El Niño

In the winter of 2014/2015, the Eastern seaboard of the US was the only place on earth to have temperatures below historical averages. After 2 years of below average temperatures and above average snowfall, most of us cyclists in the Northeast are happy that this winter (though it hasn't officially even started yet) is shaping up to be warmer than usual thanks to El Niño.  El Niño years often result in warm winters overall with one or two large snowfalls in late February or early March. Though a warm winter may seem ideal for training, there is already evidence that many cyclists are misusing the gift of unseasonably nice weather, acting as if we were still in the middle of the racing season rather than the beginning of base training.  

Traditional base training involves a lot of low to moderate intensity endurance training and gradually increasing volume. Some riders like to keep it in the small ring and avoid too many hills in order to keep intensity low. I would argue that a power meter is a very valuable tool in base training since it displays intensity in real time and riders can use power meter numbers to keep a steady pace over just about any terrain. However you do it, it's dangerous to neglect the importance of getting in a good base and doing endurance rides appropriately. I have written articles about this in the past, but the basic rules of a "real endurance ride" are:

1. Keep heart rate in Zone 2 100% of the time

2. Keep coasting and soft pedaling to a minimum

3. Keep power as steady as possible, avoiding large spikes

Unless you have a training partner with whom you are well matched and who is following the same plan, doing endurance rides appropriately is usually best done alone. Now, this doesn't mean that you should never ride with a group or never do any intensity. There aren't many coaches these days who will recommend a diet of purely endurance during base training, but nonetheless, endurance is an important component if not the most important component. I have most of my athletes ride at least 2 pure endurance days per week during base training along with strength training twice a week and one or two interval sessions that focus on technique, efficiency and sustained efforts. 

The difficulty with a traditional base training plan is that the months when you are supposed to be getting in your highest volume are the months with the shortest days and [usually] the coldest weather. During the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 winters, many athletes opted for a "reverse base" where they completed a lot of high intensity early on (often on the indoor trainer) with low volume, and then bumped up their volume later on in the spring as the weather allowed. This, when done appropriately, can still work nearly as well as a traditional base period.

Though daylight is still a big constraint for athletes working traditional schedules, a more traditional base training plan would usually be the way to go in an El Niño year. Unfortunately, the way that many cyclists have used the nice weather so far has been to ride high volume/high intensity rides, often with a group in a relatively unstructured setting. Meanwhile, strength training, cross training, technique drills, efficiency, endurance and sustained efforts are often neglected. This sort of training will typically result in riders maintaining their high end fitness longer into the winter (if not improving it) at the expense of a solid base. So your fitness may be high for the winter, but for what? Unless you are racing Cyclocross National Championships in January, you are basically peaking for group rides in January.

The other problem is that if and when the weather does take a turn for the worse, those who already have established a good endurance base will be able to afford a little less volume and more intensity via the indoor trainer, mountain biking or a group ride (where you would be more shielded from the cold winds). All of these alternatives can be good intensity work but they are definitely not endurance. Another possibility in cold weather is to spend a little more time in the gym. Again, those who have been doing their strength training religiously since the fall should have no difficulty ramping it up a little. Those who missed that training put themselves at risk for injury and at the very least will be feeling a lot of soreness in their legs at exactly the time when their intensity on the bike should be increasing.

Now, I know that riding by yourself can be boring. I know that no one becomes a cyclist so they can go to the gym or sit on an indoor trainer. It's not easy to do these things when the weather is nice and all of your friends are still riding as strong as they were in the summertime. But it's a long season and there is still plenty of time to build up your fitness before the racing season even begins. Have the discipline to use the nice weather to build up your base fitness in a way that will help support your increased volume and intensity down the road. Work on the things that get neglected the rest of the year. Work on your weaknesses. Do the work you need to do to prevent overuse injuries and burnout later on.

If I had a time machine I could take you to next July in Louisville, KY. There, at the finish line of the 2016 USAC Road National Championships, there are a few happy people and a lot more people who are disappointed. Have a quick chat with the latter group. They might be confused as to what exactly went wrong, but I can guarantee you that no one will be telling you that their critical mistake was that they did too few group rides in December. On the other hand, plenty of people will be thinking, "Maybe if I would have done more strength training I could have avoided that injury that set my training back a month", "Maybe if I would have had a better endurance base my fitness wouldn't have plateaued in April", and "Maybe if I hadn't done so much intensity so early I wouldn't have been burnt out in May".

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 roadracer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!