Build your base

Training and working with athletes this year I’ve come across a couple of interesting issues around base training and testing.

Like a lot of European/US endurance athletes my Annual Training Plan (ATP) is made up of periods or phases (see Sports Periodisation and Tudor Bompa), typically Preparation, Base, Build, Peak and Taper.

My Preparation phase for the 2012 season began in November and transitioned into the Base training phase (see Base Training through the winter months. I tend to have a month off at the end of every season, so the preparation/base phases help me to slowly get back in to training, preparing me (mentally and physically) for harder work to come.

Whatever you use to measure your training effort (Borg’s Rate of Perceived Exertion – RPE, heart rate, power, etc.) the Base training phase is basically the time to keep things nice and easy (lower RPE, HR Zones 1 and 2, etc.), focusing on perfecting technique and improving biomechanical efficiencies (single leg drills, skip drills, finger drag, etc.).

Surprisingly, over the years, I’ve found that Base training seems to conflict with the human psyche. When I’ve been discussing it with others, whether on group rides, whilst coaching or in the pub. It often amuses me how many people aren’t convinced.

In an increasingly impatient, ego-driven global culture, convincing someone to take their time to slowly build their fitness over 20-30 weeks can be very difficult. Unless that is…they have ever followed a plan before.

Working with athletes that have never followed a periodised training plan is a challenge for athlete and coach. Typically, the first thing to do is convince them that their Zone 4 lunch time blasts around the local park, not getting passed by another runner; and weekend club rides, beating Dave to the top of a climb and ascending theStrava rankings, are at an effort level that is not required to build their aerobic endurance base. In fact, early high intensity efforts carry a high risk of injury before the season has even started.

Walk before you run…literally!

Base training is the most important period of an endurance plan and should not be reduced, rushed or corner-cut. Even if this means being overtaken by one or two joggers with purple-rinses from time-to-time or giving up the group ride in favour of non-stop constant efforts rather than drafting in the bunch and waiting for Dave et al at rest stops or at the top of a climb. Think how much more satisfying it’s going to be to be passing people on race day – there are no prizes for beating a mountain-biker up a hill on an average Tuesday afternoon.

Get used to long solo efforts to build your base

Get used to long solo efforts to build your base

If you want to be successful in endurance sport you better get used to your own company. Riding solo is the best way to maintain steady constant efforts. Unless you have a training partner that is doing the same race and following the same plan, but even then there’s still the issue of drafting. If you’re disciplined enough you could practice riding the draft legal distance when training with others.

From experience, your ‘bank’ of base training will come back in spades on race day when it matters most and you realise you have the aerobic endurance to run that marathon, or complete that Ironman. It will be especially noticeable towards the end of your race when you are passing other competitors that have not invested the time to lay their fitness foundations earlier in the season.

Be careful what you wish for…

Another amusing observation I’ve found is when athletes approach a testing week. This is the time to test whether you are improving and all the previous hard work is paying off.

With experience, I look forward to these weeks less than I used to. Basically, I recognise a testing week for the catch-22 that it is.

“Great, it’s a reduced volume week (more rest/recovery! I can catch up on things, etc.), but I have to go all out to get some data to measure. Ahhhhh, but the test is only for a short period of time, that’s okay”.

So, you test in each sport and the good news is…your times improve; the plan is working; etc. Now, for the bad news…your next month’s training zones increase and the next three weeks sessions are all going to be harder!

And then…joy! Finally, it’s time to go in to the Build phase. You can finally show the purple rinses what you’re made of and Dave’s going to get spanked on the climb of his choice!

“But hang on…you realise the sessions are harder, faster, testing is brutal and you don’t always get a better result!”

Training properly (in Build) can be…on your own, in the rain, grinding in to a headwind, gritted teeth, snot all over your face, burning pains in your legs, back, arms, neck…desperately trying to maintain the effort of your fourth two-minute rep in a set of ten during a muscular endurance brick ride of five hours as you pass a car full of pointing and laughing teens.

It is at these times that you are further tortured with memories of your base training, and reluctance to follow your planned easy long slow ride in Zone 2 and the promises you make to never go harder than you need to, ever again!

Yet, we still, foolishly, wish away our base training days in favour of faster, harder sessions…and why…because (un)fortunately…pain has no memory!

Perhaps an answer to this might be to write two sessions into week one of next year’s plan right now…a 45-minute Z1 easy trail run versus a five hour-hour muscular endurance ride, with 10×2 minutes hard efforts.