Base training is a traditional phase of cycling periodization and is utilized by coaches and athletes alike to increase their aerobic base fitness. Conventional base training involves doing a lot of long duration riding at low to moderate intensity with the goals of increasing capillary density, mitochondrial density, muscular endurance, and mental strength (pain tolerance). This sounds great in theory, but is it just an archaic way of thinking and training?
The short answer is, yes! Riding your bike for a long time at a slow pace (usually zone 2) will make you better at, you guessed it, riding your bike for a long time at a slow pace. I don’t know about you, but I have never raced my bike slowly. This does not mean that zone 2 training should be thrown out the window though.
I utilize zone 2 training with my athletes when they are coming out of their race season and into their off-season to give them a mental break and remind them that they can just ride their bikes for enjoyment. Then again during their transition phase to prepare their bodies for the higher volume and intensities to come. Zone 2 is also where you spend a lot of time when you are cruising in the peloton during a race, so you need to be used to spending hours in this zone before race season starts. So, if you don’t have hours and hours to train like a professional athlete, what should you do to increase your aerobic fitness? That, my friends, is where Sweet Spot training comes in.
What is the Sweet Spot Zone?
The Sweet Spot zone is between 85-97% of your FTP, think high zone 3 and low zone 4…
This is called the Sweet Spot zone because it is smack dab in the middle of where you get the best bang for your buck in terms of return on training investment. You can spend a lot of quality time here without building up undue fatigue which allows for greater repeatability and increased training stress over the course of a training block. Most importantly though, you can spend a lot less time in Sweet Spot compared to zone 2 training to get the same physiological improvements. Thought of another way, espresso and coffee have a similar caffeine content, but you need a lot less espresso to achieve the same caffeine buzz.
Benefits of Sweet Spot Training
The above table helps to really hammer this point home. As you can see, zone 2 training does help to improve a myriad of aerobic factors, but you need to spend ample amounts of time working in this zone to reap the benefits. Now, look at the Sweet Spot zone, you can achieve the same increases in aerobic factors, but in half the time needed compared to zone 2.
This does not mean to go absolutely bananas and do every single workout at Sweet Spot zone. Figure out, or ask a coach :-), what your races for the season will need to be done at in terms of length and intensity. Then, match the amount of Sweet Spot training to this with a goal of being able to maintain Sweet Spot for the longest climb in the race, your longest TT, or criterium/cross race length. For example, if you are a Cat 5 road racer, you don’t need to be spending 2 hours working at Sweet Spot when your longest race of the season will be 60 minutes.
“This all sounds awesome, Shayne! You are telling me I can can workout for half the time and get the same benefits!?”
Not so fast my friends…
Drawbacks of Sweet Spot Training
Refer back up to the physiological adaptations table, notice that Sweet Spot training does jack squat for your anaerobic system, neuromuscular power, and fast twitch muscle fibers? This is a huge issue because athletes who specialize in road races, criteriums, cyclocross events, and track races rely heavily upon their anaerobic systems and fast twitch muscle fibers to generate breakaway power, power up a short and steep incline, accelerate after a sharp turn, and get off the blocks as quickly as possible. So, make sure you are using your off-season effectively and not just increasing your aerobic capacity if you plan on competing in any of these events!
Another drawback of Sweet Spot training is that people usually spend 3 hours, but you are only spending 90 minutes on your bike at a time, even if you are working at a respectable intensity, chances are you will not have the muscular endurance or pain tolerance to last for 3+ hours and be able to produce a decent enough kick at the end to win. So, make sure you are still getting out for those longer rides at least a couple times a month in the winter to maintain your muscular endurance and mental fortitude!
So, is traditional base training dead? For all intents and purposes, yes! Spending a lot of time on your bike at a low intensity will only make you better at riding slow for a long time, and secondarily will bore you to death. As the winter closes in and your training time invariably decreases, don’t waste your time spinning aimlessly at zone 2! Instead, include some Sweet Spot work into your routine and continue to watch your FTP and fitness rise steadily throughout the winter. Remember to not just spin at Sweet Spot though as you will indubitably lose your anaerobic and neuromuscular power. Finally, zone 2 still has it’s purpose! It is beneficial for those athletes who are burnt out from a long season of racing, coming back after injury, or preparing their bodies for the high volumes and intensity of the build phase. Don’t write off zone 2 entirely just yet…