Endurance exercise is a relatively long ride at a conversational pace. But is this important in the winter when it’s hard to log outdoor miles and hours on the trainer suck?
Probably not if you use Merriam-Webster’s definition of endurance: “The ability to withstand hardship or adversity especially: the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity.” For example, “A marathon runner’s endurance.”
If you are training for a century, 200K brevet or something longer in April then you need to do endurance riding this winter. Otherwise you don’t need to do relatively long rides.
Let’s ask a different question: Is base training important? Base training has many benefits. It increases:
- The endurance of your cycling muscles by increasing both the size and the number of mitochondria. The mitochondria are the subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced. The increases in mitochondria are the result of the number of contractions of the muscles, not the intensity of the contractions. This is why (relatively) high volume and low intensity exercise is so important.
- The efficiency of your heart so that it can pump more blood to your muscles. Base training increases the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.
- The amount of carbohydrates you can store in the liver and muscles. Your body can store approximately 1800 calories’ worth of carbohydrates as glycogen, which is converted to glucose to power your muscles. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding. With base training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20% to 50%!
- The capacity to burn fat during long rides. With base training your fuel mix on longer rides shifts to more fat and less glucose, sparing precious glycogen stores. Note that this doesn’t automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.
The winter improvement conundrum
- You know the training paradigm: Overload + recovery -> Improvement.
You’ve ridden many base miles over the years to improve your aerobic fitness in the above four ways. In order to increase your aerobic fitness you need to continue to do more aerobic exercise. If you’ve been riding 100 miles a week in about seven hours, then to improve you’d need to ride more than 100 miles / seven hours a week. And more week by week. In the winter.
Winter maintenance exercise
Instead of trying to improve your aerobic fitness, think of winter as the time to maintain most (but not all) of your fitness. It’s okay to lose some fitness over the winter — even the pros do. Let’s look at how you lose fitness.
Physiology of less training
Considerable research has been done on what happens if an athlete stops exercising completely because of illness, injury or other reasons. One loses different types of fitness at different rates. Unless you stop exercising completely, you’ll lose fitness more slowly.
Residual fitness How many years you’ve been riding is the biggest factor in how slowly you lose fitness and how rapidly you can recover the lost fitness. This relates to my concept of athletic maturity. This column explains how you can assess your athletic maturity and the following column explains how to improve your athletic maturity. I’ve been wearing out cycling shorts for almost 50 years.
Aging increases rate of losses As you age the rates at which you lose the following different kinds of fitness increases. The doesn’t mean you should just do more. You should do the right kinds of exercises as explained below in Let’s Get Practical.
VO2 max is your body’s capacity to take in and use oxygen. It begins to decline at about day 10 of no training and continues to decrease over time. In about two to four weeks of no training significant reductions in VO2 max begin to occur. This decline is related to a decreased cardiac output and decreased blood volume. This isn’t a big issue unless you compete either in races or on club rides
Cardiorespiratory fitness is lost a little more slowly. Within about four to eight weeks of no training your body’s capacity to move blood to your muscles decreases. This happens in part because your blood volume decreases. The size of your heart muscle decreases and because it isn’t as strong it can’t pump as much blood per stroke. Because your heart can’t pump as much blood at submaximal intensities your heart rate is higher for a given workload.
High speed and intensity depend on your VO2 max. As this declines your capacity to transport oxygen makes it harder to recover and continue with hard workouts. The loss of fast twitch muscles also reduces your how hard you can ride. Unless you’re competitive this isn’t a problem.
Aerobic fitness. At about 10 days of no activity you slowly start to lose endurance. At about 14 days the loss of endurance accelerates because of the decrease in mitochondrial density and enzyme activity in your slow twitch fibers.
Metabolism and muscle function are significantly impacted. For a given workload you are burning more carbs and less fat for energy. Muscle glycogen levels also drop, leaving less in the tank to draw from. Your lactate threshold goes down because lactate accumulates more quickly and at a lower intensity.
Your endurance decreases because of these declines in cardiorespiratory, metabolism and muscle function.
Muscle strength and max power losses are very limited in the first two weeks of inactivity. However, even though your maximum strength and power are almost as great, you lose muscular endurance, i.e., you can’t apply a force repeatedly for many minutes or hours of continuous motion. Muscle mass and the number of Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers decreases. Fast-twitch muscles provide power and slow-twitch muscles provide endurance. (Fast-twitch and slow-twitch are the rates at which the muscle fibers contract, not your cadence.)
Loss of skills. There’s good news here. Once a skill is learned, it is never forgotten, especially if it is well learned.
To sum up:
- Rates of decline depend on how many years you’ve been cycling and how fit you are before you start exercising less.
- With aging rates of decline accelerate.
- Power and capacity to ride hard start to decrease first.
- Endurance doesn’t decrease as fast.
- Muscle strength decreases slowly.
Unless you’re a coach potato until March or so you won’t lose fitness as fast as above.
Let’s get practical
So what should you do this winter?
Consistency is most important
The training paradigm is about balance. In order to improve you need to balance the overload and the recovery by week, by month and by year.
- Too much overload and / or not enough recovery and you get sick, injured or even overtrained.
- Too little overload and / or too much recovery, and you lose fitness.
If you aren’t consistent with the appropriate overload you lose fitness.
Frequency and volume more important than distance.
Based on the principle of consistency, you’ll get more benefit from your exercise if you spread it over most days of the week than if you are a weekend warrior.
American College of Sports Medicine
The ACSM’s recommendations for aerobic health and fitness are built on the principles of consistency, frequency and total volume. The ACSM recommends for aerobic activity:
- At least 30 minutes most days.
- 2:30 to 5:00 hours a week of moderate-intensity. Moderate-intensity activity produces noticeable increases in breathing rate and heart rate.
