Musing on training

Whilst out with ReubenE yesterday for a very enjoyable and vigorous ride we got to talking about training and, more specifically about base building training. 

I have read almost every book I can get my hands on with regards to cycle training, and this includes Base Building for Cyclists.  This book, for me, commits the worst of sins of simply perpetuating cycling dogma.  As someone far cleverer than me has pointed out in the past – that which can be stated without evidence can be refuted without evidence.  The bold assertion, and the central and practically only premise, of this book is that in order to achieve cycling form we must first achieve a ‘fitness base’.  This fitness base can only be achieved by hour upon hour of ‘endurance riding’, generally throughout the winter months when you are least inclined to do so!

The idea is that riding around really slowly  utilises more fat than carbohydrate for fuel (which is certainly  true – every piece of cardio equipment in the gym helpfully points out the fat burning zone).  This is alleged to make the body more efficient at using fat as a fuel and therefore sparing precious carbs, even as the intensity increases.  In the early season you then ‘race yourself into fitness’.

Almost every coach and cycling will agree with the above premise.  But I wonder if it is true…  I have a few ill-thought out ideas

  • I think that this notion is based on a scaling down of work works for pro cyclists.  There is not much scientific motivation in trying to find out the best possible way for a moderate athlete with a moderate amount of time to train.  Pros are a) physiological freaks and b) have all the time in the world to train.  The latter of these two points is the most salient.  If I have 30 hours a week to train there’s no way on earth that a large proportion of that time could be spent at threshold, or even tempo.  I would be obliged to slow down my training.  And, despite their physiological advantages, so are the pros.  I think what has happened is that trainers have looked at what works for the pros and scaled the training – which I think is a mistake as we simply don’t have the time to make it work for us
  • If you follow the base building regime correctly you will doubtless lose power (you can choose your own time period, but I prefer to think of FTP which is sustainable power for 1 hour) over the base building period.  What this means is that for a given intensity of  cycling output,  your lower power will necessitate increased usage of carbs over fat.  Maybe it is better to use the winter months to build power by cycling at lot threshold intensity after all
  • Maybe the central premise of base building is just wrong.  Take a look at Andrew Coggan’s Power Training Level’s document.  Apart from identifying how the different levels are defined, you can see his guide to the training adaptations you would expect at each level of intensity.  There’s not much going on at L2!
  • What if the ‘racing yourself into fitness’ was the important bit after all – not the long hours in the saddle over the winter?
  • Just because something sounds plausible doesn’t mean that it is.  Just because you are training in the fat burning zone does not necessarily imply that your body is getting better at using fat.  Furthermore there is an opportunity cost; every hour spent noodling is time you could spend kicking your arse at a higher intensity; probably doing more good
  • What I think but do not know is this; find as much time as you can to ride, mix it up a bit but in general ride as hard as you can for whatever time you have.  If that means 15 minutes of Tabatta intervals or a 6 hour ride to Brighton and back so be it.
  • Oh, and just enjoy it! Nobody really knows what is best for you given your age, physiology, level of fitness, goals, motivation and time.

No Comments on “Musing on training”

  1. 1 Simon Roberts said at 10:22 am on February 10th, 2010:

    This is an interesting dilemma, one that I am currently facing. My online coach is getting me to do my 3 hour rides at the weekend at 70%FTP (which is slow, believe me), and I have a couple of turbo sessions at 85-90%, along with my steady commutes. It drives me mad, I hate being overtaken on the road. But I am giving it a go to see if it works, as previously I have subscribed to your school of thought.

    If you have read the Friel “Training bible for cyclists”, he will call this a Base Period of training. And I guess you do not win any prizes in January.

    I am expecting my training intensity to ramp up from March.

  2. 2 paulnixon said at 8:45 pm on February 10th, 2010:

    Hey Simon

    I hope all is well.

    I think my issue is that I simply don’t have the time to do enough ‘base training’ in the traditional sense. With the weather as it has been for the last 2 months I’m finding it really tough to get enough hours on the bike. I’m used to being able at least to use my commute in the morning to boost my base mileage.

