Cycling Base Training: Why and How to Build Your Aerobic Base

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You can build a strong aerobic base, in a time-efficient and effective manner, with a structured base training plan. Here’s why base training and aerobic fitness are essential for every cyclist and how you can make sure you’re building your base properly for the season and goals that you have.

What is Base Training?

The start of a new season means the start of base training. Base training is an important part of every cyclist’s training because it establishes your foundational fitness, endurance, and aerobic capabilities.

Base training is typically completed within the Base Phase. The base phase is made up of endurance-based workouts and sustained efforts designed to build your muscular endurance and grow your aerobic energy system. Building your aerobic fitness at the start of your season doesn’t just create a strong foundation; it also sets you up for harder and more intense workouts later on.

Cycling base training typically takes between six and twelve weeks and starts at the very beginning of a training season—well before racing begins. Because base training builds the endurance and fitness necessary for the subsequent phases of training, it’s a vital part of your training progression.

Why Building an Aerobic Base is Important for Cyclists

Cycling is an endurance-based sport. Even athletes who identify as sprinters or prefer short distanced events are reliant on their endurance capabilities. The aerobic energy system is the primary source of energy during any type of sustained effort, which is why the base training is primarily concerned with building the aerobic base.

Further, the specialized fitness that you’ll work on closer to your primary event or goal is dependent on the aerobic fitness you build at the start of the season. Introducing specialized intensity before building your base fitness can result in a plateau in fitness or a premature peak. But building a strong foundation before you build your event-specific power will allow you to reach an even higher peak and at just the right time.

How to Build Your Aerobic Base

To build your aerobic base, you’ll need to complete a structured training plan with workouts specifically targeted towards challenging your aerobic energy system. Properly structured base training will have endurance-based workouts designed to gradually challenge your aerobic abilities and progressively increase your ability to hold sustained power. 

To achieve these goals TrainerRoad offers two different base phases for cyclists: Sweet spot base and Traditional Base. Which base phase you should choose will largely depend on the time that you have available to train and your experience with base training. Here’s the main difference between the two training phases and how to know which one is right for you. 

Sweet Spot Base Training for Cyclists

The sweet spot base training plan is the base plan we recommend to the majority of athletes. Sweet spot training uses workouts that target the sweet spot training zone to train your aerobic system. The sweet spot zone, as the name implies, is a power sweet spot between tempo and threshold. Athletes can sustain sweet spot power for prolonged periods of time with greater productivity then they would in tempo, and less incurred fatigue then they would in threshold while still actively challenging their aerobic fitness. It essentially allows athletes to efficiently target their aerobic system in less time.

Targeting the sweet spot zone, instead of the endurance zone, offers a more time-efficient way to target the aerobic energy system without taxing the legs too much as threshold work does. Or taxing your daily schedule like traditional base training does. Sweet spot is the most efficient way to train the aerobic energy system, making it the ideal approach to base for most athletes.

Carson is an example of a typical sweet spot workout found in sweet spot base.

Traditional Base Training for Cyclists

Traditional base takes the conventional approach to base training—low intensity for long hours. Our traditional base training plan consists of workouts between 90 and 180 minutes with intervals, primarily in the endurance and tempo zone. These workouts are longer than the sweet spot base workouts, and at a lower intensity and ultimately require a significant time commitment (upwards of 20 hours a week).

We generally only recommend the traditional base phase to a small sub set of athletes. In particular, athletes who have a lot of time they can and want to dedicate to training. If you don’t have ten plus hours to commit to training each week, you’ll get much more out of the sweet spot approach.  

Koip is an example of a typical endurance workout found in the traditional base plan.

How to Plan Your Base Training

With this information in mind, you can begin planning your base training. Planning out your season is easy to do. All you need is your schedule and your goal events. Or if you’re not racing, your training goals. With this information, you can use Plan Builder to plan your base training plan.

Where to Start

The best part about base training is that you need absolutely no prior fitness or established strength to get started and be productive. You can begin base training at any time with any level of fitness. With that being said, if you have upcoming goals, you’ll want to plan your base training ahead of time to make sure you get everything done in time to peak for your event.

Because it takes between two to three months to complete a base training plan and four more months to complete Build and Specialty, if possible, you’ll want to start base training seven months before your priority event. With that said, if you have more or less than seven months to train, it’s no problem. Plan Builder will add or subtract weeks of training to your plan to fit everything in, and base training is likely to be included in that progression regardless of the time frame you have.  

If you don’t have any events on your calendar and you’re training just to get faster, you can start base training whenever you reach a natural starting point. After the off-season, vacation, or time off can be a good time to jump into base training. With that said, if you have any tangible goals, like a particular ride you want to achieve, and you want to tie it to a date, consider starting to build your aerobic base well in advance of those goals. That way you can complete an entire Base, Build, and Specialty progression.

How Long Should I be Doing Base Training?

