It’s January again, and for my triathletes that means it’s base building time. (Cue the moans and groans of dread here.) I know, I know …. it’s SO boring to build your aerobic base, but think of it like shoveling snow; you only have to do it for a couple of months and the benefit lasts all year! Wait, that’s not….oh, nevermind. JUST DO IT, right? The idea behind aerobic base building is to essentially train the heart to not work so hard while the body learns to work harder. If you know your VO2 max or even just your anaerobic threshold, you can train your base. The whole point of endurance training is to prevent yourself from crossing the ‘glycogen for fuel’ point; our bodies are at their peak efficiency when burning fat and we lose efficiency and ‘hit the wall’/begin to die when we cross that line. It’s always a ratio (IRQ) and the harder we work, the less fat/more glycogen we burn for fuel. (Some trainers will mistakenly refer to it as ‘burning muscle’ at this stage.) I for one, know that my anaerobic threshold (while lowering every year as I age) is north of 170 bpm (beats per minute.) I know that when I run, for instance, if I let my heart rate go past that point for more than a few seconds, my steps are numbered. That’s “the wall.” My peak aerobic range is about 145-155; that’s the “sweat” range and my “I can do this all day” flux point. Under 140 and I’m just playing around, over 170 and I’m headed for failure. I LOVE to hover around 162, but it’s effort and it’s messy; 75 minutes in that zone and I’m in need of a nap after the shower. I give you these numbers so that perhaps with field testing, you can derive your own zones and learn how to work at your best. Now, using my own numbers for arguments’ sake, the idea behind improving my peak aerobic zone is to burn more fat at a lower (aka easier) heart rate in order to work longer at a lower rate or go faster at a higher rate. Again, using general numbers…..when I train at my ‘heavy exertion’ of 162, my heart/body have difficulty making any changes; it’s a static state of hard work. It takes a LONG time to bring that number down, so instead I start with my current base. PURPOSELY not speaking scientifically here: If I make a point to focus the majority of my time in the current ‘comfort zone’ my heart will think, “Okay, this is the new normal. If this is all she’s going to do, we can slow the rate down a bit.” The longer I spend at that ‘new normal’ the lower the base rate will drop. It will take the AVERAGE (again, staying away from the nerdy science you know I love so much) person eight weeks (yes, two months, I know, I know) at 8-10 hours/week to ‘move’ their base down OR increase their speed in their current base. The difference here is whether you want to work more this year on your speed or your distance; since endurance is my strong suit, we will create the plan around increasing speed: (Sessions include 5-10 minute warmup and 5 minute cool down)
- 3-5x/week x 90 minute sessions: Maintain average BELOW 155 (aka 145-155)
- 1x/week x 60 minute session: Work 155-160 bpm
- ZERO anaerobic activity; that means no crossing the threshold of 170 and NO lifting. (Here it comes, the onslaught. Let me know when you’re finished complaining.) If you train on an elliptical with arms/MaxTrainer, etc. you will maintain tone…..running will help keep the tone in your back and abs as well.
After APPROXIMATELY two weeks, you will notice that if you maintain your ‘rate of perceived exertion’ your bpm average will drop. Your typical pace/resistance that you hung at say, 152, now only has you working at say 147. That’s your maintenance days. Your heavier days (155-160 bpm) will be at a heavier resistance and/or speed each week as you progress. Easy example to follow: Right now, your peak aerobic zone is 144-150 and you run at 5.5 mph to maintain that. Two weeks of five days’ maintenance each (aka no hills, no sprints, just long, steady state) and you will find that your average heart rate will be dropping. As well, if you were running 6.0 mph to be in the 155-160 range, you’re going to have to run faster to get that heart rate up OR raise the ramp. (Yes, these examples ARE on a dreadmill – mother nature determines the hills outdoors, so for base training, it’s indoor work!) After 4-6 weeks, you will notice the increase in your exertion to stay at your ‘maintenance rate.’ You will find yourself wishing for those boring but easy workouts of the first weeks. Initially you may have to watch TV or read just to keep yourself calm and not jumping into an all-out/blowout to break the boredom cycle. If you’re on a bike, think of the Tour riders….you know how many hours those guys put in during base building?? OMG. Warning: Your toes will go numb, your fingers will get cold, you will start needing more hydration, your hair will get drier – you may even lose more toenails (what’s a good training phase w/out a few lost toenails, anyway, right?) So, by now you’re asking yourself if it’s worth it. The answer, IF you want to be faster or go longer/be better, attain more goals, etc., etc., is YES. I have NEVER (and you know I never say never) have had an athlete work on base building that did not (after it was all over, of course) improve dramatically and thus say it was worth it. The first two weeks they’re questioning my knowledge, the second two weeks they’re questioning my sanity, the third two weeks they hate my guts, the fourth two weeks they’re too busy to care about me or my coaching, and of course afterwards, I’m “DA BOMB!” Or something like that.
This year, do something different. Don’t settle for what you’ve always had…..get something you’ve always wanted!