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Should I be doing long, slow winter miles?

It’s the traditional way to prepare for the race season come spring, but is the concept of ‘base training’ outdated?

Michael Donlevy
7 Dec 2020

Historically the racing season ran from March to October, so people used to fill the mental and physical void left by the lack of racing over the winter by going out on the traditional club run.

These tended to get quicker and longer as the winter went on, allowing riders to start rebuilding their fitness following some rest.

There’s a saying that ‘racing gets in the way of training’, so the winter is a great opportunity to boost your aerobic capacity without having to worry about being fresh for your next event.

Long, slow winter miles do have their benefits. When you ride at the sort of pace that allows you to talk comfortably, you teach your body to use more oxygen and to use it more efficiently; you learn to burn more fat as fuel; you strengthen your immune system and you develop more, and better-functioning, mitochondria, the parts of your cells that produce energy.

Aerobic activity is very anabolic – it builds your body, as opposed to intervals, which are catabolic and break down your body to the point where it needs time to repair and adapt.

As a result, you prepare your body to cope with the bigger stresses to come later on in your training programme. The stronger the foundations, the fitter you will be.

One advantage is that you can go back out tomorrow and do it all again if you want to (and if you don’t mind being single). The more you do something the more efficient you become at doing it, so you’ll eventually use less energy to travel at the same speed (or you’ll end up going faster at the same heart rate).

Long, slow rides are perfect for practising group riding and working on your position, your pedalling and any skills you need to improve. Use it as a chance to explore new routes or catch up with friends. It’s often much easier to ride long and steady in a group, especially in poor weather when you don’t feel like going out.

In fact, you should train your aerobic capacity all year round, although the longer you do that the less time you need to invest in keeping it ‘topped up’, so you can reduce the frequency of these rides during the summer. The biggest mistake people make in training is that their easy rides are too hard and their hard rides are too easy. Save your energy for the breakthrough workouts that really matter.

Having said all that, this isn’t the only type of training you should be doing. Winter is a good time to work on your weaknesses, and I’d recommend everyone should work on their functional threshold power (FTP – in short, the maximum pace you can sustain for one hour).

Intervals are good if you’re short on time, and then there’s the gym. You take part in a sport where you push, one leg at a time, about 90 times a minute, sometimes for hours at a time, so being able to perform 10 barbell squats with 100kg isn’t going to help.

But the short range of motion in cycling and the fact you’re constantly bent over means doing some strength exercise and yoga or Pilates will help your flexibility, posture, bones and joints.

Turbo sessions at the gym are also good because you will typically have more motivation when training with others within a sociable environment.

Just one thing to beware: Christmas. People tend to put weight on and this will negate some of your hard work. There’s no point increasing your power if your power-to-weight ratio goes down. Focus as much on your nutrition as you do on your training. It’s just as important, if not more so, when it comes to reaching your true potential.

The expert: Paul Butler is a cycle coach, PT and nutrition adviser who competes in road races in the UK and Belgium, and also runs PB Cycle Coaching Racing Team. You can get in touch with Paul via his website

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