ALL ABOUT THAT BASE
As the off-season approaches you’ll hear a lot of your friends talking about ‘Base Training’.
As the winter gets deeper and darker, many will head out on silly long rides in the dark, all in the name of the base.
But what the heck is base training?
Do mountain bikers actually need it?
MY HISTORY WITH THE BASE
Base training was always my favourite. I’d head out with my friends on long rides all winter long. We’d do 3 hour rides and they went by in a flash. I’d finish and not even be hungry.
Then we’d do 6 hour rides on Saturday AND Sunday. Those made me tired, but I got faster. And all we did was ride easy.
I’d be thinking to myself, ‘wow, I am going to be SO FAST once I start doing intervals!’
The first few pre-season races of the year would go really well. And I’d still be thinking how fast I’d be once I started doing intervals. But once I started adding intervals in, I could never make it count on the day. It was my own misunderstanding that led to my own demise.
It was the base that was making me faster!
WHAT IS BASE TRAINING
Traditional base training means heading out on long easy rides all winter long. There are many names, like LSD (long, slow distance) or Endurance or Zone 2. The thought is that the bigger you base is, the higher your peak will be (kind of like a triangle). So everyone aims for more miles chasing that bigger base.
In practice, base training is very good training. All you have to do is look at the real pros and you’ll notice that it seems like base training is all they do! Well, that and racing.
In some ways and some cases, this is completely accurate.
WHO IS BASE TRAINING FOR?
EVERY MOUNTAIN BIKER NEEDS BASE TRAINING!
Yes, even the downhillers and enduro riders! I would say especially the downhill and enduro riders!
For XC riders base often just makes sense since their events are a little longer, but it makes sense for DH and Enduro riders since the base training period may look very different to what they do in the season. we talked about why you need to be fit for gravity racing and how becoming aerobically efficient can help you sprint more, and the winter base period is a great time to get after it!
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TIMES WARMING ON THE TRAINER IS A GOOD IDEA: 1.When you don’t know the area: getting lost before a race starts is not great (trust me, we barely made the start the day after this race pictured) 2.When you want a specific warmup: oftentimes the terrain around you will dictate the intensities you can ride at. Hopping on the trainer gives you full control. 3.When a pre-race mechanical would ruin your race and you want to steer clear of shrapnel: @seamuspowell raced multiple times with safety pins though his tires (he made it through just fine). Who knows where he picked them up (parking lot??), but there usually aren’t any on your trainer. 4.When you don’t want to get too far away: we ride bikes because we love it, and sometimes we might get too far away from the race venue during our warmup. Even if you know the way, you don’t want to have to stress it on the way back. 5.When you want to hurt everyone’s ears: trainers are loud- especially with knobby tyres. One side is most people don’t want to be ‘that’ guy or girl, but nothing says I’M GOING TO CRUSH YOU more than the hum of a warm race sneaker. Anything I missed?
WHAT IS THE BENEFIT OF BASE
Those long easy rides in the base period have a lot of benefits for the mountain biker, but one of the GREATEST BENEFITS is that these tend to be lower intensity, somewhere around the Zone 2 for the easy rides and Zone 3-4 for the intervals.
This is actually something mountain bikers don’t do often!
Riding trails is inherently hard, and I’ve covered this many times on this blog. Even if you’re not purposely going really hard all the time, riding up or down trails requires very tiny anaerobic microsprints on the way up [or down], and big and small plyometrics on the way down.
We do all this without actually trying to ride hard.
But when we get in to base season, not only do we remove some of the purposely hard efforts, but we also add in some of the purposely easy efforts.
This means we can train more!
The base rides also help us get better at using fat as fuel, create more mitochnondria, and help deliver more oxygenated blood to the working muscle.
If these things sound good, that’s because they are—and actually they are some of the most important things we can do to get more fit!
These are things that simply won’t happen as effectively when we are out riding hard all the time and have an acidic cellular environment.
The other thing we can do in base training is some specific, long intervals in Zone 3 or Zone 4. While these aren’t super taxing, we can ensure that we will recover quickly and therefore be able to continue training. At the same time, these steady kinds of efforts are things we might not purposefully do once the trail conditions are good, and that limits our ability to process and utilize lactate and keep riding fast.
WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO DURING BASE TRAINING?
Base training season is also a great time to ensure you are doing strength training. While strength training is certainly hard, it is hard in a different way.
Strength training allows us to recruit more and bigger muscle fibers for when the riding season hits. A lot of these will be the same as the ones we use to pedal or maneuver our bikes, but others will be different. This is great!
Since we are mostly riding easy, we can add a few of these hard gym sessions. They are very short, and so they are not as exhausting as interval sessions. Sure you need appropriate recovery, but since you will probably back these up with easy rides, you can adapt very quickly.
