT.
From this point, it would be a mistake to assume that you can’t have one type of fitness without the other. Instead of thinking as aerobic fitness as the “base” of the training pyramid with the top 1/3 comprising anaerobic high-intensity fitness, think of it as two pyramids separate from each other in almost every way, except for a small overlap at their foundations. For matters of simplicity, I sometimes refer to these two training adaptations (aerobic and anaerobic) as two individual companies that conduct business entirely separate from one another, but remain consolidated under a single bank account- being your performance. For a well-rounded cyclist, your elevated (to use this word in the same context as “base”) fitness is just as important if any degree of race/event success is desired. However, there is one HUGE difference between the way these two adaptations are achieved… Time frame.
When focusing on your aerobic fitness, you need to target your training to elicit an improvement in your body’s ability to transport and consume oxygen. Being that oxygen is the only currency by which your “aerobic company” conducts business, ensuring a proper handling of “currency” will certainly increase revenues. There are three major adaptations that take place inside your body as your aerobic training status improves. 1) increased mitochondrial size and population, 2) increased capillary density, and 3) increased hematocrit (RBC count).
Mitochondria, as you may know are the metabolic cellular furnaces that use oxygen to degrade fat and carbohydrates in an effort to create energy (in the form of ATP) filling the subsequent energy void. Thus any increases in size or overall number of mitochondria will upregulate oxygen consumption and ATP production. As a companion, increasing capillary density is an excellent method of perfusing more blood to the muscles that are most actively involved in exercise, thus delivering more oxygen where it is needed. And last, but certainly not least, increasing your blood’s oxygen content involves raising your number of RBCs found in circulation at one time.
These adaptations work in concert to increase your ability to exercise at moderate intensities with very little cellular stress. However, the time it takes to see any difference in these areas is considerably longer than the time it takes to improve your anaerobic (elevated) fitness. Depending on the precision of your training, it can take as long as 4 months to see any noticeable improvement in your oxygen carrying capacity (the gold standard for determining your aerobic capacity is a VO2max test). Therefore, it is vital that this type of training be initiated early enough in the season to allow for aerobic upregulation. However, once elevated, aerobic capacities require little maintenance to remain elevated. That’s why you see many endurance athletes return to their sport a year after relative inactivity only to immediately regain the level of fitness they had prior to hiatus—The obvious example is… well, nevermind…
Your elevated fitness (i.e. anaerobic capacity) is much more subject to change and tends to wax and wane like the moon depending on the phase of your training. The reason for this is the nature of the changes taking place. Aerobic adaptations, in contrast, are quite nearly structural—representing an increase in some tangible entity whether it be more blood vessels or more RBCs. Any increase in elevated anaerobic fitness is more closely associated with upregulating the speed of biochemical pathways (i.e. glycolysis, the Cori cycle, etc.) which take place on a more punctuated time table. This focus is commonly referred to as “peaking” for a race. Traditionally, the “peak” period is approximately 7 to 10 days in duration and consists of low volume, high intensity workouts. This is literally the best and only method for increasing your elevated fitness and can be completed several times throughout a race calendar. I will go into more detail on this issue as the season progresses.
Therefore, to conclude with a bit of direction, it is important that if improving your aerobic fitness is your current periodical goal, you target your workouts to match precisely the demand necessary to elicit the desired changes. Conservative training will get you very little aerobic response due to a stimulus that isn’t great enough to merit the necessary adaptations while erring on the side of intensity will get you overtrainined and mentally exhausted very quickly—not to mention focusing your attention on the wrong business… You must determine your zones, outline your volumes, and stick as closely as possible to the prescribed protocol in order to maximize your aerobic benefit. It is a metabolic balancing act that few have mastered, however, it can definitely be accomplished with an attention to detail and a concentration on your seasonal structure.