How to start your early season training

If you’re like a lot of athletes, late fall and early winter is about the time you’ll be coming off of a post-season break. You’ll be thinking about training and about next season. You may be getting antsy, and  anxious to get out and train after taking it easy or even totally off for a bit. That’s great, but just begs the question of how to approach getting ready for next season.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject, motivated by my past experience with myself, working with other athletes, and based on a lot of reading from a variety of sources, whether scientific studies, books on training, or anecdotes about training that other high-level athletes have done in the past.

In it’s shortest bullet-point form, here you go:

  • slowly increase the total volume that you’re training
  • keep the overall difficulty of your training moderate
  • include a lot of aerobic work
  • include some strength work (sport specific or at the gym)
  • include some core work and consider cross training
  • don’t go crazy and do hard intervals, but do include some higher intensity efforts sparingly
  • consider your past weak points and plan to improve where you can
  • plan ahead a bit what your season will be like

In a little more detail, but in the same order:

I usually prefer to stay away from the term “base training” because of the connotations that it implies for a lot of people. It doesn’t really matter what people call things, but I often refer to the November-through-March time period as a time for “foundational” training. For many people “base training” necessarily implies that an athlete is trying to get in a lot of miles and may be proactively avoiding intensity as much as possible. Yes, you need to get in an appropriate amount of training volume and aerobic conditioning in order to reach your potential, and doing too much high-intensity training may compromise that in the long run. But, that doesn’t mean that volume is the end-all metric by which you might gauge the quality of your preparatory training. In fact, some form of high-intensity training is one thing that pretty much every study on endurance athletes shows to be effective. In contrast, the control groups for these studies usually submit to only endurance training, and underperform every time compared to the intensity group. The concern would just be that you can’t continually subject your body to very intense training all of the time. So, for myself and my athletes, I liberally include a variety of moderate efforts throughout the year and sparingly incorporate high intensity efforts as well. This often includes short sprint drills, cadence drills, tempo or sub-threshold climbing efforts, and occasionally, shorter, harder above-threshold efforts. I usually also recommend core work, gym work, and maybe other forms of cross training to build strength and injury resistance. After all, durable athletes are usually the most successful ones.

Always remember that training is specific. Effective training will stress your body so that it progressively gets better at whatever stress is applied to it. So, doing a lot of endurance training will generally make you build endurance, but only to a point. But, if you can comfortably do a long endurance ride of 4-5 hours and you can average 160 watts for that ride, then how many 5 hours rides can you do at 160w and get better? If you do that all winter long and don’t include something else, you’ll go through January and February still doing 5 hour rides at 160w and be no better than you were in November when you started. You don’t need to go out and do peak intensity workouts, but you should include some strength and speed drills as well as some higher intensity aerobic efforts as well.

If your training is never challenging, then you can almost be sure that you’re not stressing your body enough to improve. In some sense, training is a protocol followed in order to create some form of fatigue so that your body can better resist that fatigue in the future. Just keep in mind that there are different forms of fatigue or stress. You can fatigue from running low on glycogen because you’ve been training for hours. You can feel weak and tired from lifting heavy weights. Both of these are very different. One is metabolic and hormonal, because you’re running low on a major fuel source. The other is neuromuscular, because your muscles are having trouble firing with as much force as they previously were, in spite of having fuel to do so. It is good, even necessary, to create different forms of fatigue at different times in your training if you’re to get better.

A note on fatigue, though. If you were doing that routine of just training a bunch, think about your long endurance session that you’re probably going to do every weekend during the winter months. That 2 hours run or 5 hours ride will pretty much always make you tired, but you could also get tired from walking for 10 hours. Clearly, walking for 10 hours will not be good training for pretty much anything… So, if you’re going to do a 2 hour run or a 5 hour bike ride, make it productive and do something within that time that will build strength or raise your aerobic power by including a few sprints or big-gear efforts or tempo/low-threshold climbing efforts.

