How To

Should you do high intensity training rather than base training in winter?

How to get the most from winter training with limited time on the bike

Winter as a cyclist means lots of long, steady miles, right? Well, maybe that’s not the case. Over the years there’s been plenty of debate about the best way to use the winter months to prepare for the coming year – and with the advance of sports science and development of specific tools to measure and analyse performance this debate has been more prominent than ever.

The traditional winter base training phase is defined by a large volume (the number of hours) at a low to moderate intensity (the effort level), putting just enough stress on the body to allow the relevant adaptations to take place.

– Eight steps to create your perfect winter training plan –

The main focus during this early part of the season is to develop a solid aerobic and endurance base (hence the term ‘base’ training) on which more intensive, high-end training can be built as you approach your sportive or race objectives later in the spring/summer. The idea is that the bigger base you build, the higher peak in form you can achieve.

Base training is normally the focus through winter, but are you making the best use of the time you have available?


The problem most people have with the traditional base training model is that, in order to create enough training stress to bring around those long-term aerobic adaptations in your body, you need to be clocking a serious amount of miles and hours in the saddle.

For those riders who have families, work commitments and generally other priorities in life other than riding a bike, you will find it difficult to do the 15+ hours a week needed to commit to this sort of training model. It may make sense for a professional cyclist, who is paid to do this kind of thing and can spend countless hours in the winter preparing for a long racing season, but it’s not realistic for many amateur riders.

If you can’t commit to the traditional training base model, does that mean you can never expect to see an improvement in your form and fitness? Quite simply, that’s note true. At Dig Deep Coaching we coach our riders using a variety of training models – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution – and it’s about finding the right route to success to suit you.

The majority of people can still improve and make significant gains by adopting a different take on training prioritisation, instead incorporating high intensity training throughout the winter in a controlled and specific way, which will in turn bring improved performances in training and racing.

Power stations

The aim of both the traditional high volume/low intensity training model and high intensity training is to boost your mitochondrial density, which, in basic terms, refers to the power stations in your body as it’s the mitochondria where the energy needed to produce power on the bike is created.

What we all want to do when we train is increase the size and density of the mitochondria, in order to convert more fuel into usable energy. If you’re successful in doing this then you’ll see improvements at all levels of performance, not just at an aerobic or endurance level.

A 2008 study by exercise physiologist Karl Burgomaster showed that a HIIT (high intensity interval training) programme gave similar benefits in the quantity of oxidative enzymes (the substance in the mitochondria that processes oxygen) compared with traditional base training. What that means for you and me is that if you have limited time to commit to training (and we’re talking eight hours a week or less), you can still hope for bigger things in the new year.

Of course, the low intensity/high volume model will still boost your fitness, it’s just those riders who use high intensity training are just taking a different route to the end result and there are pros and cons to each model.

The aim of winter training is to boost your mitochondrial density – and there’s more than one way to do that

The trouble with base training is that the time required to put enough stress on our physiological system to bring about significant gains is not practical for the majority of people who have other commitment outside of cycling. High intensity training, on the flip side, also serves to stimulate more physiological systems within your body than endurance training.

– Six things you need to know about… High Intensity Interval Training –

What that means is that by using HIIT you will maintain a high level of aerobic fitness (just as you could if you commit to a high volume programme) but also keep your VO2/anaerobic adaptations alive at the top-end of your fitness. If, when doing base training, you weren’t to stress the full range of physiological parameters for months on end, then as you get closer to your target event, you may find that it takes 2-3 weeks just to adapt to the new intensity before you even start to ‘build’ your fitness at a higher intensity. Doing intermittent bouts of high intensity training throughout the winter will not just maintain a base fitness but also make sure you are already adapted and ready to make big gains as you approach your major goals in 2016 and up your training once again to work on top-end form.

Time pressed? We know the feeling. But you can still make big strides forward in your training with just a few hours on the bike a week


Some riders may worry about doing ‘too much’ or being ‘burnt out’ by high intensity training during the winter months. My response is that a four-hour ride in cold and damp conditions at a moderate intensity will potentially put a bigger stress on both your skeletal system and immune system than 90 minutes of controlled intervals.

Ultimately, you need to look at how you can make best use of your time and consider what training model fits within this. If you only have seven or eight hours a week on the bike, but you spend most of this at a low to moderate intensity, then you may find that your progression is actually being hindered.

– Six things you need to know about… recovery –

On the flip side, if you have the ability to do a large volume of training – for example, a week away in the sun on a warm weather training camp, or you simply have no other commitments than to ride your bike – then spending all of your time riding flat out or doing intervals naturally won’t be the best option. You will quickly become tired, burnt out and the quality of your training will suffer.

The trick, then, is to choose your training model to suit the amount of time your have available and current level of fitness, and to build a training programme which efficiently works on various areas of your form.

What is key to all of the above – and in both training models – is that it is controlled and forward-planned in order to make the most of your training time. If you want to use a high intensity training model then I would recommend the following guidelines:

  • Aim to do three high intensity training sessions per week, ideally with a rest day between each session.
  • High intensity training sessions are defined as intervals efforts at or above threshold intensity.
  • Each session should last between 45 and 90 minutes.
  • Each high intensity phase should be rotated in blocks of training in order to manage the workload. Begin with two weeks of high intensity training to one week of low/moderate intensity. This can be progressed to three weeks of high intensity with one or two weeks of low to moderate intensity.
  • I still recommend at least one aerobic low/moderate intensity ride during high intensity weeks. Most people will have four or five training days a week, so stick to three high intensity sessions to avoid over-reaching and use your other training days for low to moderate intensity rides in order to recover, enable your muscles to help adapt to the previous hard work, maintain a healthy immune system and refocus the mind (HIIT sessions are tough, so it’s important to have a break). This way you are also introducing some of the benefits of base training.
You can use the turbo trainer or rollers for tough but structured high intensity training sessions

One important point it that the aim of high intensity efforts during the winter ‘build’ phase is not be to hit your peak fitness or power, but to bring around the adaptations that will provide the foundation for you to make further developments in the spring, when your summer goals are approaching.

HIIT should be structured and the specifics of each session should be aimed at developing an area of performance you need to work on. You can find out how to identify your weaknesses and build a winter training programme in this article.

At this time of year, with short days combined with poor weather and your typical work/family commitments, a lot of riders find it easier to use the turbo trainer or rollers for short, hard sessions, and here’s a personal ‘favourite’ of mine that I use throughout the year. Again, I’d emphasise that, at this time of year, high intensity training isn’t geared towards efforts to improve your peak power but to work on your aerobic fitness and to maintain the pathways to which you will be able to boost your top-end fitness as you approach your major goals.

Suggested high intensity training session

  • Ten minutes warm-up easy spinning
  • Ten minutes at sub-threshold (80-90 per cent of functional threshold power)
  • Five minutes easy spinning
  • Ten minutes at sub-threshold (80-90 per cent of FTP) but include a ten-second ‘burst’ (non-maximal effort) at the end of each minute
  • Five minutes easy spinning
  • 2-3×5 minutes of 30 seconds ‘on’, 30 seconds ‘off’ (the ‘on’ effort is around 90 per cent of maximal intensity for that duration)
  • Seven minutes recovery between each five minute set
  • Five to ten minutes cool down

Don’t let your fellow winter warriors get the better of you just because you don’t have hours and hours to spend on a bike. Be specific and targeted in what you do and this will keep you on an even footing with those big-mile munchers.

If you wish to take the guess work out of your training, drop us a message at Dig Deep Coaching and we would be delighted to help you with your new year aims.

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