Traditional aerobic base training may be an accepted way to train in winter but it’s not the only way to build a strong aerobic base, especially if time is not on your side. And whilst the Sunday social club run has its place, lowering the intensity of every winter ride won’t get you results when it comes to improving your fitness or your speed. Here’s why.
Why is base or endurance training the norm
Winter is traditionally the time of year when cyclists switch their focus to endurance riding, with long, slow, distance miles (LSD) the accepted norm. A key part of the periodisation model - the idea of dividing up the year into different types of training - LSD, or base training, was the first phase of the cycle and considered essential before undertaking the higher demands of interval training. The enduring training paradigm, the idea of spending the winter months riding at a slow, steady pace, has been hard to shift. But newer research suggests that racking up endless miles, particularly when the weather is poor, may not be the most effective way to train.
How does endurance training build fitness
“Training, in any form, acts as a stress on the body and the high volume, endurance model of training is based on the premise that working for long periods, at a low to moderate intensity, acts as ‘training stress’ on the body. One consequence of this ‘training stress’, is to increase the number of mitochondria in your cells,” says exercise physiologist Andy King of Leeds Beckett University
Mitochondria are structures within human cells that convert energy from food, namely fats and carbohydrate, into the cellular form of energy that powers your muscles and cells (ATP). The more mitochondria you have, the better your ability to convert fat and carbohydrate into this usable form of energy
The LSD, or high volume, endurance model of training for cyclists is based on the premise that working for long periods, at a low to moderate intensity, increasing the amount of base training you do makes you more efficient at this process of conversion, which for cyclists makes the case for endurance training. However, interval training, whether it is short, sharp, high-intensity HIIT sessions or slightly more sustained sweet-spot rides, has been proven to develop your endurance abilities too.
Why endurance training doesn’t always work
Few serious amateur cyclists train more than 8-12 hours a week, regardless of whether it’s summer, or winter. It follows then, that if you reduce the intensity of your riding for all of those 8-12 hours, the overall ‘training stress’ you put on your body is reduced rather than increased, and you’re unlikely to see any changes or more importantly improvements in your fitness.
“One problem with using the high-volume, low intensity model of training alone is that you’re not stressing your body enough to stimulate a positive change,” says Andy King, exercise physiologist at Leeds Beckett University.
“The theory of progressive overload states that, to gain aerobic capacity, strength or muscular endurance, you must gradually increase the stress placed on the body during exercise,” says King. This increase in stress stimulates a positive, adaptation, or response, which we relate to as feeling fitter. “You’d have to significantly increase your volume of riding to at least 15-20 hours a week to see the benefit from the pure endurance model, which is what the pros do,” says King. “Even 20 hours is the low end of what the pros do in winter and this explains why the weekend warrior model doesn’t work; it’s a trade-off between volume and intensity."
The case for HIIT
For time-poor cyclists, an alternative to traditional, winter training is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) - short bursts of very high-intensity exercise, repeated several times within a session.
Several studies have shown that incorporating regular HIIT sessions into your training can have the same mitochondrial and cardiovascular adaptations to that of traditional slow, continuous endurance exercise. Other studies have shown even better results. A landmark study, by Helgerud et al., (2007), compared runners who ran for long periods at 70% of their maximum heart rate, with those that completed shorter, four-minute intervals at 90-95 % of their maximum heart rate. Both trained three days per week for eight weeks. At the end of the study the short, fast, runners had increased their VO2max by 7.2% more than the long, slow runners, which supports the selling point of HIIT as a time-efficient way to train.
“For someone who normally trains three to four times a week for around eight hours this might look like four, 40-minute HIIT sessions a week,” says King. “The idea is that you are generating a much higher stress but for less time, which equals the same volume of overall stress.” He adds note of caution though, “you will quickly improve using this method but you’ll also quickly adapt and plateau, so it’s important to increase the stress over time”.
But whilst cyclists can benefit hugely from interval training, to stay motivated and see fitness gains, the smartest way to train in winter is probably a combination of both. Olympic and world champion track cyclist Joanna Rowsell-Shand incorporated HIIT into her training programme, “I always included HIIT sessions throughout the whole year. I never wanted those types of efforts to feel completely alien, and they are a nice way to break up training and help keep it interesting”.
According to King, “Striking a balance between types of training and training intensity is the key. The winter period is a great time to consolidate gains from all those summer miles but riding outside is often limited by short days and bad weather. Heading indoors for specific targeted, HIIT training sessions is one way minimise your time spent in the saddle in the cold and wet. But, for maximum gain, it should be done with some ‘easy’ miles alongside”.
Related training plan: Get Fitter, Ride Faster, Ride Further with our Winter Training Plan