Teammate Chris Facas recently wrote this in his online training diary:
“This year’s main objective is to build a wider and taller base for the fitness pyramid to ensure more power at the peak. Don’t we all want more POWER? More power to put the screws to a slacker hanging on your wheel, more power to drop people on a climb, more power to be the lead out man for a teammate, more power to do a better 40k TT, more power to hang in there when your eyeballs are ready to pop out of your head.
“Don’t we all want more POWER? We are not like cars where you can buy more power. We have to work endlessly to tune our engines. Some of us naturally have an 8 cylinder, while others are given a 6 cylinder that we are milling the heads, installing larger carburetors, tweaking the fuel source to get the right air mixture with the hopes of getting more horsepower…”
So it’s January. A lot of us have the urge to start riding faster, harder at the start of the new year. But read Chris’s first words: “WIDER, TALLER BASE…” We all have to ride slower in order to go fast later on. Who won the Tour de France seven years in a row? Lance Armstrong. One reason? He was pouring in 500-mile weeks every week from November to December, just riding steady, aerobically, developing an enormous base and a strong foundation with which to start building power and speed. When it came time to ramp up the intensity, his body responded very, very well.
The same with Miguel Indurain. He was famous for starting training on Dec 1 and he would do 7-8-hour days, LSD, in long blocks. In July, he dominated. Tom Boonen, World Champ last year, winner of Paris-Roubaix, twice winner of Tour of Flanders, notoriously goes out through the Belgian winter to put in those long, critical miles. In Belgium, the winters are far worse than here. Some guys do 3-4 hours inside, whereas Boonen is outside for 6+, riding riding riding. In the final miles of a long Classic, he has that slight edge…
It’s not a coincidence that these riders, who work diligently throughout the winter, shine during the summer. When we ride slower, our bodies are burning fat for energy. Endurance rides are an entirely aerobic effort. We are priming the engine. Our metabolisms begin revving up. We are building the strongest aerobic engine possible. After all, the aerobic engine powers your cycling success. Training volume high, intensity low.
Cutting back on the “intensity” during the winter, concentrating more on endurance and steady tempo riding, makes it easier to build up during the spring and summer. If you do too much throughout the winter, stressing the wrong engines, you’ll have problems building correctly when it’s time to get down to business. Winter training should not stress the Anaerobic and Lactic Acid system too much because then you’re breaking down your muscles (something we’re trying to build!). In the winter, I like to see riders building their endurance, then begin to build power in the gym, then work on steady tempo and on-the-bike power movements.
If you ride hard all year, you either burn out, or if you’re super stubborn, you plateau. You hit 80% fitness and get stuck. You train harder but to no avail. Improvements that come are often lost because the body just cannot maintain that high level for too long. You’re relatively “fit” all year but you’re perpetually tired. It’s a hard cycle to break, not riding hard.
Most riders have problems with this. “How can I go fast by riding slow?” The always-fit hammerheads hammer year-round, but their weakest months are always May, June, July, August. Smart athletes are peaking and leaving their competitors behind. The hammerheads have problems keeping up with the increased speeds and distances because they always train the same way. Increasing workload only makes them more overtired… and they either crack and get dropped, or they quit.
Succinctly, by summer, the classic hammerheads are toast. They’re bored or burned out. FYI: burnout is not fun. Interest in training, racing, and perhaps even life generally vanishes! It takes months for enthusiasm to come back, if it comes back at all. And the reason is simple: after about 12 weeks of training in the same way, improvement plateaus. Riders can’t understand that they’re training so hard, but they’re not getting any faster or are going slower. It kills them psychologically. Trying to maintain fitness at a high level means trying to minimize losses. That’s not going to work…
Joe Friel, world-renowned coach, says during the long endurance rides, your heart begins to pump more blood per heartbeat, your muscle fibers develop more capillaries, and your oxygen transportation to your muscles is increased. In Layman’s Terms, you’re building your aerobic engine. If your body becomes superior in this regard, how do you think it’s going to affect your performances when it’s time to lay down the hammer for two hours? You’re going to have a huge, huge advantage…
I was a skeptic, too. Train easy? Ha. No way! I was a strong rider, winning amateur races. When I upgraded to the Pro/1/2 category, I had problems keeping up. So all winter I trained hard, doing what I thought was appropriate. In the spring, I was flat. By summer, I was dead and dropped and stopped riding. I learned the hard way. Then I embraced periodization, and by mid-October, with minimal but smart training, I was as fast as ever, fresher, hungrier, and I began to understand how the human body works and responds to training stress.
The winter is the time to fully establish the basic fitness abilities of endurance, power, and pedaling efficiency. I always over-prescribe foundation training. Some athletes are careless and end this phase too soon. No. My firm belief is that it’s essential to have a strong foothold before launching high-intensity training.
Lance Armstrong wouldn’t be able to withstand April and May’s training load if it weren’t for his superior base. His body became resilient to large workloads, and his more intense spring/summer workouts took him to a new level. Your buddies and teammates may be hammering around in December, and you can sometimes feel pressured to hammer with them. But be patient and hold back. Later in the season, you will be happy you did.