    I’d be interested to know what CTL you’re managing to achieve…

  3. 3 Simon Roberts said at 1:14 pm on February 11th, 2010:

    Paul, I can’t really give you the CTL data. I keep my powertap on the bike that is chained to the Kurt Kinetic trainer, and only take this bike out on the road on the odd occasion. I also do all my commuting on lesser machines. So (if CTL is the training load, as my memory serves me), I don’t really have an accurate record. I guess at the moment I am doing 2 hours per week on the turbo, 7 hours for the commute, 3 hours at the weekend. I would expect that as the season gets closer, the intensity will increase for the turbo sessions and I will try to get another road ride in for a hard 2 -3 hours or so or extend the weekend ride out to 4-5 hours.

    Don’t know if it will do any good though. I blame my gene pool.

    Got the Parlee yet?

  4. 4 paulnixon said at 1:23 pm on February 11th, 2010:


    Aha. Exactly what I did last year. The PowerTap didn’t see the outdoors until October.

    Yes CTL (chronic training load) is a measure of longer term fitness.

    I don’t record any of my standard short commuting at all, but all of my ‘meaningful’ rides are recorded. If (when?) the weather ever improves I’ll be able to extend my commute a little to make it more useful.

    Having a power meter all of the time is probably the best and worst thing I’ve done. It can be very depressing watching ‘fitness’ slowly ebbing away, but it’s also a source of motivation to a) not miss any training sessions and b) up the intensity.

    I was wondering; having tried the approach that I am this year (ie higher intensity, less ‘base’) – why have you reverted to a more traditional model?

    Presumably not because you were too successful kicking your ass all year round:-)?

    Parlee – coming soon I hope. Next couple of weeks would be my guess.



  5. 5 Simon Roberts said at 10:35 pm on February 11th, 2010:

    The simple answer is that my online coach told me to do it! Last winter I was doing lots of intervals. I felt in pretty good shape for most of the year, but really fell away in September and October. I lost some motivation because I just could not maintain the pace at which I had been riding in May to July. So I guess that I am building a better base now, and will put in the really hard yards in the warmer months. But I do feel as if I am missing some top end at the moment. Time will tell…

    Post some pictures of the Parlee on receipt. What are you putting on it? Still loving my lowly Z4.

    BTW Barry is tempting me with an IF Crown Jewel!

  6. 6 paulnixon said at 6:53 am on February 12th, 2010:


    Hello again!

    “Online coach” sounds intriguing? Is it actually a person? Have they passed the cycling training turing test :-) ?

    Fear not; I’ll be showing off the Z2 when I get my hands on it – whether or not the understated beauty will work on camera remains to be seen. It’ll be kitted out in SRAM Red and last year’s Shimano wheels (for at least a month :-) ).

    IF only seem to make bikes out of metal!

  7. 7 Simon Roberts said at 12:15 pm on February 15th, 2010:

    His name is John Morgan, he seems to do pretty well in a lot of the national TT events. As I say, the proof will be in the pudding. But it is nice to have some structure to the training.

    IF do largely make metal bikes, and I am after something a bit different from carbon. After all, I have a Parlee Z4, what more could I want (apart from a Z5 or Z2?) IF are reassuringly expensive, particularly the decals which are frankly eye watering.

  8. 8 Simon Roberts said at 12:18 pm on February 15th, 2010:

    Oh, and your z2 seems to have arrived. It is on the Bespoke Cycling blog page. Nice.

  9. 9 paulnixon said at 12:56 pm on February 15th, 2010:


    Thanks for keeping my blog alive :-)

    Yeah. My Z2 (do you dutifully pronounce the Z as a ‘zee’? Or steadfastly refuse and say ‘zed’ as is proper?) is in the country and is due to be built very shortly. It still seems a bit of an abstract concept for some reason…

    I thought about a bit of online coaching – specifically Ruth Eyles, but decided against in the end. I’ve decided instead to pay a visit or two to Jo McRae who has got some great reports from guys in the club.