Tips & Recipes
Pro tips: modern base training
Don't waste time. Train smart this winter.
It’s time to get ready for next season.
How should you train over the winter? The answer has changed radically in recent years.
When Team EF coach Tejay van Garderen turned pro a little over decade ago, base training still meant long, slow days in the saddle. He and his teammates would grind out endless kilometres, through rain and snow. It would be months before they did their first real intervals. The idea then was that slow endurance work would give them a base of aerobic fitness they could use to get fast later on. Looking back, with his wealth of WorldTour knowledge and experience, Tejay now thinks that a lot of those kilometres were a waste of time and effort.
“I started out with that completely old-school, just-long-base-miles thinking,” Tejay says. “We would show up on the group ride and just pull through for hours. Three hours into the ride, you would stop at a coffee shop and warm up, grab a pastry and a coffee, and then do the other three hours home. We were bundled up with these balaclavas and thick gloves and just going out there for hours and hours on snowy days in Boulder. I look back and I’m like, that was probably not all that smart. Now, the thinking has just totally flipped around.”
"Focus on intensity first and then add volume."
Pros now focus on building strength and power early in the winter, adding volume later. Tejay encourages his Team EF Coaching athletes to do the same. Ambitious amateurs should be reassured. You don’t need to spend months away from family and work doing 30-hour weeks at warm-weather training camps to be competitive. Tejay points to the world-class cyclocross racers who make the switch to road racing in the spring and track racers who have gone on to be champions on the road.
“It is not like the guys who race ‘cross are adding in six hours on top of their cyclocross races,” he says. “They are just doing super short, high intensity, quality riding. Look at the Great Britain track programme. Those are all really short, super high intensity events. The guys who came from that were the ones who ended up being good in grand tours.”
A winter of COVID lockdowns also changed a lot of minds.
“Everyone was stuck inside,” Tejay says. “A lot of racers couldn’t even ride their bikes outside. And they started doing these indoor competitions that were 45 minutes to an hour long and super high intensity. Once things opened up and they were able to get outside, they added the volume in on top of that, and the speeds just shot up. That was thanks to that different approach of first the intensity and then the volume.”
"That whole old-school mentality of long, long hours in the winter is terrible because you are just flattening yourself out, so when it is time to do the intensity, you don’t really have that snap anymore."
Tejay is not saying that you should jump straight into Vo2 max intervals if you have taken some time off the bike this fall. First, you need to take a couple of weeks to get used to pedalling again. Regular one-hour to two-hour rides are enough. Go to the gym a few times per week to work out any strength imbalances.
“You have to give yourself a couple of weeks just to get comfortable again on the bike and make sure that your ligaments and your joints and everything are working properly and then you can add in a little bit of tempo and after a couple of weeks start with the intensity,” Tejay says. “If there is a warm weather day, and it is the weekend, and you want to go for a long ride, of course that is not going to hurt you, but it is not like you have to toil away in freezing cold temperatures just because you have to get the hours in. Keep it short and engaging with the quality.”
That principle—keep it short and engaging with high intensity sessions—should guide you through the winter. A well-thought-out programme with specific intervals is going to be much more effective and time efficient than just going out and riding for hours.
“If you only have ten hours a week, and you think, ‘Oh man, I don’t have time to get all of these base miles in, because I have a job’, I think you can put yourself at ease, because all those base miles aren’t actually necessary,” Tejay says. “The quality is what is going to give you the most bang for your buck.”
High quality training should be exciting.
"High quality training should be exciting."
Tejay encourages you to have a go at cyclocross yourself. It’s a tonne of fun and just about the hardest workout you can do in an hour. It’s also one of the best ways to improve your bike handling skills. He would add it to your programme.
Or try indoor racing. Riding your home trainer no longer has to be boring. Wahoo X offers immersive, indoor workouts and gives you the chance to race online against cyclists from all around the world. You’ll finish each session full of adrenaline and excited to race again, instead of dreading another day of toil.
You don’t even have to ride a bike to get in a high-quality workout. Some winter days are better suited to other sports. Go cross-country skiing or hike on snowshoes. It will do your body good to get out of your crouched cycling position and go through a fuller range of motions.
“Your internal motor will get the same benefit,” Tejay says. “Your heart and lungs don’t know the difference between pedalling a bike or going skiing or out on a jog. Those are great ways to balance out some of those monotonous motions that you put yourself through on the bike. When it comes to transferring muscle fibres over, you have plenty of time throughout the season to get those dialled.”
"Your heart and lungs don’t know the difference between pedalling a bike or going skiing or out on a jog."
As your first races of the spring approach, you will want to focus your efforts on the bike and add in enough volume. You want to be fresh for the long season ahead and prepared to get the most out of your early races. That means being sharp enough to respond to attacks and be in the game.
“If you are just hanging about in the gruppetto and can barely see the front, then you are not actually letting the race make you better,” Tejay says. “That whole old-school mentality of long, long hours in the winter is terrible because you are just flattening yourself out, so when it is time to do the intensity, you don’t really have that snap anymore.”
That ‘snap’ is what is going to determine whether you make it into the front group at the crux of a race, or whether you can go with the accelerations. Hone it this winter. Get a training plan from Team EF Coaching. Whatever your goals, Tejay van Garderen and his fellow coaches will use their WorldTour knowledge to help you get faster.