Monday, November 30, 2009

The Aerobic Base Ride

A few weeks ago I suggested to Markus Zimmer, the owner of the Bicycle Ranch bike shop in Scottsdale, Ariz. where I shop that the store’s Saturday ride should include a “base” group in addition to it’s A-, B- and C-ability grouped rides. I usually ride with the Bs and occasionally with the As. This is only in the spring and fall. During the summer I am in Boulder, Colo. I’m also in Scottsdale during the winter but almost never ride with the group then because the A and B rides are basically mini-races. That’s great when I’m preparing to race. In the winter, however, my training purpose is not race fitness; it’s base fitness. You don’t establish base fitness by going deeply anaerobic repeatedly for a couple of hours.

Markus liked the idea and so last Saturday he offered a base group in addition to the three normal groups. There were probably 60 riders who showed up. Nearly all of them rode with the base group led by local coach Ron Arroyo. (I was injured and couldn’t ride. Fell on my knee a couple of weeks ago. That’s a whole other story I may get to at another time.)

My notion of a base ride is a long, steady workout with heart rate mostly in zone 2. This is roughly a well-conditioned athlete’s aerobic threshold. Riding two or more hours at this effort challenges the body to make some improvements. One is to become better at using fat for fuel while sparing muscle glycogen stores. The longer your races are, the more important this shift is. The other critical shift has to do with increasing the capillary bed in the working muscles. The more capillaries you have the easier it is to get fuel and oxygen to the muscle. There are other benefits also, but for now we’ll focus on these.

The problem with this base workout is that it seems too easy at first so the athlete is tempted to abandon the 2 zone and start riding variably paced with hard and easy efforts – fartlek intervals, essentially. And by so doing reduces the aerobic benefits of the day’s workout.

The aerobic threshold ride is sort of like Chinese water torture. What at first seems easily manageable eventually becomes challenging. One has to have the patience to hang in there to see what I mean. (This is one of the numerous reasons why I so often say that patience is necessary to be a good endurance athlete.) Ride for two, three, four hours at this effort and you soon learn what the aerobic system is all about.

Doing such a workout with a group presents problems, however. The greatest is that not everyone’s heart rate 2 zone produces the same power or speed. The highly fit, usually young riders are talking easily while riding in zone 2 – as they should be. The slower, usually older riders who try to keep up are often well out of zone 2 but determined to hang on. While this workout is best done alone, if in a group the best option is for the group to split up into smaller groups of like ability.

The best way to do this ride is to have a power meter onboard in addition to your heart rate monitor. While in the base period I like to have athletes use their heart rate monitors to set the effort, what happens to power is the real story. The best way to explain this is to use graphics.

Here you see two examples (click graphic to expand) of riders doing a steady, multi-hour, zone-2 ride. In both cases they are doing an excellent job of maintaining a steady heart rate as evidenced by the red line staying almost flat on both charts. But notice what happens to power (black line). In example 1 power closely parallels heart rate. That’s good. It says that the rider is staying “strong” throughout the ride. There is no fading of power (or slowing down, if you will, even though that’s not a very precise way to measure output on a bike). I call this separation of heart rate and power ‘decoupling.’ In fact, WKO+ software shows us that in example 1 there was only 1% of decoupling. In other words, power declined only 1% over the course of two hours of riding.

For the rider in example 2, however, the decoupling is 11%. He is fading significantly as the ride progresses. From these two examples I can tell you unequivocally that rider #1 is in much better aerobic condition than rider #2. If all they had were heart rate monitors we wouldn’t know this. Heart rate is only effective when we can compare it with something else. By itself it tells us nothing about aerobic fitness.

So does this mean that if you don’t have a power meter you shouldn’t do this workout? No, not at all. It’s still beneficial to your aerobic system. You just can’t measure your progress or know for certain when you’ve achieved good aerobic fitness. About all you can do in this case is to pay close attention to how you feel. If in good aerobic condition you should be able to finish the ride strongly, albeit tired. If you’re totally whipped after two hours and are struggling just to limp home although heart rate remains in the 2 zone, your aerobic fitness probably needs a lot of work.

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At November 30, 2009 8:49 PM , Blogger RL said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I try so hard to encourage this on the Saturday rides at this time of year, but always there is that guy/girl that just can't seem to get it! I'm going to hand this out at the next ride--perhaps it will help.
Love your books/work by the way,

At November 30, 2009 10:11 PM , Blogger kebeebe said...

