There seems to be a lot of confusion among athletes about the base period of training. This is the time of year when you train to train, not train to race. That means in base you are preparing the body for the greater stresses that will follow in the build period. Build starts immediately after base ends about 12 weeks before your first A-priority race of the season. In the build period you will be training with workouts that are very much like the stresses you will experience in racing. There is a big difference between training to train and training to race and yet I see athletes in base doing the very same workouts they will be doing a few weeks before their first big event – anaerobic intervals, hill repeats, tempo and bricks. These are all workouts intended to prepare you for the stresses of racing.
So what should you do differently in base period workouts? The best way to answer this question is to divide the base period into three sub-periods of three to four weeks each – base 1, base 2 and base 3. The training stress in each of these periods gradually increases so that by the end of base 3 you are much more generally fit than when you started base 1 and you are ready to begin training for the specific stresses of racing. Let’s take a look at the typical workouts for each of these three base periods.
But before we get into base training let’s discuss the prep period which proceeds it. Prior to base 1 you were in the prep period and basically just getting back into the routine of working out again. There was little or no structure to your training and you were doing, essentially, whatever you felt like in workouts. The sessions did not have to be limited to swimming, biking and running. You could do anything as long as it was fully aerobic, meaning low intensity.
The prep period is a time when I have the athletes I coach hiking, taking aerobics classes, using aerobic machines at the gym or anything else they enjoy. I also have them lifting weights and doing functional strength training with a focus on their unique physical needs. The weight loads are light and the repetitions high with an emphasis on good form. This prep period may last for two to six weeks.
Count backwards 23 weeks from your first A-priority race of the season to find the starting point for base 1. When it starts the training shifts toward an emphasis on swimming, biking and running. Functional strength and weight training continue only now the loads become heavier as the reps are decreased. Your purpose here is to create excellent strength for the muscles associated with the movements of swimming, biking and running. See The Triathlete’s Training Bible for details on this.
Sport-specific training consists of only two types of workouts for now – aerobic endurance and speed skills. Aerobic endurance workouts are long sessions done mostly in your heart rate 2 zone or its equivalent power and pace. These long, aerobic sessions get longer by about 10 to 20 percent each week until you reach your long workout goal durations based on the event for which you are training.
Speed skill workouts are intended to improve your technique in each sport. This should include drills for aspects of your techniques that are in need of refinement, paying close attention to your movement patterns, video recording and review and feedback from authorities such as coaches and knowledgeable athletes.
Base 2 starts 19 weeks before your A-priority race. There are two changes that occur now. The first is that you cut back on weight training, not only in terms of the number of days assigned to it each week but also the stress you apply with loads, sets and reps. Strength maintenance is now your goal. Functional strength training may continue as before.
The second change is that you introduce sport-specific muscular force training with hill work incorporated into steady, moderate effort bike and run workouts. For swimming paddles and drag devices will help to create more force. The intensity of these workouts stays below your lactate threshold and primarily in heart rate zone 3.
Aerobic endurance and speed skills workouts continue as before. The endurance sessions continue to get longer as the skills sessions continue as in base 1.
The last base period begins about 15 weeks before your A-priority event. Two more adjustments are made to your training now. Weight training is cut back even more to just once a week. In fact, if you are pressed for time it’s now ok to stop strength training altogether.
The second change is that muscular endurance training is introduced. This involves long intervals in the range of 6 to 12 minutes done at about the lactate threshold with very short recoveries that are about 25 percent of the work interval duration. Twenty to 40 minutes of cumulative lactate threshold training within one workout each week is generally quite effective. Build to a higher volume over the course of three weeks.
Aerobic endurance, speed skills and force training continue as in base 2.
It is usually best for athletes who recover slowly, such as older competitors and novices, to do four, three-week periods instead of three, four-week periods. So these athletes will follow a plan including base 1, base 2, base 3 and base 3 again. They will still end up with 12 weeks of base training but will have more frequent rest.
And as for rest, both groups, whether doing three-week or four-week periods, will recover with short and low-intensity workouts for four to six days in the last week of each base period. This will help to prevent overuse injury, illness, burnout and overtraining.
By following a base training program such as this you will arrive at the start of the build period some 11 weeks before the first A-priority race with good general fitness. In the build period the workouts will take on the characteristic stresses you expect to encounter in racing. This will be the time for anaerobic intervals, hill repeats, tempo and bricks.