How to Build a Strong Foundation for the Season Ahead

By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of purplepatch Fitness

As a purplepatch athlete, education is a driver behind all training prescription. You can get a feel for the "Meetings with Matt", which all purplepatch athletes have the opportunity to attend multiple times weekly. In this edition, Matt and his assistant, Paul Buick, discuss pre-season triathlon training and many of the topics outlined below:

Matt Dixon at Purplepatch

As we emerge from the holiday season, many bikes have been collecting more dust than miles. With the New Year here, you may be excited to get back on the bike and begin building your "base" for the season ahead, but how should you do this effectively?

Most athletes I speak to fall into the old-fashioned mindset of thinking that all winter miles should be about collecting miles of riding, at a controlled very low-to-low intensity, creating a "base" (hence the name) of fitness. From this base they will morph into higher intensity training, supposedly maximizing fitness and performance yields.

It is a lovely story, and the image of building foundations and bases of fitness is easy to comprehend. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most effective way to go about your training, and often doesn’t fit within the reality of most athlete’s life and riding opportunities.

Cyclist riding with PowerTap power meter

The Background of Foundational Riding

The concept of base building was established off the back of established and competitive cyclists, who raced and trained for the vast majority of the year. They would finish the last races of the year, with their bodies fatigued with the vigor of racing, and not in a situation to positively adapt to high intensity training. Instead, their body and mind sought rejuvenation and a rest.

Typically, when these athletes resumed training following an extended break, they would live in an environment wherein they could begin building-up fitness in a patient manner, accumulating miles of training at low intensity. Their body needed a gradual ramp, as it was the norm to do very little to no riding for an extended time. It was emotionally easy; practical with weather and time availability, and the accumulation of miles was a big stimulus on fitness.

While this is a basic overview, there are several key components of the roots of base training that likely do not align with your reality or needs.

Cyclist riding inside on CycleOps indoor trainer

Your Reality

It is likely that you didn’t just finish a season of 70 days of tough cycling racing. In addition, you may not be currently living in a nice, warm and sunny climate, with endless hours to train each week, and few commitments outside the love of the bike. The typical situation for our triathletes and riding enthusiasts paints a picture of a busy life in which triathlon training must be integrated. Such a life calls for a different approach and mindset to setting up the season and "building your base."

Another key shift in general training approach is that athletes tend to take less time completely away from activity. Some of this may stem from there being less necessity due to smarter training approaches, but also due to the fact we realize that maintaining some activity is sound general health. This means the amount of de-training is much less than "the old days."

Our typical amateur triathlete is gets to ride their bike two to four times weekly, with the typical opportunity to ride outside condensed by the combination of a working week, short daylight hours, and less than favorable weather conditions for outside riding. For many, all of these rides may be restricted to the trainer, while many others hit the indoor trainer in the week and may be lucky enough to sneak some outside riding during the weekend.

With this situation, athletes are asked to keep intensity low, build base, and accumulate miles.It is no wonder that the bike trainer is viewed as boring, as long trainer sessions at a low intensity are very much just that.

Ignoring the stale feeling of low intensity trainer rides; the simple fact is that this approach isn’t very effective anyhow. To establish a big "base" requires a load of hours, something that is tough to achieve in part to the reasons above. Plus, the stimulus is not big enough to create the physiological adaptations sought.

A coach that prescribes this type of training has done so following reading a few articles or text books, often outlining how a specific athlete trains, and simply dilutes down to fit their athlete. That coach should think outside the box, and aim to become solutions-based for the typical athletes real-life situation.

Why go so much against the reality experienced by of most amateur athletes? It is madness. Luckily, there is a better way.

Creating a Strategy to Fit Within Life

As you venture back into riding training, there are a few key "foundational building block" sessions that we tend to integrate. These are focus around:

  • Technical and Form-Based Riding: While you cannot learn terrain management, standing, cornering or other skills on a trainer, you can establish great postural habits, as well as focusing on your pedal stroke.

  • End of Range RPM and Intensity Training:This is central to our approach, and outlined below, helps improve the riders overall capacity, while improving awareness of different riding tools.

  • General Endurance:We cannot make every session high intensity, so integrated into a technical-focused session will be some general cardiovascular and muscular conditioning.

  • High Intensity Intervals:Many long course triathletes forget the benefit of improved overall cardiovascular capacity, and the benefit of some targeted and very high intensity training. These sessions can be hard to include throughout the race-specific phase of training.

The training we do in the early part of the year should set up optimal yield and results from the key race specific training that we do as a build toward our key races.