Hi Joe - In follow-up, a (hopefully) quick question regarding a situation many of us face in the winter: doing these long(er) aerobic rides on the trainer. I track HR but not power, and know from common sense and years of training logs that my HR is artifically high when riding indoors because of heat and less breeze, etc. I am concerned that I am capping myself at the top of zone 2 HR-wise, but somewhere low-zone 1 to mid-zone 2 training stress-wise (deep on the muscular, cellular level). Is this truly the case and what would you suggest doing to make sure I am not training TOO easily and missing these aerobic gains? Or am I concerned over nothing? Thanks! -Kelzie

At November 30, 2009 10:25 PM , Blogger JJ Shulman said...

the rider in example 2 is averaging over 160 bpm compared to rider 1 at 130 something. power aside, i am sure many people would decouple if riding 2 hours at 160. in other words, rider one seems to be in zone 2 (as recommended) while rider two is 5b or c so how is the comparison valid?

thank you

At December 1, 2009 1:45 AM , Blogger emo said...

Hi Joe,

If this workout is done on the turbo trainer or on a flat course can I use the avg speed for each hour as measurement of power?



At December 1, 2009 4:26 AM , Blogger Paul Fleuren said...

Great Post Joe,

I'm one of those athletes that doesn't have a powermeter (I used to but it broke and I couldn't afford to replace it).

In some ways the brain can make sure very accurate measures of fitness improvements, once it has been well educated and trained.

Quite often we only have a set numbers long ride courses and even though we may experience similar HR reading throughout the ride to can use our brain accurately to assess how we are improving at handling those ride (i.e reducing the decoupling effect).

We need to be careful not to overly rely on powermeters as there are many factors that come into play that they don't measure, e.g mental state of mind, fatigue, last nights sleep, wind, lack of fluids, that niggling knee, etc etc.

I think athlete lose sight of this, for example, if an athlete rides their weekly route but ends up with a average power it doesn't necessarily mean they were working less. There are just too many factors that impact on how we can apply power that powermeter don't measure. HR monitors ar the same. I use both and wish dearly I could have my powermeter back.

Coming from a teacher background we sometimes need to be careful with the selection of tools we give to our students. Speller checkers on computers do a very bad job at teaching students how to spell, just like powermeters and HR can also detrain our internal computers i.e RPE.


At December 1, 2009 4:38 AM , Blogger Shannon said...

Great post Joe.

I try this in my spin classes all the time~staying in "Zone 2 will beneficial to your aerobic system." Most people want an all out effort each and every time they get on the bike and don't see the benefits of an endurance ride.

I'll be transferring this same philosophy on my road bike for my own personal training. :)

BTW, your blog has provided me with a lot of worthy advice for this "back of the pack" athlete.

At December 1, 2009 6:25 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wrote an extensive comment that agreed entirely with you and shared appreciation for the piece. I did the ride Saturday. Anway, it was erased by some blogger thingy. Be well.

At December 1, 2009 6:49 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

JJ--They have different threshold HRs. #2's is considerably higher. I've coached people who have max HRs in the 200s and others with max of 160 or less. We're not all the same when it comes to HR regardless of what you may have read about 220 minus age. Ain't so.

At December 1, 2009 6:51 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

emo-Yes you can so long as you can some how calibrate the trainer to give about the same resistance every time.

At December 1, 2009 6:52 AM , Blogger AH said...

Base rides cease being "base" once you have more than 4 riders, EVEN when all riders are evenly matched fitness-wise.

The problem is drafting in a larger group. Each rider is on the front for a small fraction of total ride time with the majority of the ride spent drafting. If zone 2 is maintained on the front then the riders in the draft will be in zone 1. My post-ride analyses showed most of the ride times in zone 1, with Norm Power in the high-ish end of zone 1 -- definintely not zone 2.

Of course the riders on the front could do 5min zone 3 pulls, but it takes A LOT of discipline to keep that pace from turning into a race.

In my experience 4 or fewer riders are ideal for base rides - there is less of a draft and a larger percent of ride time is spent on the front.

At December 1, 2009 8:20 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

kebeebe--Thanks for your note. Good question. I'd suggest riding in the low 2 zone in this case. Good luck!

At December 1, 2009 8:39 AM , Anonymous cathy said...

I'm trying to increase the amount of time I can maintain high Z2....hopefully later in the season, low Z3. I don't have a power meter, but this time of year I'm doing most base work on rollers and speed seems to be a good representation of power. There's no significant decoupling of HR and speed. My speed and HR fade together. My question is, for long rides, 4+ hours, is it better to maintain upper Z2 as long as possible, or aim for a lower HR that can be maintained the entire time?

