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Base Training for Cycling (Top 5 Benefits)

calendar icon April 7, 2021
calendar icon 7 MINS
author icon caggolds

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What is Base Training?

Base training is a fundamental component of a periodised training year – it is the foundation and building block to creating aerobic fitness. Training base fitness has many benefits including improved muscular endurance and most importantly, aerobic endurance.

Anecdotally, base fitness is compared to the biological, physiological, and anatomical development of a child. The same way a child reaches the milestone of walking and then progressing to running – base fitness – can be regarded as the ‘walking’ phase of cycling. Once a strong base fitness is developed, subsequently, the doors to specific training goals become attainable and ‘running’ can commence.

Now, let’s look at the top 5 benefits of base training.

1. Overall Improved Fitness and Performance

Before attempting to achieve a fitness goal, the rule of specificity is vital – and its importance is greater for an amateur cyclist. The rationale behind specificity is that it allows an individual to tailor their cycling training to achieve their goal [1].

Too often, amateur cyclists tend to ride at a high intensity too often, through chasing Strava segments, joining their local bunch ride, or by innocently attempting to ride the distance like their favourite professional. While this may sound fun, often too much high intensity cycling can lead to physical and cognitive fatigue [2].

However, adopting the rule of specificity to cycling, base training presents as the foundation to any specific road cycling goal. As cycling is of continuous nature, base kilometres are specific to improving overall fitness and performance on the bike. 

The basis of incorporating base training stems from the endurance type nature that cycling requires majority of the time. Yes, sprints and maximal efforts are integral to cycling, but continuous cycling is the predominant activity majority of the time.

Once, the base fitness has been developed, cyclists can progress to ride at greater intensities that are specific to their cycling goals [1]. For example, if one enjoys criterium racing, a specific training session is likely to involve high intensity efforts ranging from 3 to 5 minutes – specific to achieving a breakaway. Or, multiple all out maximal sprint efforts is likely to emulate an attacking race scenario.

 2. Improved VO2max and Overall Cardiovascular Fitness  

While it may seem fun, effective and efficient to power away at heavy intervals on the pedals as dictated by your favourite indoor training program, the cardiovascular and respiratory benefits of base training outweigh the long-term practice of high intensity interval training [3]. 

VO22max represents the greatest amount of oxygen uptake an individual can consume and is often used in protocols to test, analyse and compare fitness levels to normative values [4]. As such, research has shown that long duration, moderate intensity cardiovascular training can produce a greater VO2max in individuals [3].  

Additionally, base training can improve overall cardiovascular health, reduce body fat and decrease the prevalence of developing cardiovascular disease [4].

Base fitness improves VO2 Max
Base fitness is proven to enhance VO2 Max and Cardio performance on the bike

3. Improved Muscle Energy Supply – Increased Mitochondria

The mitochondria are organelles that are found in most nucleated body cells within the cytoplasm and are often referred to the “power-house” of the cell. [5]. The cytoplasm is responsible for protecting the contents within the cell body. As such, the mitochondria are responsible for energy production. The production of energy stems from the mitochondria which releases adenosine triphosphate – an energy stored molecule [5].

Through aerobic base training, mitochondrial mass increases [6]. As mitochondria density increases, the turnover of adenosine triphosphate increases, providing a greater yield of energy production, thereby improving muscular endurance [6]. Through improved mitochondrial density, the uptake of oxygen to the working muscles increases, thereby providing the local musculature with a constant supply of energy through the uptake of oxygen [6].

4. Reduced Accumulation of Lactate

Much of the recent research reveals that high intensity interval training can produce similar respiratory benefits compared to moderate continuous training [7].  While high intensity interval training does sound promising, from a metabolic approach, continuous exercise remains the ‘gold standard’ [7].

However, cycling at a moderate intensity utilises the aerobic energy system, whereby on the other end of the spectrum, high intensity interval training recruits the anaerobic system, which can result in excess accumulation of lactate and lead to the early onset of fatigue [7].

Therefore, conditioning the human metabolism to utilize fats as an energy source can reduce reliance on the anaerobic system [7]. In turn, carbohydrates become reserved for more intense activity, therefore improving cycling efficiency and reducing the accumulation of lactate [7].

On a mechanical level, when fats are oxidised, the slow twitch, endurance and fatigue resistant muscle fibres are in action [7].  However, during high intensity sessions, the natural tendency of the musculoskeletal systems is to navigate towards the fast twitch, powerful and large motor units, and fibres [7].

Well, why does research suggest that high intensity training can produce a similar VO2max compared to moderate and continuous training?

