Base Training Basics

Unless you are lucky enough to live in one of those chronically warm areas, mountain bike season is likely coming to a close. There are very few, if any, races left on the calendar come November, and your focus should be shifting toward goals for next season. You either have already taken your transition period, or you are about to (see Off-Season Transition Period article here). Now it’s time to start thinking about getting back on two wheels.

After some time away from your structured training, it can be difficult to find the right balance again. Some people are itching to get back on the bike and have to be held back, and others struggle to get back into the rhythm at all. Here are my tips for getting back into base after your time away from the bike:

Photo: J Vargus

What is Base?

Base training lays the foundation for which other, more high intensity workouts will build upon throughout the season. Base training usually involves longer, aerobic type of rides. In this context aerobic means with oxygen. That means that during most of these rides you will have control over your breathing. In an ideal situation, you might spend about 12 weeks focusing on base training or aerobic rides. Many of these rides will not have any intervals and the ones that do have intervals should remain at or below threshold.

Why it Matters?

Rides without intervals? That’s right. Since these rides, at least at face value, appear to be easier, many people are tempted to skip them all together. Don’t make that mistake! These rides will help to prevent injury, burn out, and help to assist with my physiological adaptions that are critical to turning you into the best cyclist you can be.

Aerobic training has the ability to increase the amount of blood your heart expels with each beat which can therefore help to decrease your heart rate at similar riding intensities. It also helps to increase blood flow, decrease respiratory rate, as well as increase myoglobin and mitochondria. If you’re interested to learn more about these adaptations I go into more depth on the article I wrote for VeloNews which can be found here. If you aren’t a science nerd like me, then just know that these adaptions are critical and most of them can only happen with oxygen. That means that if you train too hard (or not at all) then you are depriving your body of the chance to adapt in these ways.

Photo: J Vargus

Build Up with Base

After a few weeks away from the bike, it can be intimidating to know where to start. Rides that once felt easy, now feel more challenging. It can be tempting to force yourself into the training you were once doing or it can feel too intimidating and easy to shy away from the challenge. In my personal opinion, a good place to start is at about 50% of what you were doing on average before your off-season transition period. For example, if you were riding 10 hours a week then your first week back on the bike might be 5 hours. If you were averaging 20 hours a week on the bike then your first week back might be 10 hours.

Once you know where you start, you can begin to increase your time in the saddle by about 10-12% per week. It’s important to increase very gradually so that you don’t shock your body and risk overuse injuries. As you begin to gradually make this build in duration, make sure that you are including a recovery week every 4 or so weeks that helps to unload your body so that you can recover and continue to safely build. This recovery week might be about 60% of the volume that you did on the last week of your build.

Photo: J Vargus

Tips for Execution

Now that you know what base training is, why it’s important, and how you should build it, here are some of my tips to actually execute the plan.

Set Your Schedule: Life is busy. Many of us function on a strict routine or schedule. In the middle of the summer, you might be used to long rides after work. When the weather changes, and you take a couple weeks off of the bike, it’s easy to fill what was your ride time with other activities and when it’s time to get back on the bike, you don’t know where the time went.

Time doesn’t often just appear in the type of lives we live. We have to make it. Consciously write down a schedule when it’s time to get back to training. Go over the schedule with a coach or friend so that you have someone to hold you accountable and so that your spouse isn’t shocked to find you on the trainer at odd hours of the day or night.

Hire a Coach or Buy a Training Plan: Even if you aren’t training for a big event it can still be extremely satisfying to hire a coach or buy a training plan. Knowing what the week ahead holds can take the guess work out of training. Part of a coach’s job is to build your training at a safe and sustainable rate as well as hold you accountable to your training. If you are coming up with your own workouts when you walk out the door, you may be more likely to deviate from the plan.

Make Process Goals: Sometimes base training can feel a bit ardous. If you give yourself very specific things to dial in or focus on, you may feel more satisfaction and see a result more concretely (since you can’t always see the mitochondria increasing- haha).Here are some examples of goals you might focus on during base season:

Dial in your Bike Fit: The base season is a great time to dial in your bike fit or make adjustments. You have plenty of hours to see if the changes work for you and if they don’t, you have plenty of time to change them back before you race. Keep in mind that it can take up to 2 weeks to know if a new fit adjustment is really working for you.

Care about Cadence: During base training, you might practice some cadence drills or even just really focus on maintaining a good cadence throughout your ride. When you start doing intervals, it’s easy to become more caught up in the wattages and you’ll want cadence to be a little more second nature. For more cadence information click here.

Practice your Skills: Pick one skill every ride to really focus on. Think about cornering, or maybe it’s proper form when descending. Use the extra brain power you have during base rides to really hone in on a skill.

Execute Nutrition: Finally, find a nutrition strategy that works for you. Practice using different foods and see what sits well in your stomach.

Fall in Love with Your Bike Again

Base season is a great time to fall in love with just riding again. During the season we often love racing, success, numbers, intervals, etc. During base season, when things feel a bit simplified, it’s a great time to just love the freedom of being on two wheels.


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