Whether you are a road racer going long miles in the saddle, a time-trial rider who might only ride up to 25 mile races, or a sportive rider who rides for the fun and thrill rather than the element of competition, you will need to establish a firm base endurance to ensure your body is able to cope with the stresses of consistent training. In most cases you will approach this in one of two ways. First, if you have the time, you might do lots of low intensity rides, the typical base phase. Second, the increasingly common and probably best way for amateur riders to train, is to focus on shorter, more intense (but still aerobic) sessions. Here I discuss the finer points of both.
Low Intensity (>20 hours per week):
One of the main factors when starting any endurance (or base) phase of your training is to start slowly and build up from there. If you go too hard or for too long too early you will shock your body and struggle to keep it going at any intensity for any time. Even if you are used to doing hundreds of miles a week during the peak of the season, once you have a period of rest it is ideal to build it back up slowly.
Some riders find it easier to count miles and set targets based on the amount of mileage you do a week, but, I think when talking endurance you should be looking at time. If you set out to do 100 miles a week and you get stuck in the worst weather possible, or go out with a slow club ride you may find it takes you hours longer to complete this 100 than if you were doing it during the summer. If you go out saying I’ll do 6 hours endurance this week, you go out and just do 6, there’s no risk of doing too much. You can monitor miles after which will give you an idea of your progression.
A typical base endurance ride should be a minimum of a couple of hours, but, in reality you should be aiming for three or more. The types of heart rate you should be seeing is between 60% and 75% of your maximum or if you are using power between 35% and 55% of max. These might be defined as training zones one and two. Of course, there will be periods where you go above or below this, for example up and down hills, but you should aim to remain within these zones to ensure that you are building base endurance.
If you are unable to use power or heart rate you should aim to be relaxed when riding, you should be able to have a conversation and you may be breaking a sweat, but, if you start breathing and sweating hard or having a conversation becomes tough, you need to ease off.
High Intensity (<20 hour per week):
Firstly, if you choose to follow a higher intensity endurance phase, it is unlikely you will train anywhere near 20 hours per week. In reality, if you’re an amateur athlete, you might have less than 15 and if you have a busy job or young family, you could go to 5 hours, I’ve even worked with less!
You may have heard the term ‘sweet-spot training’ (SST). This is typically 88-93% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP – or an approximation of the power you could hold for one hour). This can be highly useful, when used correctly. It tends to be less fatiguing that simply training at your FTP and still produces some great adaptations.
When you don’t have time to train like a professional, riding less than 20 hours per week in zones 1 to 2 might not give you the bang for your buck. Plus, if your event is just one day, you might not need those longer rides anyway. There is a strong argument for the amateur athlete to simply train for the duration of their event all the time. Of course, if you are training for a longer ride, you might build up to it, but, if you are racing 25 mile time trials or crits, choosing to go out and do 3 hours base might not be the best use of your time.
Why Build Base At All?
The benefits of building base endurance, other than preparing your body to cope with a long season of rides is that you’ll be increasing your body’s ability to burn fat as a fuel. Important if you are overweight, but, also if you are looking to carry less food with you or if you plan to stop less on sportives. Another benefit is you will be increasing your body’s fuel economy, sounds odd but if your body uses fuel better then what you eat will be more effective, again very important in all aspects of riding from races to sportives. As your body becomes more efficient in burning fuel it’ll also be using oxygen more effectively, again if your body is better at supplying your muscles with oxygen you’ll ride better and faster.
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