Base training is a traditional phase of cycling periodization and is utilized by coaches and athletes alike to prepare their bodies for the greater physiological demands the build and peak phases bring, increase aerobic capacity while ideally maintaining anaerobic capacity, increase sport specific strength, and improve pedaling technique if needed; essentially you are training for the sake of training and improving, not for a specific race or goal. There has always been much debate over what ‘camp’ an athlete should choose – Traditional or Sweet Spot. This article will hopefully serve to make your choice a little easier, and if not, feel free to scathe me in the comments 😉
Why ‘Base’ Train?
Base training is all about bettering your aerobic capacity, improving your body’s ability to use fat versus carbohydrate to meet the energy demands of the muscle, and increase the percentage of VO2 Max at which you burn primarily fat (this can be lower than 50% for untrained athletes, and 90% for highly trained).
The key here is to stimulate and progressively overload your aerobic system WITHOUT having a huge accumulation of lactate (i.e. going above your ‘lactate threshold’). If you continually go above your lactate threshold and sustain it for a length of time, your body will prefer carbohydrate over fat to meet energy demands of the muscle due to carbohydrate being a more efficient supplier of energy (with caveats of course).
Quick Digression about Lactate
Before we move further, let’s speak a little bit in regards to lactate. Lactate is a product of glycolysis. Glycolysis is an energy system used by the body to break down glucose (stored as glycogen in the liver) into pyruvate and lactate. Think of pyruvate and lactate as teeny-tiny molecules that the mitochondria use to produce ATP (energy). The amount of pyruvate or lactate produced depends upon how much oxygen is present in the cells at the time of glycolysis.
In exercise where lots of oxygen is present (aerobic) your body will produce more pyruvate and less lactate. When you continue to push yourself into the higher power zones and above your lactate threshold, oxygen level in the cells will decrease and you will go into anaerobic energy production, thus producing increased lactate and decreased pyruvate. Continue to push harder and the levels of lactate produced will continue to increase while pyruvate levels decrease. I.e. the fuel ‘mixture’ of fat (pyruvate) to carbohydrate (lactate) changes as an athlete works closer to their individual lactate threshold.
Back on Topic
Another issue in this argument is the amount of training stress (TSS) Zone 2 creates versus Sweet Spot…
Zone 2 for 1 hour
1 hour at Zone 2 steady state (.65 IF) will provide approximately 42 TSS/hour.
Sweet Spot 2×20 Minute Intervals
A 1 hour Sweet Spot focused workout (.9 IF intervals) produces 69 TSS, or roughly 30 TSS/hour more compared to Zone 2. Said another way, Sweet Spot training can produce roughly 40% more training stress per hour compared to Zone 2 with similar physiological changes and benefits! This is why GC Coaching uses it so frequently with our athletes that are on a time budget.
Planning your training off TSS is a great way to truly know if your training density is enough to create a positive return on your training time investment, and something I highly recommend you doing. Plus, it removes the guesswork from training and actually simplifies things once you understand it.
Now, let’s talk about the 2 methods of base training relevant to this article a little more…
What is the ‘Traditional’ way to Base Train?
Traditional base training involves doing A LOT of long duration riding at low to moderate intensity (i.e. Zone 2) with the goals of increasing capillary density, mitochondrial density, muscular endurance, and mental strength (pain tolerance). This sounds great in theory, but is it just an archaic way of thinking and training? Yes and no…Yes for the athlete who does not have 20+ hours per week to train and needs to get a better return on their training time, and no for the athlete who has oodles of time to dedicate to their training (remember training density). Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water though…
I utilize zone 2 training with my athletes when they are coming out of their race season and into their off-season to give them a mental break and remind them that they can just ride their bikes for enjoyment. Then again during their transition phase to prepare their bodies for the higher volume and intensities to come. Zone 2 is also where you spend a lot of time when you are cruising in the peloton during a race, so you need to be used to spending hours in this zone before race season starts. Most importantly though, Zone 2 is more than appropriate for the athlete who can spend enough time in it to achieve the required training density (TSS) for progress. This just happens to occur VERY rarely in my experience as most athletes work full time, have families, and other obligations aside from pedaling their bikes… Being an adult is hard sometimes.
So, if you don’t have hours and hours to train like a professional athlete, what should you do to increase your aerobic capacity? That, my friends, is where Sweet Spot training comes in.
What is the Sweet Spot Zone?
