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Winter Base Miles Training

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Winter base miles are an important part of a rider’s training at this time of year. Especially as we’re now firmly in the deep dark depths of Winter. It’s also even Rapha Festive 500 time. Thousands of riders will be going for the goal of 500km between Christmas and the New Year, a great example of Winter base miles.

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What are base miles?

The simple explanation is that base miles are the miles of cycling that you do whilst training at this time of year. The goal is to increase your own base fitness levels. Traditionally these were done with many long, steady rides of a decent distance.

The goal here is to create a strong starting point for your season. Once you have this base you can work on other areas like speed, power, endurance and so on. The added benefit of these rides is that the steady intensity required puts you right in the training zone for fat-burning. Great for post-Christmas rides! Obviously that’ll help you when it comes to climbs.

How do base miles help your overall fitness?

When you ride, your body burns the stored fats and sugars and gives your muscles the energy required to ride.

There’s two ways the body does this – aerobically and anaerobically. The first – aerobic – uses oxygen as part of the process to burn off fat reserves. Normally this equates to around Zone 3 so it’s possible to keep this effort going for long periods. The second – anaerobic – performs a similar job, but without oxygen. This is when your body uses fuel quickly whilst you ride at high intensities. The by-products of this process are the build-up of lactic acid that makes your muscles feel like they’re burning. As a result of this, you can’t hold these efforts for as long.

Training in this aerobic zone (3) will help improve your base fitness. Once you’ve trained in this zone regularly, your body because more efficient at this process. Eventually this level of activity becomes the new normal.

Obviously this means you’ll have a higher level of fitness. However the added bonus effect is that your body becomes used to riding long distances over lots of hours. This higher base becomes more important as you do more intensive training as the higher base allows you to work harder and further.

winter base miles on the winter bike

How to fit those base miles in

You should try to do 3 rides a week of 2 hours plus. Follow this up with a longer ride of 4-5 hours each week too. This should work out to doing rides between 40 and 60 miles. Now obviously if you’re used to doing this sort of volume, adjust the amounts upwards. If you’re not, start small and then work yourself up.

Expect to feel some tiredness if you’ve not done much base training in previous years. The adaptation process is quite quick though, a couple of weeks later and that tiredness should be less pronounced. Because the effort required is relatively gentle, compared to say a club bash ride, the pace shouldn’t be too hard.

Consistency is the most important thing. Taking a week off and doing one super long ride to catch up isn’t the aim here. The idea is try and normalise doing these sorts of rides. Club rides are a big help here. Sitting in the wheels helps to take the edge off and keep you at a sustainable pace where you can chat. For me they also help with the motivational side of things. Knowing there’s a ride starting at a set time helps me to get up and get out on the bike.

At this time of year, you’re probably going to have to get used to riding in the dark except for weekends. The days are short and there isn’t much time, if any, after work to fit rides in. Riding to work can help and a set of decent lights too. Alternatively the turbo and Zwift are always there to help out.

Zwift 2 keyboard shortcut
Using Zwift can help get those winter base miles in during periods of bad weather

What is the level of intensity that I should be aiming for?

The trick here is to find the right intensity. If you go too hard then you’ll start using the anaerobic process which will burn sugars instead of fats and take you longer to recover from. Riding on feel like this is something I struggle with – I always want to smash it!

Getting more data helps though. A heart rate monitor or a power meter is perfect as you can work out your training zones and ride with them. Having numbers to ride to helps prevent overdoing things.

There are a few methods of calculating your training zones by heart rate. You can take part in a functional VO2 max test (ramp test). These are available in some gyms and also some university studies will do them for you as part of their research. Keep your eyes peeled in Facebook cycling groups/pages for some of these. This ramp test is the most accurate method.

The shortcut method is to subtract your age from 220. This method gives me a max HR of around 192 which is about right. I don’t think I’ve seen mine go higher than 193 recently. It doesn’t work for everyone but it’s a decent guide for most. For winter base miles training, try and keep your active heart rate to between 60 and 80% of this max heart rate number.

Heart rate monitors are fairly cheap these days but the old school method is to ride at an effort where you can still hold a conversation. Getting out of breath is a telltale sign that your body is starting to process the effort anaerobically.

To summarise:

  • Don’t ride too hard – keep to a sensible pace
  • Be consistent – ride regularly, don’t binge ride!
  • Stick to the plan – this isn’t a quick process, but remember the adage, Winter miles = Summer smiles