Base Training

author : IndoIronYanti
comments : 7

This article describes what triathlon base training is, how to do it, and what type of benefits you'll get from building a solid base in your endurance training.

You've probably heard a lot about "base." What exactly is it, why is it so important, and how does it benefit you? These are the basics and what I’ve found to be areas of consensus in my research, which does mean there are going to be some gross generalizations.
As always … take advice with a grain of salt, dig around for yourself, ask questions about how this fits into your current level of fitness/training plan/life goals/will you get to heaven (or at least tri heaven).

Building a Foundation

As the name suggests, this period of training is the foundation of the endurance athlete’s training cycle, and it mainly consists of long, steady work of increasing distance. This type of training should make up the majority of your cycle, especially as a beginning triathlete. You know how the experienced athletes keep saying, “Just swim bike run, swim bike run …” and that nothing substitutes for time in the disciplines? It's absolutely true, for many reasons.

Simply, practice makes perfect. You’re training your nervous and muscular systems to respond in the way you want. You’re building endurance in the exact ways you need it in order to successfully complete and later if you wish, to race triathlon. The question is, how exactly does one swim bike run, how much, and when? The simple answer (as it pertains to base) is that if the most important thing is T.I.T.S. (Time In The … Saddle/Swim/Street), then the way you can safely get the most time in is by doing most of your training at a sustainable level. Simply put: do most of your workouts at a pace where you could speak in whole sentences.

There are many points of contention regarding base training. If you look at quality research and information yourself, you will find the point of convergence seems to be that the more of a beginner endurance athlete you are, a) the more of that base should be in lower-intensity work, and b) the longer of a base period you need. Let me repeat the most important part: the way you can safely do the most time training is at a lower intensity.

Physical Changes and Benefits

The major effect is that your body learns to use oxygen most efficiently to power your muscles, and the tried-and-true method to doing this is spending a lot of time in lower-intensity base building. (Cardiovascular fitness is related: your heart—a muscle—has to do a lot less work to deliver oxygen, and then your body muscle cells are also trained to use that oxygen most efficiently.) You’ll notice that some of these benefits are similar to those of active-recovery workouts (which are done at the lowest end of effort).

Building a solid base is the foundation to increasing your athletic performance. If you want to go faster, first, go slower in order to be able to get the necessary volume in. During base, you gradually become faster while you are still putting forth the same amount of effort. Then if you eventually really put a lot of effort in (say, in a race), you will go much faster.

Base building:
  1. Improves fat metabolism. In lower-intensity training, your body preferentially uses more fat than sugar as a fuel source, and the more you do, the more you are training your body to prefer fat for fuel. (Important for weight loss—the lower the intensity, the longer you can go, the more fat you will burn. Simplification, but fairly true). The concentration of enzymes that help convert fat into energy also increase.
  2. Develops slow twitch muscle fibers. These get bigger. They are the muscle fibers that will contract repeatedly without fatiguing. (This leads to endurance.)
  3. Increases capillary density. Capillaries are small blood vessels that deliver oxygen to your muscles. The more you have, the longer you can continue to perform. (This leads to endurance.)
  4. Reduces risk of injury and burnout. You’re putting a manageable amount of stress on your joints, muscles, and connective tissue so they build up. Obviously, this is good in any case. Also, if/when you eventually introduce higher-intensity training, you will be putting a lot of stress on your body, and you’ll need to have your frame built strong.
  5. Strengthens immune system. As above, this is good in any case, and higher-intensity training also stresses the immune system, so it’s good to have it already strong.
  6. More energy.
    1. Energy in the sports sense. The number of mitochondria increase: these structures in the cell produce energy. So you have more energy. This is important for races!
    2. Energy in the layperson sense. You rev your metabolism without taxing your body too much. At most (to borrow a phrase from a fantastic fellow BTer), the workouts leave you “pleasantly tired.” If you’re getting a lot of training in, it’s important to avoid burnout, and doing the workouts at a base-level intensity does just that. These workouts give you a sense of well-being instead of “I’m blown out;” they relieve stress and improve your quality of sleep.
    3. You recover more easily from these workouts, so you can do more training (or attend to life—pretty important, huh?)
  7. Mental improvements. You can be more relaxed and at ease, practice “meditative” workouts, and the steady rhythm of the workout (as opposed to having to “dig deep” or do intense intervals) lends itself well to mental focus that you’ll need for races. Remember, even “sprint” tris are one to three hours long.
Duration of Base Period

The longer, the better.

Like, years.

Reality check: while the journey is the true reward, we want to do races, too. They motivate us by having something to work toward, something to enjoy, and then something to improve on. You can incorporate a bit of higher-intensity or harder work from the outset; but when in doubt, do less, and if it’s interfering with working out the next time, definitely dial back.

The proportion of high-intensity work you do can increase as you build base and get fitter. To help explain why a long base period is so important and makes up so much of the training cycle, this is what Joe Friel has to say about it: “Endurance implies an aerobic level of exertion … For the novice multisport athlete, endurance is the key to improvement. Emphasize this ability above all others in the first year or two of training … A high level of endurance takes years to mature … Plan on taking months and even years to fully develop endurance, rather than days or weeks.” --The Triathlete’s Training Bible.

Many athletes struggle with doing base and staying in it for long periods of time—“I don’t really feel like I’m getting a workout!” What you’re not getting is that intense rush. What you are getting is the most important kind of workout. I would also say building base is as fun as you want to make it. For example: run/walk is a type of interval that breaks up a workout, makes it easier, makes it more interesting, and might let you work out for longer. Also, as you progress through base, you become more fit, so you can incorporate more strength or power training, such as hills.

The moral of this story is: Be patient!

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date: February 10, 2011


I am interested in almost everything, except Danielle Steel novels and golf.


I am interested in almost everything, except Danielle Steel novels and golf.

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