At December 1, 2009 8:44 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

cathy--Thanks for your comment. I have athletes start out riding/running in zone 2 with no specification for which part of the zone. Just stay in the zone. Over the course of the base as aerobic endurance improves I shift toward having them stay in the upper 2 zone HR.

At December 1, 2009 9:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

Very interesting post! I think you can't stress enough the importance of doing those base rides. There are some many people out there hammering on every ride when they should be working on their base instead.

You suggest to go by HR rather than power for aerobic base rides and then measure decoupling by comparing HR and power after the ride.

Wouldn't it be better to control intensity by power (e.g. maintain power in zn. 2 on the flats, zn. 3 on climbs) and looking if there is an upward drift in heartrate? The result should be the same, shouldn't it? Plus you would get all the benefits of training with a powermeter.

I noticed that in periods with high training load (e.g. training camps) my heartrate usually doesn't go up as well as when I'm fresh. Training by heartrate would then make me push harder than I should.

What do you think?


At December 1, 2009 11:48 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Matthias--Thanks for your comment. That's a good question. I use HR in base because power changes rather quickly during the first few weeks of serious training. Zone 2 could be different week to week. It would be a guessing game if we had it right or not. HR is much more stable year round. But I should also point out that in the Build period I use power much more than HR.

At December 3, 2009 1:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


When I started base training in October, I started at the Z2 power I ended with during the season. The first week to ten days was fur sure a shock to the system, but I was able to do 3-hour rides right off the bat. The HR, as expected, was quite high.

My question is why you prefer HR to power when in my experience using power works fine. And I am still able to analyze the decoupling because my HR will drift up rather than power drifting down.

At December 3, 2009 2:11 PM , Blogger vlp said...

How do we know athlete #2 was riding at aerobic threshold? Just as we shouldn't trust the 220 - age formula for max HR (or any of the other marginally better formulas), why should we trust a formula for estimating aerobic threshold based on functional threshold (or anaerobic threshold or something other than aerobic threshold)?

Would it be better to simply define a field testable "functional aerobic threshold" as the highest power we can sustain without decoupling (or decoupling within 5%). Then make it goal to increase the duration and/or power of AeT?

At December 3, 2009 3:06 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

anon--Yes, someone askked this question. You can do it either way (HR or power). I prefer HR in base because power (FTP) is likely to be changing quickly. Decoupling is a measure of the separation of HR and power. Either one can drift away from the other. WKO software measures this relative drift no matter which you control for.

At December 3, 2009 3:08 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

vlp--You can do it however you want, I guess. I like to use defined zones that normalize the concept of AeT.

At December 4, 2009 10:41 AM , Anonymous Ron Arroyo said...

Thanks Joe we will try it again tomorrow.

At December 6, 2009 1:58 PM , Blogger Roy said...

Hi Joe. I have two questions that I hope you can answer.

The first thing I have to say before the questions is that I find your blog the best, the most informative blog/site thats on the net. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge to us all for gratis. For that I have purchased your books and will continue to support you.

Q1. I use a CT for indoor training and I use CP Erg+ to create %ftp mrc files. For my 'endurance rides' 2hrs+ I basically randomize the workout but keeping my watts within my aerobic watt zone. My question is this, am i doing this correctly this way or would you recommend a different approach on the CT?

Q2. This evening I performed a 2 x 20min 98% FTP sloping workout. My heart rate peaked at 181, but a few weeks back when I performed a FTP test my heart rate peaked at 178. That was the first time I used a monitor as I had only then purchased the Polar attachment for the CT and the ear clip just gave too many erratic readings before. Now I gave that test everything as I usually do with the tests even feeling nausea afterwards. Surely my sport specific MHR should never be breached? Any ideas?

At December 6, 2009 2:31 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Roy--Thanks for your note and kind comments. #1 By 'aerobic watt zone' I assume you mean the z2 I've talked about. If so then I see no problem. #2 You saying that your max HR was 178 or that your peak HR at FTP was 178? Assume the latter. If so, a 3 bpm difference is not a big deal at all given the many possible variables.

At December 6, 2009 4:46 PM , Blogger Roy said...

#1 Yes Joe I meant Z2 Coggan Zone. #2 peak HR @ FTP was 178. Joe I thought my HR @ FTP would also be my Max-HR for cycling as for the 20 minute test I gave it everything, fangs bared. I did get a LT and V02 test done in a lab but it was done on a treadmill not on my bike. I assume this is truly the only way to measure my Max-HR for cycling?
Again Joe I can't thank you enough for all your assistance.

