For the majority of the endurance sports world, these winter months are reserved for long miles as we get back into the swing of things from our holiday breaks. As a professional cross country mountain bike racer, my winter is no different. These long rides are what make up the portion of training referred to as base training, and it's arguably the most important part of the year. Done right, base training can get you down to "race weight", tremendously improve metabolism, fine tune your aerobic engine, and strengthen everything from skeletal muscles all the way down to the entire cardiovascular system. With a solid base of fitness built, all of the work done later in the season will yield tremendously greater benefit. Over the years I've learned a lot about how to get the most out of my base training and I'd like to share some of my methods with you.
The Long Rides
These are my favorite. I don't know if it's because they make your Strava profile look awesome, or if it's because of the amazing sights you get to see while riding a bicycle 120 miles over several mountain passes, but I thoroughly enjoy the long rides early in the year. Here are the essentials for getting the most out of the long hours on the road/trail:
- Stay in Zone 2. If you're training with heart rate, this is 60-70% of your threshold heart rate. Exceeding this will have you reaching peak fitness way too early and no longer building base.
- Ramp the training stress. Depending on how long you have to train each week, you want the volume spread out evenly and slowly increasing as you go through the training block.
- Fuel adequately. A lot of athletes get extremely anxious during this time of year and try to drop those off-season pounds too quickly by simply not eating on these long rides. The result is never good. My rule is 180-230 calories every hour. This is a bit much for shorter rides with a lot of intensity, but for long rides it's perfect. Getting yourself into severe caloric debt on a 6 hour will not end well.
Rest and Recovery
Because base training comes after the off season, providing extra care and maintenance to your body is very important as you get back into the swing of things. Every multi-hour day on the bike should be complemented with an hour of stretching and foam rolling. Here's what to do:
- Stretch immediately. While you're still warm from your ride, start stretching. Go through all major leg muscles for at least 1 minute (2 sets of 30 seconds).
- Foam roll immediately after stretching. Muscles are still soft and tender, so it's best to foam roll immediately after you finish stretching. Spend 5 minutes (slowly rolling) your quads, hamstrings, and calfs.
- Revisit sore spots. Once you've stretched and foam rolled, I like to take a quick mental checklist of my lower body and revisit anything that feels tender. Some extra stretching on these spots will pay dividends as you move forward with training.
One thing that I hear a lot of questions about is how long does base training last? Or how long should you ride each week? Well, both of these questions depend entirely on the type of riding/racing you do. For me, I need about 2.5 months of "building" and "specializing" with my training after building a base. With this in mind, I usually work on base for 1-1.5 months and ride about 25-30 hours per week. Here are some tips to figure out what is best for you:
- When does your season start? Even if you don't plan to be racing until late spring, you may want to start training now. If that's the case, you're going to want to stick with base training for longer, as the body simply can't handle intensity for that long.
- When are your primary events? Even if your season starts in spring but your target event isn't until summer, you'll want to stay in the base training phase for a bit longer. Remember, you will begin to peak after about 6 weeks of intensity in your training and it's impossible to maintain peak fitness for months on end. You may not be as fit as you would like to be for those early spring races, but by continuing to work on base for a bit longer, you can come into your target events at your peak.
- How much time do you have to train? Say you have 12 hours per week. This is more than enough time to build a solid base. With tools like TrainerRoad, you can even build a base on less time now. However, all 12 of these hours should not go towards riding, as you also need to factor in the time spent on stretching and foam rolling. Further, it's important to "spend" your available training volume in a way that will allow you to ramp up as you work through your base training block. If you have 12 hours to train, start with only 8 of them. Then, week by week, add more volume to your training.
For me, I'm just finishing up my base training phase and really starting to gear up for the first round of the Pro Cross Country Tour taking place in March. I was recently the first North American pro cyclist to sign with KTM for 2015 and beyond, so there's a little added pressure and excitement coming into this season. I'm a Reno-Tahoe native, but I'll be residing in California for the rest of winter in order to train and host more signing events for my new book, Project VanLife. If you're in northern or southern California, feel free to reach out and we can get out for a ride. I'm always looking for new trails and roads!