Winter training, is it all about the base?

During the off-season it is normal to have taken your foot of the gas a little with your training, since following a race season, it’s advisable to take a little break and allow your mind and body to rest. But what about when we’re ready to get back into the swing of things? How do we start and what kind of training should we be doing?

Traditionally the winter months have been a time for working on your aerobic/base fitness, building a platform with which to build your race fitness. And, this makes perfect sense, since you need a good level of fitness to be able to push yourself to work during harder sessions and to recover between sessions. For those building up to longer, more stressful race distances, such as marathons, half-ironman’s and above, it’s also prudent to build up slowly since this allows time to adapt to the increased training load while reducing the risk of injury from doing too much, too soon.

Recently however, we’ve seen a shift in some of the training styles of professional athletes and teams, most notably with Team Sky and their ‘reverse periodisation’. The principal being that higher intensity sessions are a key part of off-season training, with more sessions dedicated to working at and above threshold. As the season starts, session length increases and longer endurance sessions complement the training too. The idea is that by focusing on the upper-end fitness, the athletes then work on holding it for longer and longer, and thus improving speed endurance.

There’s a couple of reasons this makes good sense, and why it’s possibly something that any athlete could consider in their own training plan. Firstly, while base endurance is important, when it comes to racing, it’s that high level of intensity, power and heart rate that we need to improve our ability to utilize. So, it stands to reason, the more we work at our race pace, the longer we’ll be able to hold it for. Secondly, the winter months are darker, colder and generally less enjoyable to get out and train in. And while indoor training such as turbo training and treadmills are useful, I’m sure many will agree that a four hour turbo session is mental hell compared to the outdoor equivalent. So the concept that an effective session can be complete in a short and effective allotted time slot probably appeals to many, especially those with limited training time.

So, should we all ditch the long slow cake rides in favour of sweat box turbo sessions? Well, hang on a minute, there’s a few things to consider. Professional athletes have been training and competing for years, which provides them with an incredible level of base fitness and robustness to the training, so quite simply, they’re far better equipped to cope with the demands of such high intensity training. In addition to this, they have a team of coaches around them to monitor and adapt training sessions to their specific needs. It’s also worth noting that long rides for flapjack are an essential and enjoyable part of training, which brings me onto another consideration. Enjoyment; training is and should be fun. Yes, there are times to work hard, but heading out into the countryside for a ride with a training partner or group is a great way to train. So, don’t always be that person that turns down a social ride because you’re worried that stopping at a set of lights might lower your average watts-per-kilo.

As you progress in any sport, the search for improvements becomes tougher and more hours of training go into eeking out the smallest of gains. For some, the idea of increasing the number of more focused, higher intensity sessions during the winter months could see some valuable improvements in performance. Ultimately a well-rounded training plan, should always focus on all components of fitness, adapting the plan to work on weaknesses and to periodise sessions for the demands of the current training block. Adding in more higher intensity sessions would certainly keep training more interesting and you’d likely find it easier to return to race pace, come the beginning of the season.

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