Base Training vs. High Intensity: Part 4

base training vs. high intensity

Base Training vs. High Intensity Training: The Final Round

(Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

The goal of training in January and February (sometimes December, depending on the date of your first goal race) is not racing, but to training.  You train to train.

The aim of training during this period is to create adaptations to the aerobic system so that the body is ready to handle greater stresses during the later training phases and race season.  The desired adaptations include an increase in the number of capillaries, an increase in the number and size of mitochondria, and an increase in the production of enzymes used to turn fat into energy.

Traditionally, long, steady rides have been used to generate these adaptations but recently high intensity training has been put forward as a possible substitute.  High intensity training has been suggested as a replacement to traditional base training because it has been show to stimulate development in the aerobic system.

Less time training, same results.  Who can say no to that?

Two Paths to the Same Goal

During base training, the goal is to build a strong aerobic foundation.  Low intensity, high volume training has been the traditional method of reaching this goal but is high intensity, low volume another path to this goal?

According to Mike Robertson, the body adaptations brought on by high intensity training are completely different than those brought on by low intensity, high volume training.

“Aerobic training is in direct competition to anaerobic training.” – Mike Robertson

For example, the adaptations to the mitochondria are very different because the aerobic and anaerobic systems produce energy in very different ways.  So adaptations to one does not necessarily benefit the other.

Also, aerobic and anaerobic (low intensity vs. high intensity) training cause very different adaptations to the heart.

Aerobic training increases heart efficiency.  More blood is forced into the left ventricle which stretches the walls of the heart leading to an increase in size.  A larger left ventricle allows the heart to move more blood per beat by increasing the stroke volume.  If your heart moves more blood with each beat, your heart doesn’t have to beat as fast.

But anaerobic training, on the other hand, increases the thickness of the heart wall.  The heart becomes trained to get blood in and out as quickly as possible.  The heart adapts to working at a high beats per minute.

As you can see, traditional base training and high intensity training produce very different physical adaptations.  They are training two different systems and are working in competition with each other.  Therefore, traditional base training is the only method for building a strong aerobic base.

Time and Place

If you are a fan of high intensity training, don’t you fear, there is still a time and a place for it in your base training this winter.

In a normal periodization plan, you gradually ramp up the intensity of your training as the season approaches.  Some people believe that moving to high intensity work too soon will completely undue all the hard base building work you’ve put in.

Although increasing intensity too much, too soon can lead to burn out, the occasional inclusion of high intensity workouts during the Base Phase will not damage or ruin your fitness.

So there is nothing wrong with the occasional high intensity workout to break up the boredom of base training.

More Uses

Apart from the occasional high intensity workout during the Base Phase, high intensity training can be a viable replacement for traditional base training in some cases.

A study of competitive cross country skiers showed dramatic improvements in the athletes who replaced traditional base training with high intensity work compared to the other study participants and their results from the previous season.

Before you take this study as justification for the use of high intensity training for base building, there are a couple things to think about.

First, the study participants were all experienced, elite level athletes.  They already had substantial bases built up from previous years of training.  The athletes came into the study with strong aerobic foundations.

Second, in this study the high intensity training acted as a plateau buster.  The athletes who used high intensity training had plateaued on the traditional training plan.  So their body responded well to the introduction of new stresses.

What this means is that high intensity training is a viable option to replace traditional base training for experienced cyclists, who already have a strong aerobic base from years of riding.  Experienced athletes will generally respond better to increased intensity, while novice riders will respond better to increased volume.


As you can see, contrary to all the hype, high intensity training is not really a viable replacement for traditional base training if your goal is to establish a strong aerobic base.  But there is still a place for it in the Base Phase of your annual training plan.

Novice competitive cyclists would be better served focusing their efforts on low intensity, high volume training.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t do the occasional high intensity workout to mix things up a bit.

For experienced riders, high intensity training may be a good option.  If you are an experienced rider who has noticed their progression plateauing, it might be a good idea to give high intensity training a go as a replacement for your normal base training.  The introduction of new stresses might help get you off that plateau.

For the recreational cyclist, high intensity training is still a good option.  If you are only looking to do a couple charity rides or grand fondos rather than race a full season, low volume, high intensity might be perfect for you.  Just be warned, it is extremely taxing both physically and mentally.

In conclusion, remember the principle of individuality: everyone responds differently to training.  So before you take my word or someone else’s about training, try it for yourself and see how it goes.  Maybe you will respond better to one over the other.

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

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