You want your training to be challenging, and you want to be fatigued on a somewhat regular basis. Still, you don’t want to get carried away and decide that you should train as much and as hard as possible. Training like this can burn you out mentally and physically. Always remember, it isn’t training hard that makes you stronger, it’s the recovery that comes afterwards that helps you improve. That being said, none of the training you do in the preparatory/foundational phases of training should be terribly hard. You can and should recover fairly quickly from most of these training sessions. So, if you’re taking care of your body and have enough time to do so, you can probably train moderately most of the time.

Along these lines of making training challenging but not brutal, most of your training should be aerobic fitness and strength oriented. You can build aerobic fitness by doing steady endurance training and by including some tempo and low-threshold kinds of efforts. If you’re training, say, 8-10 hours per week, it would be great if you could get in 20-60m of training just below your last season’s peak 60m intensity. You could start out in November with just a few 10m efforts and build up so that in February, you’re doing 3x20m or doing a couple of workouts that include 2x15m, for example. You could also include a couple of hours at your tempo pace, which should be about 75-85% of that intensity. If you’re a more experienced and fitter rider, you could push that up to even 90% of your peak 60m intensity. Similarly, you should include some on and off the bike strength and power work. This can be strength training at the gym, as well as big-gear work and short snappy sprints out on the road. Or, if you’re a runner, hills and stairs are great for building strength, as well as strides at 90% of your sprint for 70-100 meters at a time.

Don’t assume that only practicing your sport of choice is enough to reach your potential in that sport. People in every sport recognize the benefit of having balanced strength, a strong core, and good flexibility. Doing other similar, but different activities can be well worth while. Running, cross-country skiing, rowing, kayaking, mountain biking, strength training, yoga, etc. There are a lot of good possibilities. When it comes down to the bottom line of performance, strength training in conjunction with some form of stretching and endurance training is about the best thing you can do to bolster your overall fitness. Strength training can significantly increase strength, strength endurance, aerobic capacity, and most every metric of endurance sports. It seems like much of this comes down to an increase in neural recruitment of muscle fibers and increased endurance of those neural pathways…. Increasing strength and power increase performance and those goals are perhaps best accomplished with weighted strength exercises, and can be complimented with sport specific movements. Outside of gym work, consider mixing it up and doing a few days away from your chosen sport, doing other activities you enjoy.

As much as it’s good to enjoy training and enjoy exerting yourself, it’s good to pay attention to your body and not overdo it in training. It’s okay to occasionally get wrecked from hard training sessions or to have big training weeks that leave you feeling very tired. But it’s not okay to grind away at a constantly challenging training regimen that leaves your body low on recovery and high on fatigue. Don’t plan out tons of training and blindly stick to it when you can feel your body is getting worn down. And, don’t get too excited to include intensity in your program so that you’re doing threshold or VO2-max intervals twice a week in January and reaching a kind of faux peak of fitness in the beginning of February when you could reach a higher peak later on if you planned things right. Always remember, training is meant to create fatigue. If you feel tired, then your training is at least a little effective. But, you get stronger when you recover from hard training, not from the training itself.

Lastly, look back on what you’ve done well in the past and what you’ve seen lacking in your fitness. What is it in races that you find easy or hard, what do you do well and poorly? Take stock of where you’re at and where you want to be. Look at ways that you can overcome your past or current liabilities. Sometimes just filling in an empty spot in your training routine can make a big difference. If you can’t sprint, then practice. Maybe go to the gym. Both can help a lot, and probably will carry over into other aspects of your sports performance. Or if you can’t sustain high-intensity efforts for long, then practice that. Maybe start with moderate intensity efforts for long periods and slowly increase the intensity of those efforts. Or, target a goal pace or power output and do intervals that get progressively longer and have progressively less recovery between efforts.

Along similar lines, plan ahead for the coming season and see what you want to do, when, and think about how you should plan for that. Consider adding breaks in your training so that you can get extra recovery part-way through the season to reset your mental and physical fatigue. This can be as simple as mapping out the races you think you might do, or even planning specific workouts ahead of time that you know will make you ready for those goal events.