The pathway to achieving an improved VO2max is vastly different – high intensity interval training requires fast twitch muscles, while moderate intensity cycling utilises slow twitch fibres [7]. As a result of constant high intensity interval training, adenosine triphosphate becomes depleted at extremely fast rates, whereby lactate accumulation is greater than the removal, resulting in fatigue [7]. Ultimately, training predominantly the fast twitch fibres can result in deconditioning of the slow twitch, endurance muscles [7].

cycling base training heart rate should be 65-75%
Completing your base training miles solo is often the best approach

5. Improved Fuel Utilisation

During moderate intensity cycling, skeletal muscle utilizes fats as a fuel source in the form of fatty free acids, intramuscular triglycerides and cholesterol [8, 9]. During moderate intensity cycling, the skeletal muscles at work oxidise and utilise fats through the increased mitochondria density [8]. As such, research reveals that moderate intensity exercise over a 6-12-week training block can increase fat oxidation and utilization [8].

However, at greater exercise intensities, the utilization of fats decreases as carbohydrate increases [9]. In turn, submaximal endurance cycling promotes the uptake of fats within the working muscles. As a result, performing at a submaximal intensity increases the duration of fat utilization within the athlete [9]. 

As such, greater fat utilization allows for cyclists to execute greater workloads at the cost of less energy provided by carbohydrates, therefore promoting increased endurance [9].

Practical Implications 

Implementing training can often be a burden. But thanks to the rule of ‘specificity’ that allows athletes to identify their goal, and train towards their specific goal [1]. As such, during the cycling base season, the specific goal for all cyclists is to build muscular and aerobic endurance. 

Venturing out on an easy, enjoyable ride along your favourite trail may be one approach to eliminating all mechanical stress on the joints, and to improve the metabolic responses to cycling. 

However, providing structure to the base training period is important. That is – to ensure the intensity does not drift above 65-75% maximum heart rate, during base rides [9]. In doing so, the human body can further adapt to the stressors of cycling on a metabolic level [3-8].

Consequently, typical training volume depends on the goal, level, and experience of the cyclist. For example, a highly experienced cyclist may incorporate a 12-week base period, whereby high volumes of riding are accumulated each week [8]. 

Within the 12-week period, progressive overload becomes key to improving endurance [10]. As such, a 10% increase in riding volume, fortnightly, will allow for the cyclist to reach the final race or Gran Fondo distance [10]. 

However, for the less experienced or time bound cyclist, the above rule remains the same, yet on a smaller scale. For example, progressive overloading in 3-week periods and riding at a lesser volume. 

Subsequently, it is imperative to ensure that pedalling cadence remains evenly torqued, constant, and continuous all whilst riding within a heart rate window of 65-75% maximum heart rate.  

A video example of how to train base fitness using both power and heart rate combined

The Takeaway

The benefits of high intensity interval training are highly proven, yet base training remains the ‘gold standard’ to improving a strong, efficient and powerful cardiovascular engine. Periodising high intensity training is important, nonetheless a strong cardiovascular base is the steppingstone to greater intensities. 


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[2]J. Kreher and J. Schwartz, “Overtraining Syndrome”, Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 128-138, 2012. Available: 10.1177/1941738111434406.

[3]G. Fisher et al., “High Intensity Interval- vs Moderate Intensity- Training for Improving Cardiometabolic Health in Overweight or Obese Males: A Randomized Controlled Trial”, PLOS ONE, vol. 10, no. 10, p. e0138853, 2015. Available: 10.1371/journal.pone.0138853.

[4]H. Loe, B. Nes and U. Wisløff, “Predicting VO2peak from Submaximal- and Peak Exercise Models: The HUNT 3 Fitness Study, Norway”, PLOS ONE, vol. 11, no. 1, p. e0144873, 2016. Available: 10.1371/journal.pone.0144873.

[5]L. Osellame, T. Blacker and M. Duchen, “Cellular and molecular mechanisms of mitochondrial function”, Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol. 26, no. 6, pp. 711-723, 2012. Available: 10.1016/j.beem.2012.05.003.

[6]D. Hughes, S. Ellefsen and K. Baar, “Adaptations to Endurance and Strength Training”, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, vol. 8, no. 6, p. a029769, 2017. Available: 10.1101/cshperspect.a029769.

[7]E. Gorostiaga, C. Walter, C. Foster and R. Hickson, “Uniqueness of interval and continuous training at the same maintained exercise intensity”, European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 101-107, 1991. Available: 10.1007/bf00235177.

[8]E. Melanson, P. MacLean and J. Hill, “Exercise Improves Fat Metabolism in Muscle But Does Not Increase 24-h Fat Oxidation”, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 93-101, 2009. Available: 10.1097/jes.0b013e31819c2f0b.

[9]A. KYRAL, A. SHIPHERD and C. HEARON, “The Effect of Moderate Intensity Aerobic Exercise on Affect and Exercise Intention in Active and Inactive College Students”, International Journal of Exercise Science, vol. 12, no. 5, pp. 1070-1079, 2019. [Accessed 1 April 2021].

[10]A. Khushhal, S. Nichols, S. Carroll, G. Abt and L. Ingle, “Characterising the application of the “progressive overload” principle of exercise training within cardiac rehabilitation: A United Kingdom-based community programme”, PLOS ONE, vol. 15, no. 8, p. e0237197, 2020. Available: 10.1371/journal.pone.0237197.