I entered my first triathlon on a dare from a friend. It was not the most well thought out adventure in the world, but I can tell you one thing: it was fun! I walked away sure I wanted to do a whole lot more of it. I guess that was why I decided to create my own on-ramp to the sport, TriStrong, because I knew how challenging it can be to prepare for a race and have all the other demands of a normal life on you.
So, now, I want to tackle how to be more effective in planning your training so that you don’t waste the time that you have and get the best results.
For ages, long, slow, endless miles have been considered the best way to build your aerobic fitness for the demands of the upcoming race season. It is often said that the bigger the base you build, the higher your peak, but is this really the case? Are there better ways to get the most out of your fitness without throwing 10-15 hours a week (or more) at it? Before we answer that, let’s look at where the idea of base training came from in the first place, and better define what it actually is.
The origins of base training are typically traced back to the cycling world. Many in the early pro peloton would be seen out in the saddle 4-5 days a week for five or more hours. Maybe one day a week, they would ride about half as much, but harder. But the vast majority of their miles were long and easy. The real question is, why did they take this approach?
It boils down to aligning outcomes with actions. For professional cyclists, races typically last 5-6 hours, with the hardest efforts coming in the final hour or so. If you can’t ride 4-5 hours at moderate levels and still have some in the tank for the attacks to come, you simply won’t survive. It is imperative for professional cyclists to develop that kind of underlying endurance.
Endurance and Training Stress
The trouble we run into at this point is that the term “endurance” can be a bit of a slippery concept, because we don’t often take time to define it well. So what is endurance?
In its simplest form, it is the ability to last; stamina. Being able to endure means your body is able to handle a defined amount of stress (in this case, training stress). Building the body’s capacity for stress is the aim of any training program for any sport. How you go about building this stress tolerance is the real question that we’re dealing with, and to best answer it, we need to take a quick look at what goes into creating training stress.
Training stress is the culmination of four factors:
- Volume (or duration)
- Mode (what sport or exercise you do)
The two most worth considering for our discussion are volume and intensity, which tend to work in an opposing fashion. For example, for the same amount of training stress, as your effort gets harder and hurts more (intensity rises), you aren’t able to hold that effort as long (a shorter duration). Frequency is simply how often you train, or stated another way, how many workouts you do per week. All three concepts are relevant, regardless of your sport (mode).
The Difference Between Pros and Joes
When it comes to professional endurance athletes, their job is to train and they can throw loads of time at it each week. And shoot, they have to! Riding for four or five hours before a race heats up means that their bodies need to think that kind of time in the saddle is no big deal. They need that kind of high volume, and can afford to take that approach. The same is not true for the everyman.
For the everyday athlete who is juggling training with family, career, and other hobbies, the time available to put in the volume quickly diminishes, and that’s where this idea of base training needs to be challenged. It’s not that it is ineffective, it’s just that it is not effective for the majority of typical athletes. Most of these folks aren’t racing nearly as long, and by extension, do not need to put in loads of hours like the pros do. They are better suited preparing for the intensity associated with shorter events.
Let’s take a step back from the professional cyclist for now, and instead jump into the shoes of a recreational cyclist—a weekend warrior, who likes to jump in the occasional road race. This is a scenario far more likely to affect you and your friends. Is base training really the best option for him and his limited time? Let’s do a quick rundown on the end goals of base training, and compare them with the outcomes of higher-intensity training.
Can Intensity Substitute for Volume?
The aims of traditional aerobic base training are to:
- Increase heart stroke volume, by increasing left ventricle size and strengthening cardiac tissue.
- Decrease baseline or resting heart rate
- Increase mitochondrial volume
- Increase glycogen and fat storing capabilities
- Improve oxidative enzymes, like succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) 10
- Improve VO2 max
In short, accumulating large volumes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise will definitely make you more efficient, which will increase your sustainable power or pace. This means you can operate at a lower percentage of your VO2 max at your “all day” pace, which may help you rely on a higher percentage of fat for energy, and conserve stored carbohydrate. All good things. The real question is, how many of these same benefits can you achieve through a lower-volume, high-intensity approach?
Almost all of them, it turns out. In several studies (linked below) high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to be as effective, if not more so, than steady-state only cardio. Studies have shown that using a HIIT approach has demonstrated similar results to high volume cardio in mitochondria density, fat oxidation, and oxidative enzymes. Other studies have shown that HIIT boasts stronger improvements in the changes to cardiac tissues, stroke volume, and VO2 max.
At the end of the day, it comes back to the simple questions: What are you training for? And how much time do you have to train? I’d bet that the answers would probably swing towards a HIIT approach being more effective, given your circumstances.
How to Get Faster With HIIT
Okay, so you’re time-crunched, and want to have your best season yet without dumping gobs of hours a week at it, Where do you start?
First, figure out where you’re at. Are you coming off the couch, or have you been working out on the regular? You don’t want to just jump into high-intensity training if your body doesn’t have a good foundation underneath it. It may sound a bit like, “building a base,” but I do not say this nearly to the same extent. I merely want you to avoid injury from jumping in too quickly. To do that, first make sure you have your sea legs under of you, especially if coming off the couch. Take a few weeks to build up to 45-60 minutes of aerobic effort, 3-4 times per week, before jumping into intervals.
I’d also strongly recommend including a strength training plan and mobility component to your routine. It will help make you more bulletproof for the higher intensities and increased impact forces you’ll be facing (especially for runners). What should that look like exactly?
Once or twice per week, perform 2-3 sets of 5-6 multi-joint movements that are total body and relevant to your sport. If strength is up your alley, you can periodize your repetitions to best fit your goals. If in doubt, or if you want a simple program, keep it in the 10-15 rep ballpark. Follow that with 10-15 minutes of stretching and mobility work (at least with your strength workouts, if not more often).
Once you are ready to jump into regular HIIT (or if you are already there), I’d recommend that you start with 1 day per week, before building to 2-3. If you need to, start with longer rest periods and shorten them as you become more fit.
Finally, do not forget about the endurance component completely. You still need to be prepared for the time in the saddle (or on the run). Make sure to include longer, steady-state work at least every 10-14 days. Make it 90 minutes or longer to see the best benefits, and if preparing for a longer event, gradually build that workout (10-15% increase per week) to closely resemble the length of the race or event you will be participating in.
So, to review: is base training a myth? No. Is it right for you? Maybe, but probably not. Evaluate for yourself, and use these tools as a starting point to craft an approach that fits your life.
Checkout TriStrong, if you are ready to seriously challenge yourself and your fitness.
If you want speed, you need to practice it:
1. Burgomaster, K.A., et al. 2008. “Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans.” Journal of Physiology, 586 (1), 151-60.
2. Daussin, F.N., et al. 2008. “Effect of interval versus continuous training on cardiorespiratory and mitochondrial functions: relationship to aerobic performance improvements in sedentary subjects.” American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 295, R264-72.
3. Gibala, M. 2009. “Molecular responses to high-intensity interval exercise.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 34 (3), 428-32.
4. Helgerud, J., et al. 2007. “Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39 (4), 665-71.
5. Joyner, M.J., & Coyle, E.F. 2008. “Endurance exercise performance: The physiology of champions.” Journal of Physiology, 586 (1), 35-44.
6. MacDougall, J.D., et al. 1998. “Muscle performance and enzymatic adaptations to sprint interval training.” Journal of Applied Physiology, 84 (6), 2138-42.
7. Slørdahl, S.A., et al. 2004. “Atrioventricular plane displacement in untrained and trained females.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36 (11), 1871-75.