The importance of base training and how to get it right

What is it Base Training?

Base training is a commonly used term for a block of training designed to build Aerobic Endurance, the bedrock of any endurance training plan. It is typically the first stage in a Periodised Training Plan, followed by a Pre-competition (or Build) Phase and finally, a Competition (or Race) Phase. A typical time period is 8-12 weeks or even longer depending on the individual athlete and the demands of their event.

Here are some of the specific adaptions elicited by base training:

  • Increased mitocondrial density
  • Increased muscle capillary density
  • Increased heart stroke volume
  • Increased muscle glycogen storage
  • Improved aerobic efficiency

Why is it so important?

Aerobic Endurance is the basic foundation of fitness for any endurance athlete in a sport such as cycling. Even if your chosen discipline is very short in duration, you need a good Aerobic Base to sustain high intensity training and / or racing over a prolonged period like a race season or a summer.

The term Base refers to the base of a metaphorical training pyramid (see below). It is often thought of as the foundation of the pyramid because it supports all other high intensity training.

The athlete who focuses purely on high intensity at the expense of first doing base training, can make good gains initially but will certainly succumb to excess fatigue and performance decline within a few weeks.

How Many Hours per Week Should I Train During Base?

How much 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. Gradually increase the hours each week by around 10-15% to provide progression and then reduced every fourth week to allow recovery and adaption.

What does Base Training consist of?

Physiological adaptions to training are achieved by manipulating one of three variables:

  • Frequency (how often you train)
  • Duration (how long each training session is)
  • Intensity (how hard a session is)

During the Base Phase we are building aerobic fitness by keeping intensity low and increasing total training volume (frequency x duration). This is why such training is often referred to as “getting the miles in”.

When it comes to improving aerobic endurance, volume works! This is why all elite endurance athletes from track sprinters to Tour de France Champions train for 15, 20 or even 25 hours per week during their Base Phase.

Typical Base Phase workouts:

  • Aerobic Endurance ride: typically a steady-state ride of 2-5 hours in duration, at an intensity around your Aerobic Threshold (not to be confused with Anaerobic Threshold). There are many ways to define this, commonly 56-75% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP), or 69-83% of Threshold Heart Rate.
  • Muscular Endurance ride: can be steady-state or in blocks within an endurance ride. Duration of 1-2 hours, intensity 76-90% of FTP or 84-94% of Threshold Heart Rate
  • Cadence ride: these can be done in many formats but in principle I think it is important to teach your body to produce power over a range of pedalling speeds. One of the down-sides of lots of indoor training is habitually riding in a very narrow band of cadence. This can become a genuine weakness when riding on the open road or trail. Outdoors you are required to produce power at a wide range of speeds and torques depending on gradient and traction conditions. Rollers are great for facilitating this.
  • Off-the-bike work: I strongly believe everyone should incorporate basic unweighted “core” exercises such as planks, side-planks, squats etc. If you have the time and inclination then weighted strength exercises will further enhance your Base Training.

How do I track my progress?

As with any other phase of training, it is important to track progress through regular benchmark testing to see if your training prescription is working or not. Here are a couple of examples of metrics which should increase if your Base Training is successful. Test at the beginning and end of the phase and / or every 4-6 weeks.

  • Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test: the classic test protocol is a thorough warm-up, followed by a 5 minute all-out effort, a short recovery and then a 20 minute all-out effort. Your estimated FTP is your average power over the 20 minutes effort multiplied by 0.95.
  • VO2 max test: is estimated from your average power over a 5 minute maximal effort (can be included in the FTP test).

There are also a few metrics provided by TrainingPeaks which you can calculate yourself to see if you are improving. However they don’t improve in a linear fashion so it’s important to plot the trend over time as I do in WKO5:

  • Aerobic de-coupling: determine the average heart rate for the first half and the second half of a long endurance ride. Divide the average from the second half by the average for the first half to arrive at a ratio. If the ratio is greater than 1.05 (5%), then heart rate drift is high and the workout is considered to be de-coupled, so you need to keep working to improve endurance at that duration. Be sure to compare rides of closely similar durations, routes and weather conditions to get a good understanding and look for trends over time rather than individual sessions.
  • Efficiency Factor (EF): take your normalised power from a long ride and divide it by the average heart rate. This will give you a ratio like 1:1.3. This should improve over time e.g. change from 1:1.3 to 1:1.4.


In summary, here are my Top Tips for a strong base training plan:

  • Increase volume gently and back-off every fourth week to recover.
  • Include a long ride (whatever a long ride is to you) every week, if that’s not possible, at least every 10-14 days.
  • Keep the majority of your intensity low.
  • Fuel your workouts or you won’t last the phase.
  • Include cadence workouts: high cadence initially, moving into low cadence as you progress through the phase.
  • Work as hard on your recovery as your training: plenty of sleep, nutrition, stretching and rolling.
  • Include basic ‘core’ exercises at least twice a week.
  • Track your progress over time. Don’t fixate on whether one individual workout was ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Want help with your base training or your next training block? Let inSync Cycling Coach design your next 12-week block with a Bespoke Training Plan. There is no obligation or monthly fees and you’ll get a completely bespoke package individualised to your goals and needs.