Matt Dixon

Preparing for the Race Season Ahead

For most triathletes, their race specific training is focused around endurance-based intervals, as this is what the events demand. As we ramp into this part of the season, we have the opportunity to not be shackled by race specificity, but develop the athlete and focus on building the overall resource of the athlete, helping them minimize weaknesses while maximizing strengths, as well as develop an awareness of some of the riding ‘tools’ they can deploy in real world riding outside.

If we can achieve this while also establishing great habits around pedaling, posture and form, so that the rider will retain form under fatigue in the longer endurance sessions coming later in the year, we have opened the capacity for the rider to maximize the yield of their key race specific training. It sounds simple, and it is, but many miss the mark.

So what do some typical sessions look like?Lets have a look at a classic progression of a trainer workout that is central to our development of triathletes.

Cyclist on CycleOps indoor trainer

End of Range Training

A rider will always have a "sweet spot" of pedaling cadence (rpm), where they will spend most of their riding time in training and ranging.The mission of this progression of training is to develop resilience (strength-endurance), broaden overall capacity, and allow riders to get comfortable understanding physiological responses to different riding styles.

You will notice that the "coaching cue," or mindset, that we use for athletes is to think of the low rpm as "strength-training on the bike."We butcher the phrase, but it helps with adherence to the cause. A few key elements to successful execution:

  • Your heart rate on the low rpm should be several beats lower than the high rpm, as we are shifting the emphasis and load to become muscular.If your heart rate / breathing is the same on low and high rpm, your power/output is too high.

  • Athletes like to "regress to the mean," so will tend to stray toward their comfortable cadence (rpm), then just drop a little, and add a little. This isn’t effective for the mission. End of range means the rider must be accountable to stretch their comfort, pushing how low is low, and how high is high.

  • Great awareness must be given to retaining a supple and quiet upper body, constant tension on the chain (fluid pedaling), and limited lateral movement.

  • Be careful with any knee issues.

As for the indoor bike trainer workouts below, note that every session requires a nice warm up, and preparatory pre-main set, prior to launching into this main set:

Sweet Spot Session

  • 4 x 10 min at moderately strong to strong sustained effort (Z3 to Z3+ for those who use zones)
    • Each as 2 rounds of: (4 minutes at under 50 rpm, 1 min over 95 rpm).
  • Between each interval is 4 to 5 minutes at very easy pedaling and higher rpm (90 + rpm).

End-of-Range Session

The progression of this session is limitless, but we typically build through about 8 to 10 week of progressive load, finishing with a workout similar to the one below:

  • 6 x 8 min all at strong and sustained effort:
    • Odd intervals performed under 50 rpm.
    • Even intervals performed over 95 rpm.
  • 5 min spin at Zone 1 between each.

Remember it is important that before you dive into these sessions, we go through a series of preparatory work to strengthen the tendons, ligaments and muscle to allow for effective and safe training.Let's use a case study to show you.

Cyclist on CycleOps indoor trainer

Strength-Endurance Progression Case Study

Imagine that Bob can complete 4 x 10 minutes at 250 watts. Prior to the session listed above, he may have started with:

  • 4 x 9 minutes all at low RPM as:
    • 2 min at 220W
    • 2 min at 250W
    • 1 min at 270W
    • 2 min at 250W
    • 2 min at 220W

With opposing weeks being:

  • 4 x 9 minutes at 250-270W with:
    • 2 min at 75 rpm
    • 2 min at 60 rpm
    • 1 min at 40-50 rpm
    • 2 min at 60 rpm
    • 2 min at 75 rpm

As you can see, we carefully progressed him to the point he can now hit the real strength-endurance and end of range training.

With smart progression, we can build a platform for the rider, and set them up for their race specific training. It maximizes the winter months, positively exploits the limited time available to most athletes, and primes you for much of the riding coming in the warmer months – all of which is necessary for race success.

Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is one of the leading endurance coaches in the world. He brings a unique background of professional coaching experience, elite athletics and education to lead the purplepatch team. He is a highly sought-after resource in the endurance community, writing and contributing to multiple publications such as Triathlete Magazine, Lava Magazine, Outside Magazine and Triathlete Europe.

His Master's degree in clinical and exercise physiology, as well as his experience as an elite swimmer and professional triathlete, form the backbone of his coaching philosophy, but it is his incredible ability to lead, educate and develop all levels of athletes to their potential with his excellent communication style that makes him such a sought after resource. You can follow him on the purplepatch blog, Facebook or Twitter @purplepatch.