By Coach John Hughes

I live in Colorado and it’s already starting to snow. Two of our ski areas opened last week. As I write this a fire in my wood stove is keeping me warm.

This is the time of year when I outline my clients' training plans for the year ahead. For the next 4-5 months I plan base training – whether the client lives in Boston, Colorado, Maine or California.

Base training has many important benefits. It increases:

  • The endurance of your cycling muscles by increasing both the size and the number of mitochondria. The mitochondria are subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced. These increases in mitochondria are the result of the number of contractions of the muscles, not the intensity of the contractions. This is why (relatively) high volume and low intensity riding is so important.
  • The efficiency of your heart so that it can pump more blood to your muscles. Base training increases the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.
  • The amount of carbohydrates you can store in the liver and muscles. Your body can store approximately 1800 calories worth of carbohydrate as glycogen, which is converted to glucose to power your muscles. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding. Through endurance training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50%!
  • The capacity to burn fat during long rides. Through endurance training your fuel mix on endurance rides shifts to more fat and less glucose, sparing precious glycogen stores. Note that this doesn’t automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.

Because effective base training is low intensity, high volume riding, it’s mentally very tough to do on the trainer.  

Here are some tips for outdoor winter training rides:

Be Prepared. Last week’s RBR Newsletter had Coach David Ertl’s excellent suggestions on what to wear at different temperatures. These suggestions work well if you’re out for a relatively short ride in stable conditions. But what if the weather is changeable? I always carry (even riding in the mountains in the summer!):

  • Light-weight glove liners and a balaclava
  • A motel shower cap as an emergency helmet cover
  • A dry base layer, preferably wool
  • A couple of plastic bags to pull over my socks

Buddy up. The best way to get yourself to ride in adverse conditions is to agree to meet a friend or friends at a certain time or place. No one wants to be the one to wimp out.

Have an Immediate Goal. It’s hard to be motivated to ride when it’s cold and, especially, when it’s rainy. It’s too easy to slack off if your goal is to do a specific club ride next summer. Set an achievable near-term goal like riding five hours a week (outdoors and on the trainer). Many of my clients participate in Randonneurs USA P-12 program to ride a 100K every month for 12 months: http://www.rusa.org/award_p12.html. Some participate in the R-12 to ride 200K every month for 12 months. That’s a lot of time in the saddle in the winter! http://www.rusa.org/award_r12.html

Stop for Coffee or Lunch. My training partner and I ride year-round, and every ride includes a stop at least for coffee and usually for lunch. The planned stop gives us something to look forward to as we pedal in the cold, and a chance to warm up.

Outdoors and Indoors. I sometimes tell a client that I want the rider to do a two-hour ride, with at least 30 minutes outdoors and the rest may be on the trainer. The rider gets to choose whether to ride as much as two hours outdoors or as little as 30 minutes.

Split Workout. Remember that the physiological adaptations from base training are the result of volume. I often tell a client to give me three hours of riding over the weekend. Depending on family responsibilities, weather and the rider’s motivation, she could do a three-hour ride, or 90 minutes in the morning and the rest after dinner, or three separate one-hour rides over Saturday and Sunday.

Run Errands or Commute. Base miles don’t need to be just long rides on the weekend — commuting and running errands accomplish the same things.

Ride Laps. A client had committed to riding a century every calendar month in the year! January's weather was terrible, but she was determined to start reaching her goal. At the end of the month she rode 8 laps of a 12.5-mile loop from her house. She was never more than 30 minutes from home in case of a problem. To make it more interesting, she rode a different bike every lap!

Increase the Pace (slightly). Base training is done at the classic conversational pace, so that you and your buddy are chatting comfortably the entire way. You can ride just a little harder and still get the same benefits of base training. How much harder? You should still be able to talk but not be able to whistle.

My eArticle Year-Round Cycling has tips on equipment, clothing for different parts of your body, what to eat and drink, techniques for riding in sloppy conditions, and more.

Remember: there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just bad gear!


Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.

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