By Scott Keast

Well, the deepest darkest days of winter are behind us now and the cycling season isn’t far off (apologies to those of you who commute year round – “good on ya!”). Now is the time to start looking ahead to this coming season. That’s right, the success of the summer 2009 season begins now.

Base building is an important part of every serious cyclist’s yearly fitness program. Lance Armstrong, Carlos Sastra, Eddy Mercx, and any other professional cyclist you care to name (past or present) have always paid close attention to base building because it quite simply isn’t possible to stay in top form year round. Periodization is now recognized as the most effective way of managing your fitness. Peaking for certain events or times of the year is the best way of avoiding overtraining and staleness.

So, what are your goals for next year? Maybe it’s a new personal best time at the Tour de l’ Alberta, or finally tackling the Golden or Silver Triangle. Maybe you just want to be able to ride at a higher average speed or feel fresher after longer rides. This is the time to start your base building and if you wish to develop your fitness base through other activities outside of cycling this is a perfect opportunity to inject some variety into your fitness routines.

So, what is base building?

Base building is the foundation for all of your fitness. Just as in home building, if the foundation is poor, the rest of the building is always compromised. It’s really the same with your fitness. Your foundation or base is the Aerobic Energy System.

It is of course essential that you develop all three of your energy systems (Aerobic, Anaerobic and Anaerobic A Lactate – sometimes referred to as the ATP energy system). However, you should concentrate on honing the Aerobic system early in the year.

The Aerobic system is the one that touring cyclists will rely upon the most, because it makes use of the most plentiful fuel that we have stored in our bodies – fat. If you ignore base building your body will simply begin dipping into (carbohydrate derived) glycogen stores sooner. Glycogen is stored in the liver, and when a rider is well conditioned there is about two hours worth of stored glycogen to fuel muscles. We also use available blood sugars to develop muscle movement and that is why it is important to keep fuelling your body when a ride will last an hour or more. In base building we want to delay relying on glycogen for as long as possible – thereby keeping the glycogen for when it’s really needed.

Comparatively speaking, the fat supply in even the leanest athlete can supply energy for the musculature indefinitely, as long as the level of activity doesn’t cause the body to dip into using glycogen for the majority of its energy needs.

Converting fat into fuel for muscle movement is much slower than direct glycogen fuelled muscle movement. Consequently, the intensity must remain lower to prevent the body from shifting into other modes of fuel supply. But this system can be improved and the threshold at which the body begins tapping into your valuable glycogen stores can be raised. Let’s look at what is needed to become a strong rider in terms of general endurance fitness.

Base Fitness Elements

These are the areas that you must develop first in order to go on to develop advanced fitness elements. They include: endurance, strength, and efficiency. These base elements are the most difficult and time consuming to develop for several reasons:

  1. They require a lot of patience because they take longer to develop. A solid base is achieved year-by-year over many years – not weeks. Now is the time to get started!
  2. The type of activities that develop endurance require lower levels of exertion for longer periods than you may be used to.
  3. Riders may feel that they’re not doing enough or working hard enough to be doing any good and the temptation to raise the intensity to “get a real workout” causes them to train and rely on the wrong systems. The no pain no gain crowd really find this difficult.

Endurance is the ability to do a specific level of work over a relatively long period of time without fatigue. In order to accomplish this, the aerobic energy system must be fully developed. This involves many adaptations right down to the cellular level. New capillaries must be developed to feed the oxygen and fuel to the muscle cells, the stroke volume of the heart must increase, oxygen profusion of the blood by the lungs must improve and yes, your body has to adapt to using fat for fuel.

Longer, lower intensity sessions are the key here. These types of sessions should make up the majority of your activity in the pre-season. While more intense sessions, although still present, make up less of your training regimen. The training load involves intensity and volume. So while the intensity is lower at this time, the volume is greater in order to create the stimulus for the body to change and adapt. This time also prepares your body to work harder later in the spring as you move into more intense lower volume training.

If you want to introduce some weight or resistance training at this time, again it will involve lower weights with higher repetitions and may be referred to as adaptive weight training.

Keep increasing your time spent in your endurance training by about 10% per week until spring, when you can get out on the road. Done right, you should soon be able to manage three to four hours of riding while keeping heart rate values in the 60-69% of your maximum heart rate for the majority of the time.

Once you have arrived at this stage, this is also the time to make gains in your strength. Begin by introducing more intensity into your training routine while reducing some of the volume that you have been doing. So, while still doing longer rides you may begin to introduce some hill repeats into your rides and heavier weights with fewer repetitions and number of sets into your weight training.

Finally, work on your efficiency throughout the year, but the early part of the year is a good time to do some reevaluating, adjustments and targeted training.

What do I mean by efficiency? Quite simply an efficient cyclist uses less fuel and oxygen to do the same amount of work. Some efficiency gains are a direct result of the “tune-up” that you have been giving your aerobic system. But other gains can be derived from increased core strength, flexibility, careful attention to positioning on the bike (this may well change with greater flexibility), developing higher leg speed, and improving your biomechanics.

The core of the body is really the foundation that all of the cycling muscles produce movement from. So work on abdominal, back and shoulder strength/endurance so that the legs have a solid anchor point to work from.

Doing high speed spinning, one legged drills, and sprint accelerations will improve the rate at which the muscles contract and extend. Increased flexibility (particularly in the lower back, butt [gluteus group], hamstrings [biceps femoris], and calves [gastrocnemius]) will allow you to develop the suppleness to pedal with more efficiency. Essentially, your muscles stop fighting each other. One legged drills develop better balance from side to side and between the muscles in the front and back of the leg. Very fluid cyclists are poetry in motion – their efficiency on the bike makes cycling look almost effortless. That’s because there isn’t any wasted movement – everything goes into powering the bicycle.

Once you have begun to get and maintain a good solid foundation for your fitness through improvements in Aerobic Endurance, Strength and Efficiency, then you can begin to look at the advanced aspects of fitness – Muscular Endurance, Anaerobic Endurance and Power. Don’t make the mistake of jumping over the base fitness areas and going straight into the advanced areas. Although a certain level of fitness can be achieved this way, you can never become the cyclist that you could be if you don’t work from a good base.

Read other Cycling 101 Articles

  1. Cycling 101 Introduction
  2. Heart Rate and Building Fitness
  3. Looking Ahead
  4. Hill Climbing
  5. Quick Release: A Potpourri of Cycling Tips
  6. Tires: Keep the Pressure Up, But Don’t Blow It!
  7. Shopping for a Bike?
  8. Bicycle Gear Ratios
  9. Cycling Made Easy Part 1