Winter is a glorious season. Lava snow covers the slopes and peaks of Mount Sufferlandria, reflecting the glow from the occasional volcanic eruption. Turbo trainers are dusted off, paincaves spruced up, and talk turns to that age-old winter tradition: Base Training.
Conventional wisdom holds that winter is the season of base training, also known as LSD: Long Steady Distance. This means countless hours riding at a steady mellow pace for weeks on end in order to lay a ‘foundation’ for the more intense training sessions in the spring. Without all those base miles, the thinking goes, your body can’t possibly handle all that intensity later on. But is that true?
Fortunately for the time-crunched athlete, the supposed benefits of high-volume, low-intensity training is more about tradition and less about science. Don’t get us wrong: doing long, steady base miles can improve your overall fitness if you have plenty of time to spend in the saddle, but for those of us that don't have 20+ hours a week to train, it's not the best way to structure your winter training.
The problem with the traditional “base phase” of many training plans is the time commitment required to see any real benefits. To see any substantive return from Long Slow Distance rides you need to dedicate a minimum of 16 hours a week, with some weeks requiring upwards of 25 hours of training.
While that might be an option for Sufferlandrian monks and full-time professional cyclists, chances are you’re not able to get out and train that much. For you, LSD riding is a waste of time -- time you don’t have.
Numerous studies have shown (see reference at the end of the article) that when athletes with a fixed amount of training time switch from training that includes high-intensity efforts to only low-intensity training, they actually see a decrease in critical metrics like VO2 max (your body's maximum ability to utilize oxygen). Training only works when your body is subjected to a new stress that it hasn’t encountered before. Training stress triggers adaptation and improvements in fitness. Only when you present your body with a different challenge will it make changes to become stronger and more efficient. If you’re a seasoned Sufferlandrian with a few years of riding under your belt, then doing a few 10 hour weeks of nothing but Long Slow Distance rides will only de-train you. You’re riding a lot, but you’re getting slower. If you’re going to keep your title of Sufferlandrian Speed Demon come spring, you can’t afford that.
Many unfortunate souls have convinced themselves that doing low-intensity, high volume weekends during the winter is enough to get those benefits from LSD riding. Sorry to break it to you, but that's not going to work. For LSD riding to really work you need to be hitting those big days at least five times a week. So hitting your weekends hard and riding once or twice during the week for an hour isn't going to cut it.
The question then becomes, “How should I be training over the winter?” Well, your off-season training should include:
(Related: Why Work Your Weakness in Winter)
All of our training plans, which work in both the offseason and the season, are based upon balancing these elements, providing time-crunched athletes with a low-volume, high-intensity approach that gets results.
But can you just go into intervals without having a base? Won’t you just burn outcome summertime? No. You won’t.
Incorporating high-intensity training into your winter program isn’t the culprit. It’s only true if you hit things too hard, for too long, too often and overtrain in the spring. Burnout is usually more likely when a rider is already engaged in high-volume training that piles high-intensity training on top of it.
As a Sufferlandrian you already know the benefits of high-intensity interval training. Get in, do the work, get out, rinse and repeat. We use it because it works, regardless of whether the lava snows are covering the dormant vineyards of Sufferlandria’s Whine Region. To quote Sir Neal Henderson, “More is always more, but more is not always better.” By incorporating high-intensity efforts into your winter training program you can continue to increase your fitness without increasing volume, and emerge from your paincave in the spring ready to show mere mortals the true meaning of Suffering.
Another key area to work on year-round—and one that most athletes neglect— is neuromuscular training. Unlike swimming or running which requires good technique, cycling is a bit more forgiving. You can be “pedaling squares” all day and still go fast, albeit not efficiently. One of the biggest differences between elite and amateur cyclists is how efficient their pedal stroke is. By incorporating a variety of cadence drills (like you can find in our plans) you train your muscles to contract when they are supposed to, and relax when they are supposed to.
The off-season is also a great time to start our Strength Training for Cyclists program. Available with your subscription, SUF Strength is a progressive series of body-weight exercises that will help build functional strength and neuromuscular coordination.
Ultimately combining quality neuromuscular training with a dash of high intensity efforts and an assortment of “this sucks but it isn’t that bad” type efforts, you have the perfect recipe for improving your overall fitness over the winter, while leaving enough in the tank so that you can crush all comers once the arm warmers and booties come off.
Mac Cassin is the Head Cycling Physiologist at The Sufferfest Sports Science Division. As an elite cyclist who also has to balance the demands of ‘life’ with his goals as an athlete, Mac has a deep understanding of how to get the most out of those who have limited time to train. Mac has raced at the World and PanAmerican championships and has held several US national and state titles. His studies were in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado and has worked as a research assistant in the CU Neurophysiology lab. Coach Mac is one of the primary architects of The Sufferfest workouts and training plans.