Base Training vs. High Intensity: Part 3

base training vs. high intensity

Base Training vs. High Intensity Training: Shortcut to Fit

High intensity training has been growing in popularity among amateur cyclists in recent years.  It has been presented as a viable option to replace the traditional base building model that we looked at in Part 2 of this series.

High intensity training offers big fitness gains and increased speed in less time than traditional base training.  Studies have shown a dramatic improvement in athletes who replaced traditional base training with high intensity work.

Everyone wants to be able to ride further and faster.  And they say you can do so in less time?  Who can say no to that.

It sometimes feels like the popularity of high intensity training is a reflection of our culture.  People are always looking for the quickest, easiest way to get to something.  The sooner they see results, the better much like the countless fad diets that are constantly coming and going.

So is high intensity training only a fad fitness craze, or does it work?

Science seems to suggest it works.

High intensity training has been shown to stimulate aerobic system development by creating adaptations to the body similar to traditional base building, which is the goal of training in January and February.  It has been shown to increase the size and number of mitochondria in the cells, similar to traditional base training.

The best way to achieve these adaptations is to focus on total time spent at high intensity over reaching for peak power outputs.

The Time Crunched Cyclist

“Base building is less effective for some athletes than is high intensity training.” – Training Science

So for which athletes is high intensity training more effective for?

One of those groups is the time crunched cyclist.  The cyclist who has to balance work, family and training and is lucky to get in 4 rides a week.

Low intensity training won’t generate the required workload to facilitate the needed adaptations if the volume is too low.

“Riding the same weekly training hours that you are already habituated to at lower intensities than your fitness can already support won’t produce a stronger base of aerobic fitness.” – Jim Rutberg

As shown in Part 2, traditional base training can require a substantial workload depending on your experience level as a cyclist.  So if you don’t have the time for traditional low intensity, high volume base training than maybe a high intensity training plan is the right fit for you.

How its Done

High intensity training is all about shorter periods of high intensity followed by longer periods focused on recovery.  Since the stress and workload is higher than traditional base training, longer periods of recovery are necessary to prevent overuse injuries, illness, burnout and over training.

Following traditional periodization, you should do 8 to 9 weeks with a progressively increasing workload, with a recovery week scheduled for week 4.  This 8 to 9 week period is than followed by 4 weeks focused on endurance and recovery.

High intensity training will yield incremental improvements in sustainable power at lactate threshold.  If we imagine that peak fitness is the top of a tall tower, than high intensity training is like taking the stairs.  Each period is a flight of stairs and each recovery period is a landing.  You make your way up the tower, building on the work of the previous periods, progressing incrementally.

You will ride further and faster because you will be able to sustain a higher power output over a longer period.


So maybe you are thinking to yourself: “This seems too good to be true.”

Well maybe it is.  There have been little studies into the long term use of high intensity training.  No studies have been done on the long-term retention of fitness over a season or from year to year.  Will athletes who replace traditional base building with high intensity training be able to maintain fitness through a whole racing season or will the burn out sooner?  Will fitness gains carry over from year to year?

Before a winner can be declared in the base training vs. high intensity training debate, I think it is necessary for more research to be done into the long-term effects of high intensity training in competitive athletes.

Until then, I am hesitant to recommend high intensity training as a substitute to traditional base training for competitive cyclists.  But if you are just looking to ride further this summer or do some charity rides and grand fondos, perhaps you should give high intensity training a go.

For more info, check out The Time Crunched Cyclist by Chris Carmichael.

In Part 4 of Base Training vs. High Intensity, I will provide a summary of each method and come to a conclusion on which I think is best for cyclists.

Base Training vs. High Intensity Training: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

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