Back to basics: Building aerobic fitness

Although riding with a group makes long rides more fun, be careful not to get too competitive during this build phase -- there's plenty of time for that later.
At this point in the season most cyclists are finishing their Preparation training phase and heading into Base 1. This is a good time to revisit some of the concepts and importance of these early training phases that will set the foundation of your fitness for the upcoming competitive season.

The training abilities to focus on during early base are endurance and aerobic fitness, pedaling skills (economy) and strength.

Early-season goals

The primary goal of the early base phases is to build aerobic fitness. This is generally accomplished by doing increasingly longer "endurance" rides. However, not all endurance rides are created equal. Most cyclists tend to ride either too easy or too hard during these workouts.

Getting in the zone
The best way to make the most out of your endurance training time is to spend as much of the ride time as possible in Heart Rate Zone 2, which should be approximately 82 to 88 percent of your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate.

This sounds a lot easier than it actually is. To start, shoot for approximately 50 percent of your endurance ride time in HR Zone 2. At first this will create a substantial amount of fatigue, but as you adapt it will become easier and you should be able to ride for longer percentages of endurance workouts at this effort level.

Riders with power meters will want to know a power range for this zone, but at first they should also use heart rate as a guide for aerobic fitness training. Make a note of average power for time spent in HR Zone 2 and you should notice that the average power steadily increases for a given heart rate over the course of the training phase. This is a clear sign of improving aerobic fitness.

Many riders spend the majority of their endurance training in Heart Rate Zone 1. This will still build aerobic fitness, but at a slower rate than if a little more effort was expended. On the other end of the spectrum, riding too hard during endurance work will also undermine aerobic fitness training. Endurance rides are designed to activate the oxidative phosphorylation energy system (aerobic system).

Exercising at too high an intensity will activate different energy systems to a greater extent and lessen the development of the oxygen delivery systems that this training is targeting. Higher intensities also bring about unnecessary fatigue (for this training phase) causing an increase in recovery times between workouts.

Higher intensity training has its place in the early base phases when trying to accomplish various goals, but endurance rides should focus on improving the targeted aerobic energy system. Riding with a group can help pass the time on endurance rides, but it's important to avoid the trap of the group ride "hammer fests" during early base training, as this will be a detriment to the goal of the training phase.

Cross training
Incorporating a substantial amount of cross training into the Base 1 program is also recommended. Any activity that elevates heart rate into the Zone 2 range qualifies as an aerobic fitness building exercise.

In general it's a good idea to use more cross training at the beginning of the Preparation and Base 1 phases. As Base 2 commences, taper the cross training in favor of more on-bike time.

Strength training
Building muscular strength is also an important training component of Base 1. This can be accomplished with traditional weight training, functional strength training or on-bike strength work. If doing strength work off-bike, save the on-bike strength work for Base 2. If you choose to do all strength work on-bike, begin to add it in Base 1. If this is the case, I recommend at least doing some core strengthening off-bike (abs and lower back) with exercises like crunches and back extensions.

Pedaling economy
The final ability to bring up while discussing Base 1 goals is pedaling economy. Many riders don't work on this ability nearly enough to improve this important aspect of cycling. Simply concentrating on pedaling drills and high cadence work a couple of times per week will go a long way to help improve pedal stroke mechanics and economy. This translates to less energy expenditure to produce a given power output (speed). For a more thorough discussion on economy and the associated drills visit

Base 1 is also a great time to refine your nutritional intake, lose some weight or improve your body composition. The low intensity and moderate training volume lends itself well to creating a negative energy balance. This means taking in fewer calories than you're burning. If you're looking to increase your power-to-weight ratio by dropping some extra pounds, don't wait until the increased training demands of Base 2 and 3 to get started.

Focus on the goals of the training phase at hand. Proper training in the Base 1 phase will go a long way toward building the fitness foundation for the intensity of the later training phases.

Andy Applegate heads a2 coaching and is an elite-level road, cyclo-cross and mountain bike racer. He is also a USA Cycling and Ultrafit-certified coach. He may be reached at For more information check out

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