This is also a great time to be working on your skills that will translate over to the trails. You can do wheelies, head to the indoor skate park, or even just practice cornering in the soft snow. You can definitely work on your braking technique or even practice your coasting when the trails are clear.
WHAT ABOUT CROSS-TRAINING?
YES! YES! Yesyeysyessss!!
Cross-training is great. I always encourage all my athletes to swap a long, easy ride for a long, easy hike or ski in the winter. I even encourage them to swap a ride for a day of snowboasrding down the mountain.
Well because for starters, these activities are fun! Riding in the snow is not always fun for everyone!
And second off, this is still using your body/muscles. Some of these will be riding specific, but not all will be—which is great!
So for sure incorporate any kind of cross-training at any chance during the base training season.
Some options for those with only a singletrack mind are: racquetball, basketball, hiking, snowshoeing, XC skiing, lift-access skiing or snowboarding, and even running if you can build up slowly and appropriately.
DOES BASE TRAINING MEAN ROAD OR TRAINER?
Well, yes and no!
The road or trainer are great because you can control your intensity. This is something that is not very possible on trails!
You can definitely ride trails during the base training season, but it takes a concentrated effort to keep a steady pace or intensity. I often encourage riders to get on the road if it’s safe, or even on the trainer for those bad or short days.
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WHAT’S THE POINT OF ZONES? Thanks to some poor PhD student many years ago, heaps and heaps of data were compiled from people exercising at different power outputs. Because their oxygen uptake and heart rate were recorded from these tests, these scientists were able to determine exactly where their effort fit on a scale of nothing to maximum effort. Et voila – zones were born 😎 Zones are not a hard science, unfortunately. But scientists and coaches can say with much confidence that exercising at a certain workload places certain demands on the body – and it is these demands that specific training sessions aim to address. It’s the coach’s job to manipulate the timing of specific sessions to give the athlete the right stresses at the right time, all in an effort to control when the athlete will be a peak performance 📈💪 Zones lie more on a continuum with blurry overlaps, rather than having perfect lines drawn between them. You won’t suddenly have hugely different demands just by raising your heart rate by a perecent.🔀 Zones are there to guide you. “How hard did you say, coach?” “I said REASONABLY, Kevin!!” Well that just doesn’t work. And a coach and athlete deciding on what “easy” is might look a lot different both in theory and in practice 👨💻 👉👉👉The takeway: zones are both a good way to prescribe exercise and also a good way to monitor intensity. Zones are not perfect, but they are the best thing we’ve got!👈👈👈 Of course, all this goes out the window when you get 3 flats and need a new tyre just to get home🤦♂️ (Found the graph in the internet. Dm for credit)
WHY DO SOME RIDERS GET SLOWER AFTER BASE?
I ALWAYS got faster during base training season.
But once the races rolled around, I actually got slower.
Races are hard and you need a lot of recovery. The only way to avoid overtraining in this case is to either have a bigger base or to do fewer high-intensity rides between races.
For me, I had a great base, but I also switched to very hard training while also racing a lot. This meant I was often overtrained.
Other riders will struggle because they haven’t built a big enough base of fitness, and so once the hard MTB rides and races roll around, the efforts take more out of them and they need longer recovery.
Without optimal recovery, the less-fit rider will eventually grow weary and burnt out.
These situations might sound familiar to you or one of your friends, and these are the most common issues I see with mountain bikers. We go from training properly in base season or not training at all, to racing, riding trails and doing hard intervals in the summer.
It just doesn’t work very long.
HOW TO INCORPORATE BASE TRAINING FOR MOUNTAIN BIKERS
Often times the base training period for riders is 12 weeks. During these 12 weeks you can do three 4-week blocks of training, and slowly build up to prepare for a great summer.
You can check out my 12-week Base Training Plans HERE, which include smart trainer files and benchmark testing. There are plans for 3 days/week, 4/week and standard.
During this time, we will start off with mostly easy rides for a few weeks. This will be beneficial because most riders will have come off of a nice break from training.
After that, we start to do some longer intervals, such as 2×20 Zone 4 or 1 hour in Zone 3. This will all happen while we keep in the easy rides.
If the rider has plenty of time, we can do some long rides on the weekends such as 4 and 5 hour rides in Zone 1-2. But of course not everyone has this much time, which is totally OK.
In the case of less time, we will spend more time doing those longer intervals. 3 days per week of training with one long easy day and 2 days of efforts is a great stimulus and will prepare you for a good summer.
Of course 4 or more days can get you a bit more fitness, but this doesn’t mean more intervals.
Rather with more time it would mean the rider can do more volume at an easy pace and build a bigger base.
You can check out my base training plans built in TrainingPeaks here. I am sure there is an option for you, whether you will train with a heart rate monitor, a power meter, on trails, or with a smart trainer.