The Sweet Spot zone is between 84-95% (make it simple, and call it 90%) of your FTP, think high zone 3 and low zone 4…
This is called the Sweet Spot zone because it is smack dab in the middle of where you get the best bang for your buck in terms of return on training time invested. You can spend a lot of quality time here without building up undue fatigue which allows for greater repeatability and increased training density over the course of a training block.
Let me say that again and really drive that thought home… You can spend a lot of quality time here without building up undue fatigue which allows for greater repeatability and increased training density over the course of a training block. The absolute KEY with sweet spot training is the time you spend working in it, and the frequency at which you repeat it per week. Remember, training density, is what matters for fitness progress. If you can’t make more time in your schedule, the only other way to increase density is through intensity (i.e. Zone 2 versus Sweet Spot).
Most importantly though, you can spend a lot less time in Sweet Spot compared to zone 2 training and get similar physiological improvements. Thought of another way, espresso and coffee have a similar caffeine content, but you need a lot less espresso to achieve the same caffeine buzz.
I’ve seen thousands of FTP tests and analyzed data from hundreds of athletes over the years, and it is my opinion that the non-lab FTP tests (those without a lactate analyzer) over-estimate FTP. I say this because the definition of FTP is:
The power output that a well trained, fresh, and motivated athlete can hold in a quasi steady state for 1 hour.
This is definitely possible with very highly trained athletes, BUT in my experience, most athlete’s time to exhaustion (TTE) is in the 30-45 minute range at FTP, NOT 1 hour. So, I would argue that the Sweet Spot range is actually closer, and more accurate, to an athlete’s true FTP (as defined above) and is a better approximation of lactate threshold which is what an FTP test is trying to estimate, in essence.
Benefits of Sweet Spot Training
The above table helps to really hammer the training density point home. As you can see, zone 2 training does help to improve a myriad of aerobic factors, but you need to spend ample amounts of time working in this zone to reap the benefits. Now, look at the Sweet Spot zone, you can achieve the same increases in aerobic factors, but in half the time needed compared to zone 2.
This does not mean to go absolutely bananas and do every single workout at Sweet Spot zone. Figure out, or ask a coach :-), what your races for the season will need to be done at in terms of length and intensity. Then, match the amount of Sweet Spot training to this with a goal of being able to maintain Sweet Spot for the longest climb in the race, your longest TT, or criterium/cross race length. For example, if you are a Cat 5 road racer, you don’t need to be spending 2 hours working at Sweet Spot when your longest race of the season will be 60 minutes.
“This all sounds awesome, Shayne! You are telling me I can can workout for half the time and get the same benefits!?”
Not so fast my friends…
Drawbacks of Sweet Spot Training
Refer back up to the physiological adaptations table, notice that Sweet Spot training does jack squat for your anaerobic system, neuromuscular power, and fast twitch muscle fibers? This is a huge issue because athletes who specialize in road races, criteriums, cyclocross events, and track races rely heavily upon their anaerobic systems and fast twitch muscle fibers to generate breakaway power, power up a short and steep incline, accelerate after a sharp turn, and get off the blocks as quickly as possible. So, make sure you are using the later stages of your off-season effectively and not just increasing your aerobic capacity if you plan on competing in any of these events! There will be another article regarding the ‘Build’ phase of a periodized plan which will be more appropriate to speak about that.
Another drawback of Sweet Spot training is the ride lengths usually aren’t long enough for certain athletes. For example, an athlete who specializes in road racing will typically spend 3 hours+ riding their bike during a typical road race, but if they are only spending 90 minutes on their bike at a time, even if they are working at a respectable intensity, chances are they will not have the muscular endurance or, pain tolerance, to last for 3+ hours and be able to produce a decent enough kick at the end to win. So, make sure you are still getting out for those longer rides at least a couple times a month in the winter to maintain your muscular endurance and mental fortitude!
Wrap it up Already!
As the winter closes in and your training time invariably decreases, don’t waste your time spinning aimlessly at zone 2 if you can’t achieve enough training density doing so! Instead, include some Sweet Spot work into your routine and continue to watch your FTP and fitness rise steadily throughout the winter. Remember to not just spin at Sweet Spot though as you will indubitably lose your anaerobic and neuromuscular power. Finally, zone 2 still has it’s purpose! It is beneficial for those athletes who have a ton of training time available, are burnt out from a long season of racing, coming back after injury, or preparing their bodies for the high volumes and intensity of the build phase. Whatever camp you choose, just keep pedaling 🙂
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