Base training is solidly esconced into the lexicon for endurance athlete training. At the beginning of each season a few months of very long and easy workouts (no speed work!) can get the aerobic engine rolling and are necessary to allow you to then tolerate the rest of the season’s training.
Does this work? It does. If I’m a cyclist who wants to ride the Leadville 100 next summer and I can spend 8-18 hours a week on my bike throughout late December, January, and February, I will have an excellent start to my season and enter the spring in good shape.
But the reality of this plan is a lot starker….and more uncomfortable…..and potentially less efficient.
This means I have to spend 1.5-2 hours a day for at least three weekdays and then about 3-5 hours each weekend day on my bike….during the coldest part of the year…..not pedaling or working very hard (and thus not generating as much heat). This is also a greatway to run down the immune system — putting in long hours on the bike in the cold and wet on top of long hours at work, with family etc. Then factor in cold and flu season, the holiday stress and you have a recipe for illness. I could ride indoors….but then I have to ride indoors….a lot…..yuck.
The Base Training Myth
There is a better way.
Let me be clear: putting in long base miles through the off season can work. It does as advertised, however I think it’s terribly inefficient and likely unnecessary for most people, hence why I call it the “base training myth”. If you’re a professional or someone who is going to race very often and for a long season — multiple race days a week from spring through the late fall — then you will likely do better if you have a very large aerobic base built up in the off season.
If you’re like most people where much of your season is just about training and you race once or twice a month (or less), then long base miles are not a very good return on investment. You can get just about everything done that you need to via high intensity exercise or high intensity interval training (HIIT) in a much shorter period of time and get pretty much all the upside you would from long slow base training for hours and hours.
This is nothing new….research has born all of this out over many years and yet I still run into athletes, who lead very busy lives and don’t really have the time for it, sacrifice a lot in order to get down to the basement to the treadmill or trainer for 2 hours, or freeze their butts off on cold Saturdays in January all in the name of base training.
What are the physiologic adaptations to standard endurance exercise, and does HIIT really accomplish most or all of them? See for yourself:
- Decreased baseline or resting heart rate 1,2,3
- Increased heart stroke volume 4
- Increased mitochondrial volume 5,6,7
- Increased glycogen and fat storing capabilities 8
- Higher efficiency in O2 transport and distribution 9
- Improved oxidative enzymes, like succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) 10
In many of the research studies, when compared to standard endurance training, interval training often had a greater effect and achieved the end result in less time.
Here’s three ways you can start a healthy diet of HIIT this winter:
- Start Easy — begin with easy intervals to get your feet wet. Don’t try to go “all out” for 2 minutes right off the gun. I like to begin my athletes at an effort level they feel like they could maintain for about 10 minutes but they’re only going to work at that level for 1-3 minutes. This teaches pacing strategy and energy management which are critical to good intervals (and racing!) — starting too fast and collapsing half way through the interval doesn’t help as much.
- Keep it Simple — start with something easy like fartlek-style workouts; working hard for 2 minutes and then easy for 2 min and repeat this four or five times (after a 20-30 minute warmup period of course). This will help you get a handle on where you can start with intensity and duration of the interval without complex workout structure to remember.
- Be Consistent — schedule two days during the week for HIIT. The work week is a great time to implement these workouts because they’re an energy booster and they can be done quickly — often in an hour or less. So you can begin or end your work day feeling energized and not strapped for time.
Hopefully the idea of the base training myth makes more sense now. In the next article I’ll go over the some of the holes in research that exist at this point in regards to HIIT.