Base Endurance Exercise
By riding year-round, baseline endurance training brings about certain physiological changes, which do not take place when you train harder! Ed Burke, Ph.D., the author of Serious Cycling, lists these benefits of base training, which I have annotated. Endurance training improves:
- The endurance of the cycling muscles by increasing the number of mitochondria.
- The mitochondria are subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced.
- The respiratory system, providing more oxygen to the blood supply.
- The efficiency of the heart so it can pump more blood to the muscles.
- Endurance training improves the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.
- The capacity of the liver and muscles to store carbohydrates.
- Your body can store approximately 1,800 calories worth of carbohydrate as glycogen. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding. Through endurance training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50 percent!
- The neuromuscular efficiency of pedaling.
- Power is a function both of the strength of the muscles and coordinating the firing pattern of the nerves to activate the right muscle fibers at the right time so you go forward with less wasted energy. Endurance training is a great time to work on pedaling with a rounder stroke and spinning smoothly at a higher cadence.
- The capacity to burn fat during long rides.
- Through endurance training your fuel mix on endurance rides shifts to more fat and less glycogen, sparing precious glycogen stores. Note that this doesn't automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.
- The thermoregulatory system by increasing the blood flow to the skin.
- Your skin is your largest organ and ability to dissipate heat will pay off later in the season.
Source: Ed Burke, Serious Cycling, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2002
But What About Intensity?
Some coaches recommend high-intensity training as the fastest way to build fitness. However, endurance training brings about the metabolic changes listed above, which don't happen with high intensity training. Without building a proper base first, you risk overuse injuries with hard workouts. Further, two large-scale recent studies of runners suggest
- Runners who exercise regularly live longer than those who do not exercise, and
- Runners who consistently train hard erase that gain in longevity.
For these reasons your base training should be done at relatively low intensity. You should be able to carry on a conversation the whole time. Here are three methods to gauge the intensity:
- Rate of Perceived Exertion of 2-3 where 1 is a very slow walk and 10 is a flat out sprint for a few seconds.
- Heart rate of 76 to 87 percent of Lactate Threshold
- Power of 56 to 75 percent of Functional Threshold Power