It takes time to build a broad aerobic base. Ideally, you’ll complete at least twelve weeks of Base Training at the start of each season. Twelve weeks gives you just enough time to complete both phases of a Sweet Spot Base plan, or all three phases of a Traditional Base plan.

If you don’t have enough time to do a full Base, Build, and Specialty progression before your event, you’ll still want to complete as much of the twelve weeks as possible. Depending on your time constraints, this might mean that you do a full twelve weeks in Base, and cut out a few weeks from your Build and Specialty phases. Or if you have more experience with training and intervals you may be able to do just six weeks of Base and then start Build and Specialty.

That’s not to say twelve weeks is the cap on the benefits of Base. If you have more then twenty eight weeks until your goal event, you can also benefit from adding an additional Base phase, after your first Build phase. Doing an additional phase of Base later in the season will reinforce your aerobic fitness and endurance at a heightened level of fitness.

How Many Hours per Week Should I Train During Base?

How much base training you should be doing each week depends on how much time you have available to train and how much training stress you can productively handle. To address your own individual needs you have three different options — low-volume, mid-volume, high-volume.

If you can dedicate yourself to three structured workouts per week, a low-volume approach is the best fit. With a low-volume base training plan you’ll be spending between three and a half hours and four and a half hours base training each week. 

If you can handle a bit more training stress, then a mid-volume plan with five workouts each week will be the best approach to base. If you opt for a mid-volume plan you will start base training with between five and six hours of training each week.

If you have multiple years of structured training experience and a consistent daily window to train, then you may be in a position to take a high-volume approach. A high volume base plan will have you doing six structure workouts per week with a minimal time dedication of nine hours and at most ten or eleven.

Base Training Plan Example

The easiest way to plan your base training, and ensure that you’re doing the right amount of Base, is with a structured base training plan. A structured base training plan begins with an FTP assessment, and progresses from there with workouts that target your aerobic fitness, muscular endurance, as well as your ability to handle a high level of work. For an idea of what this might look like, here’s the first week from our mid-volume Sweet Spot Base I training plan.

Sweet Spot Base I

Week One of the Mid-Volume Sweet Spot Base I TrainerRoad training plan.
Week One of the Mid-Volume Sweet Spot Base I TrainerRoad training plan.

Week one of the Mid-Volume Sweet Spot Base training plan begins with a Ramp Test. You’ll take a Ramp Test at the start of each new training phase, to asses your fitness and keep your workouts tailored to your fitness.

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Ramp Test: FTP Assessment

The TrainerRoad Ramp Test is an FTP assessment designed to accurately asses your FTP before each new training phase.

Taku: Endurance

After the Ramp Test you’ll do an active recovery endurance workouts called Taku. Taku is a thirty minute aerobic endurance workout between sixty and seventy percent of your FTP. Endurance workouts like these are aimed at improving your aerobic power production capabilities in a steady, low-stress manner. 

Taku is a short, aerobic Endurance workout consisting of 30 minutes spent between 60-70% FTP.

Mount Field: Sweet Spot

On the third day of your first week of Base, you’ll have your first interval workout. Mount Field is a Tempo workout with three twelve minute intervals at eighty five percent of your FTP. This type of sweet spot work is designed to improve your ability to resist fatigue at reasonably high power outputs over substantial lengths of time

Mount Field is a base training Tempo workout with three twelve minute intervals at eighty five percent of your FTP.

Reinstein: “Over-Unders”

The primary objective of an over-under workout like Reinstein is to develop your ability to handle changes in pace while maintaining a high level of work. This ninety minute workout does exactly that, in order to challenge your aerobic fitness, and even raise your FTP.

Reinstein is 3x12-minute over-under intervals alternating between 2 minutes at 95% FTP and 1 minute at 105% FTP with 10-minute active recoveries between intervals.

Glassy: Sweet Spot

The final workout in the first week of the Sweet Spot Base plan is Glassya four by fifteen minute sweet spot workout. This sweet spot intervals are primarily aimed at increasing aerobic capabilities via reasonably long, mildly more intense work than your typical long-duration, minimally-changing aerobic endurance workouts.

This sweet spot intervals are primarily aimed at increasing aerobic capabilities via reasonably long, mildly more intense work than your typical long-duration, minimally-changing aerobic endurance workouts.

From here, the sweet spot base plan continues to develop these different capabilities, by incrementally increasing the challenge of the workouts with additional intensity, variety, and duration. After five weeks of progressive base training the plan has a recovery week, and then another Ramp Test, at the start of Phase II of the Sweet Spot Base plan.

Plan Builder

Not sure where to start? You can use Plan Builder to make scheduling and planning as easy as possible. Just enter your goal events, your availability to train, and your current experience with interval training. When all is said and done, you’ll have your base training all laid out and a training plan that will look something like this:

This is a winter cycling training plan
Plan Builder training plan with a Sweet Spot Base phase at the beginning.

For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.

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