- 1:15 hours to 2:30 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Vigorous-intensity activity produces large increases in breathing rate and heart rate.
- An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
- Vigorous activity is only time you’re exercising hard, not the total workout.
- Additional health benefits result from more moderate-intensity aerobic activity than 5:00 hours a week.
The recommendations in detail are explained in this column: Anti-Aging New Exercise Recommendations
Average it out
Consistency is important but this doesn’t mean you have to get at least 2:30 hours of aerobic exercise every week. These three examples each average 2:30 hours over four weeks:
|3 Increasing weeks and a recovery week.||Alternating Weeks||3 Increasing weeks and a week off|
|Week #1||2:15 total hours||2:45 total hours||2:45 total hours|
|Week #2||2:45 hours||2:15 hours||3:15 hours|
|Week #3||3:15 hours||3:30 hours||4:00 hours|
|Week #4||1:45 hours||1:30 hours||No riding|
The first pattern is used frequently: progressively increase the overload for three weeks and then a recovery week. The second pattern is more effective with older riders, alternating volume the first three weeks and then an easy week. The third pattern allows a full week off for a holiday or family event. You can read more in this column: Anti-Aging: The Optimal Riding Weeks.
Mix moderate and vigorous exercise
The ACSM gives you both alternatives. Several studies suggest high intensity training (HIT) increases longevity. You can read more in this column: Anti-Aging: Interval Training Increases Longevity. Use caution, however:
- Because intensity exercise is so hard you need more recovery.
- No more than three days a week of intensity for sufficient recovery.
- Because you are increasing the intensity, decrease the volume in roughly a 1:2 ratio. For every 15 minutes of intensity in your week, decrease your total aerobic exercise by about 30 minutes.
- Listen to your body. If you don’t feel fully recovered on a day you plan a hard workout, then postpone it. If you try to force yourself to do it a) you won’t be able to go hard enough to get the full benefit, and b) you risk getting sick or injured.
- Don’t do intensity days back-to-back with other intensity days or with endurance days.
Intensity is like prescription medicine. Take the right medicine in the right doses at the right times and you’ll get better. Do the wrong kinds of intensity in the wrong amounts at the wrong times during the week you won’t improve. You can read more in these columns:
- Anti-Aging – Benefits of Training with Intensity
- 6 Kinds of Intensity Training: Which One Is Best for You?
Aerobic exercise snacks
You don’t need to do 30 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise most days. Multiple studies have tested whether several bouts of sprint intensity training (SIT) spread through the day are effective at increasing cardio respiratory fitness (CRF). For example, this study Sprint exercise snacks: a novel approach to increase aerobic fitness concluded, “CRF was similarly increased by a protocol involving sprint snacks spread throughout the day and a traditional SIT protocol in which bouts were separated by short recovery periods within a single training session.”
SIT workouts are harder but much shorter than the ACSM’s vigorous workouts so you should combine these with primarily moderate intensity workouts.
Don’t just ride
Health and fitness have many dimensions, not just aerobic fitness. I’ve written columns on each of the other important aspects of fitness:
- Muscle strength: Anti-Aging: 4 Essential Year-Round Home Resistance Exercises
- Balance: Anti-Aging: Why Practicing Balance Is Important
- Flexibility: Anti-Aging: Flexibility in 30 Minutes a Week
- Bone strength: Anti-Aging: 9 Weight-Bearing Activities for Strong Bones
You can read more in these column:
- Importance of Recovery in your 50s, 60s and Beyond: 9 Tips on Cycling Recovery
- Year-Round Riding for Greater Fitness and Health
- Anti-Aging Ask the Coach: How to Train for Endurance
- Anti-Aging: 8 Exercise Mistakes Older Riders Make
- More on 8 Exercise Mistakes Older Riders Make
Off-Season Conditioning Past 50
As we age consistency becomes more and more important. This eBook applies to roadies in your 50s, 60s, 70s (like me) and beyond. Whether your goal is long-lasting physical health, the joy of physical activity or continuing athletic performance, this eBook will teach you what to do in the off-season. It’s divided into three parts:
- Review of the physiological effects of aging.
- Training modalities to combat these.
- A 12-week off-season training program with a range of options.
The 26-page Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 is just $4.99.
My Cycling Past 50 Bundle includes:
- Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 – how to best work on your off-season conditioning given the physiological changes of aging.
- Healthy Cycling Past 50 – what happens as you age and how to incorporate cycling and other exercise activities into your daily life to stay healthy and active for many years.
- Healthy Nutrition Past 50 – what to eat and drink to support both a healthy lifestyle and continuing performance.
- Performance Cycling Past 50 – how to train to achieve more specific cycling goals given the physiological changes of aging.
The Cycling Past 50 Bundle totaling 93 pages is just $15.96.
My two-article Cycling Past 60 bundle includes:
- For Health gives you six different health maintenance objectives for different components of your physiology, including comprehensive fitness programs that address these objectives. It shows you how to measure your “Athletic Maturity” to assess your relative fitness in terms of all aspects of good health. This eBook includes three balanced, full-body exercise programs for different cyclists of different athletic maturities. 24 pages
- For Recreation uses the concept of “Athletic Maturity” to design programs for riders of different athletic maturity. It includes six different structured workout programs, three each for Endurance and Performance cyclists, based on levels of athletic maturity. 23 pages
The 47-page Cycling Past 60 bundle is just $8.98.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
David R Kelley says
While I can’t ride intensely without breakfast, I can and often do longer base training / endurance rides fasted, simply delaying breakfast until after the ride. Is there an added benefit to this practice with respect to carb storage and fat burning capacity? I also assume that fat is the (primary? exclusive?) source of energy on such rides, whether fasted or not. True?