At December 6, 2009 6:44 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Roy--FTP is roughly equivalent to lactate threshold. HR-wise it happens roughly 20bpm below max HR. If you did a 20-minute test then you found a HR which is more than likely between max and lactate threshold. I don't use a 20-minute test so can't tell you with any degree of certainty what the numbers mean relative to FTP, LTHR, etc. Max HR would be more than likely found with a series of 90 sec to 2 minute all out efforts. BTW, I don't recommend trying to find max HR. LTHR much more valuable info to know since this is where you redline. Athletes with the same max HR can have quite different LTHRs.

At December 17, 2009 8:35 AM , Anonymous Gav8 said...

Hi Joe, I'm an keen cyclist and have recently purchased your cyclists training bible but I have a question about duration. We are currently in the 'base' period for training but my personal life restricts my workouts to 1 hour during the week with a longer ride at weekends. Is it worth doing a 1 hour ride in zone 2 or should I do other workouts during the week and my long zone 2 rides at the weekend?

At December 17, 2009 9:26 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

gav8--Yes, an hour of z2 time is good. Try to get all you can now.

At January 2, 2010 2:32 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

ed--Sure. Doing 2 x 1 hr-a-day rides is beneficial when compared with daily 1 hr rides. I'm not a big fan of riding when low on glycogen. Reduces quality too much. But having said that, I think athletes tend to use too much sugar in workouts. If you're doing a 2-hour ride, for example, all you need is water assuming you have had a meal that day prior.

At January 3, 2010 12:40 AM , Anonymous Hans said...

Hi Joe,

thnx for your blog and books, these are really useful ressources!

I´m not to sure about the long term benefits of too many long steady rides.

For the beginner it is a good start
and after a break it is not bad aswell, but in my opinion should the experienced athlete always try to stress his system.

After the first few 4h+ rides there is no great beneficial stress anymore. The body is used to the low intensity and not responding further.

So why not include high intensity intervalls (brings even better capillarisation + high fat oxidation [after some time, cause body tends to be more economic = burn more fat even/especially in higher intensity]) ?

I found especially the mixture of short bursts (city-sign-sprints, hill sprints) and easy riding, which can be seen in most group rides, beneficial for my endurance. The body is forced to 'switch' (better: shift proportions between the ..) energy systems rapidly, is not getting 'bored' and tries to be as economic as possible [this hits all aspects of riding: physiologic,psychologic,technique, etc.](if done regularly).

And it is also more race specific (not so much for triathletes, ok :). I have seen so many 'long and easy riders' dying on the first hill or the first attack, because their body was only used to slow and steady.

There are a lot of studys at the moment dealing with high-intensity vs. long steady, it is a very intersting topic and i´m looking forward to read other opinions :)

Best wishes from germany!

At February 17, 2010 3:41 AM , Blogger Andrew said...

Joe - what do you think is a target for HR/pace (or power) decoupling?

I understand from articles of yours that you favour testing aerobic running fitness over a workout of 1 - 2 hours (depending on target event). But I've seen 1 article attributed to you that sets the target at 1% decoupling, and another at 5% - to determine when base building is complete.



At February 17, 2010 6:05 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Andrew--I aim for less than 5% decoupling with the athletes I coach.

At February 28, 2010 11:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does it mean when the number on cycling peaks comes up negative? I thought it my be that HR was coming down as power stayed constant, but on some of my harder rides that doesn't seem to be the case, yet the Pw:HR number comes back negative.

Example from a ride where I did 3 20 min sweet spot efforts:

Entire workout (224 watts):
Duration: 2:06:50 (2:13:26)
Work: 1618 kJ
TSS: 134.8 (intensity factor 0.821)
Norm Power: 250
VI: 1.11
Pw:HR: -7.34%
Pa:HR: 7.34%
Distance: 32.19 mi
Min Max Avg
Power: 0 342 224 watts
Heart Rate: 48 173 144 bpm
Cadence: 50 244 92 rpm
Speed: 0 19 15.7 mph
Pace 3:09 0:00 3:49 min/mi
Hub Torque: 0 119 86 lb-in
Crank Torque: 0 361 207 lb-in

Also, what does the Pa:HR number mean?


At March 1, 2010 7:50 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--Negative Pw:HR means that power and HR graphs weecoming together ("recoupling') over the course of the ride. This is generally good and may haveto do with temperature at time of ride, warm-up or type of workout. Pa:HR is pace compared with HR. Same as Pw:HR except it's for running.


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