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The Importance of Aerobic Training During Race Season

BY Taylor Thomas

Aerobic training is not just for getting ready for race season, it’s necessary during race season as well. Coach Taylor Thomas explains why and how to train aerobically while still racing hard.

Endurance athletes have to balance training along with a myriad of other responsibilities. This can often times result in pressure to try and pack each workout with high intensity efforts in hopes of yielding big fitness gains. While there’s no denying that high intensity training will increase your fitness, it must be tempered with aerobic training in order for you to see the best results. Most often references to aerobic training are made when discussing the off season and build phases where long endurance rides are prescribed to develop muscular stamina leading up to race season. However, once race season arrives many times these rides are replaced with race specific training and interval work to develop the top end speed and fitness necessary for the rigors of racing. While these tough workouts certainly help you prepare for race day, they are not the only key to success. It’s important to continue to focus on aerobic training as well. Aerobic training should remain a key aspect of your training throughout the year to ensure the proper development of your aerobic metabolism and increase your muscular endurance and race day readiness.

Why You Should Train Aerobically

Aerobic training is one of the primary methods to get you back on track during your early build phases. It taps into your body’s ability to burn fat as its primary fuel source, and begins to prepare you mentally for the season ahead. However, the merits of aerobic based workouts are still applicable when race season arrives.

Continuing to train your body to use fat for fuel instead of its muscle glycogen stores is just as valuable during a road or mountain bike race as it is during early season training. This shift in your body’s usage of fuel becomes increasingly important as your race or training rides last more than a couple of hours. While hard efforts like sprinting to bridge a gap or climbing a steep hill may use anaerobic energy, the majority of your effort will be aerobic. We tend to focus on, and prepare for, the hardest moments of a race, but we often forget about the moments in between. It’s these moments that are often using aerobic energy.

Spending time in your aerobic zone also increases the capillary beds in your working muscles making it easier to get fuel and oxygen to those muscles. More oxygen and fuel to major muscles adds up to big performance gains when race day arrives. While it may feel that you’re not working hard there are critical adaptations that are occurring in your body that will, in the long run, allow you to become a more well rounded and successful athlete.

How to Train Your Aerobic Engine

There are two facets to training properly within your aerobic zone. The first, and what I believe to be the most difficult, is the mental aspect. It can be hard to overcome the feeling that time spent training aerobically is time that’s wasted, and could be better utilized by spending time in zone 3 and above. During the racing season or leading up to a priority race the natural inclination is to try and be as prepared as possible, thus adding a degree of stress to each workout. Often times this can result in feeling like every workout should be maximal, or intense. Allow yourself to relax and enjoy the “easy” days. Aerobic rides allow your body and mind a chance to recover and can help prevent burnout and overtraining during race season.

Secondly, there are the actual workouts. Unlike the shorter, more intense efforts typically prescribed to mimic race day scenarios, aerobic rides are long endurance based rides that should be performed in what is often zone 2 for most individuals. Focus on producing a consistent effort and try not to let yourself “drift” into other higher zones. Remember that these rides serve a different purpose than other workouts on your schedule, so don’t push too hard. Allow yourself to settle in and train your aerobic engine.

When to Implement Aerobic Training

The benefits of aerobic training can be seen year round as you move in and out of race season training. During your early season training these rides will get you back into the swing of things and train your body to be as efficient as possible. As you begin and move through the different build phases, aerobic training is critical in building a well-rounded schedule. Moving closer to your priority races, spending time in zone 2 continues to train your body and mind for the rigors of racing. The tendency is to try and push your body’s anaerobic capacity, but remember to keep long endurance rides in the mix. Schedule these rides on days following particularly hard or stressful workouts, and on the days following race weekends after you’ve spent substantial time in your anaerobic zones. Depending on both the volume and intensity of the week, a 2 to 3 hour zone 2 ride is a good way to break up the week and allow your body to utilize and develop this important energy source.

Race season is a time where all of your hard work and dedication culminates in a few key events. You’ve spent countless hours training and you want to make sure that every workout counts. When the stress of racing starts to bare down remember that not every workout should be anaerobic. While it’s natural to focus on the need to be able to respond to a sprint or power up a climb, remember that there are other systems at work. Take time to train your aerobic system as well. During race season it’s vital that all your body’s systems are firing on all cylinders. When training, you’re trying to develop the perfect formula for success, so be sure that aerobic training is a part of the formula. Through consistent training in zone 2 you’ll see gains not only in the months before race season, but all season long. 

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About Taylor Thomas

Taylor Thomas is the owner and founder of Thomas Endurance Coaching. He has more than a decade of experience in the bicycle industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. As a USAC and TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified coach, he’s helped athletes at every level prepare for and reach their goals in road, mountain, and cyclocross.

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