XTERRA Couch to Trail - Breaking Down Base Training

Mar. 1, 2018

By 5x XTERRA Age Group World Champ Mimi Stockton

Two weeks ago, we discussed the four different phases of periodization training and how each one has their respective place in the overall plan. Now I'm here to delve into the first phase - base training - and to tell you how important it is to becoming the best XTERRA athlete you can be.

It's all too common to hear the phrase base training being thrown around carelessly with no other meaning to it than "it's whatever random training I happen to be doing when my goal race is still a long time from now." And understandably so. There's a lot that goes into structuring a good base building phase for triathletes. But that doesn't mean that you should fall into the trap of believing that anything goes (18 holes of golf using a cart?) when it comes to the training you do before you get to your serious race build.

Triathlon base training, or base building, is a specific period in the triathlon season. As many coaches and training articles will tell you, effective triathlon training should be periodized.

Training Periods

If we look backwards from a goal race, the preceding periods are:

  • Peak
  • Race Specificity
  • Build
  • Base

Since we pretty much know for how long the build, race specific, and peak should last for optimal performance, it's easy to calculate when the base training ends.

For example, a typical progression to your average XTERRA goal race would be a four-week build, a four-week race specific period, a two to three-week peak, and one-week or less to taper. The base phase then ends approximately 11 to 12 weeks before the race.

The real questions to ask are: When does the base phase start and what does it entail?

Unfortunately these are not simple answers and they're different for everyone. Just what you wanted to hear, right? To be clear, when the base phase begins depends on the time available to you before your race and on how much fitness you have lost in the off-season (hopefully not too much!) But as a rule of thumb, if you have enough time, a 12-week base building phase is pretty much ideal.

Okay, so now we know when the base training comes in the season in relation to your goal race. But what is it all about? What's the purpose of base training for triathletes?

It’s All In the Name

The purpose of base training is to lay a base for performing the training necessary later in the build, race specific, and peak phases so that you will have an optimal race performance. That is, you build a training base so that you can train better.

Now, here is where things get tricky. Many people just assume that base training means lots of long, steady miles, at a low heart rate, right? Well, maybe that’s not the case. Over the years there has 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 the development of specific tools to measure and analyze performance, this debate has been more prominent than ever.

There are really two schools of thought when it comes to base training and we will explore both.

Go Slower to Go Faster

The first, and probably most common theory about base training prescribes easy, aerobic exercise. Proponents think that building a solid base will increase your athletic performance by getting more volume in. During the base phase, 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.

The idea is that your body learns to use oxygen most efficiently to power your muscles, and the tried-and-true method of doing this is spending a lot of time putting in low-intensity miles. Benefits of low-intensity base training include improved fat metabolism, well-developed slow-twitch muscle fibers, increased capillary density, reduced risk of injury and burnout, and better workout recovery. Additionally, this is a great time to hone your swimming technique, fix that running gait, learn how to corner on a mountain bike, and get stronger!

Many athletes struggle with doing this type of base training and staying in it for long periods of time. You'll probably hear athletes complain, “I don’t really feel like I’m getting a workout!” or "Did I just waste an hour and a half of my day?" I know I've said and felt both. What you’re not getting is that intense rush (and who doesn't love that rush?). Supporters of this type of training will tell you though that what you are getting is the most important kind of workout and in the end this low intensity will pay off. (Ever heard of Zwift? Somehow chasing after virtual cyclists has become an obsession of mine!)

A Faster Way to Go Faster

Now let's look at the second school of thought. The problem most athletes 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, on the road and in the pool.

For those triathletes who have families, work commitments and generally other priorities in life other than working out (i.e. all of us), you will find it difficult to do the 15-plus hours a week needed to commit to this sort of training model. Furthermore, long, slow-distance type training fails to recognize that athletes are generally active throughout the year and prepossess a stable muscle structure and base level of conditioning and that there may be other, more effective, methods for building base.

For example, instead of incorporating high intensity training throughout the winter in a controlled and specific way, high-intensity work, like lactate threshold and VO2max intervals, can also be incorporated into the base phase. The theory behind this is that your limiting factors for optimal performance are most likely your pace or power at VO2max and lactate threshold intensities. It makes sense that improved capacity at high intensity levels also leads to improved capacity at lower intensity levels. Additionally, many athletes may have already maxed out their aerobic endurance with the time they have available to train.

Which Way is Best?

So you're probably wondering, "Well, what should I do?" It's a great question to ponder. Before I answer, let me get scientific for just a second. 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.

Studies have shown that a HIIT (high intensity interval training) program 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 2018. Of course, the low intensity/high volume model will still boost your fitness, it’s just those athletes who use high intensity training are taking a different route to the end result.

Base Training Made Easy

So what are you to do? If you are a new XTERRA athletes and haven't had years and years to build up your engines, most would agree that the objectives for your base training are to improve aerobic endurance, improve technique (take a swim lesson or two!), work on maximum strength and explosive strength in the gym, include very short bouts of intensity, and gradually transition into more demanding endurance training. Try to keep most of your workouts at a low intensity, at least for several weeks, and then you can start to sprinkle in some short bouts high intensity stuff.

Examples include:

  • All-out sprints of 25 meters or shorter--typically 15 m or shorter for beginners--in the pool.
  • All-out sprints on a bike trainer or appropriate hill, from a standstill, for 10-15 seconds. Repeat 3-12 times (can be split into multiple sets), depending on where you are in your progression.
  • Running hill sprints (usually 8-12 seconds per rep) or strides, which are accelerations up to about 95% of max speed, which you then hold for 10-15 seconds or so. The entire stride lasts 20-25 seconds.

Finally, bear in mind that you shouldn't suddenly jump from doing just easy, aerobic training and technique work to banging out threshold intervals all day long as soon as you hit day one of the build phase. You must make the transition gradually, so if you will be doing harder workouts later in the year, the gradual transition will start by including less intense workouts several weeks before that.

This is complicated stuff and there's no right or wrong answer here. Everybody is different and has different goals, different time restraints, different engines. It's paramount to take a look at yourself and yourself only to figure out the best plan for YOU. If you are only in your first or second year of racing, it might behoove you to keep the intense training out of the base phase, at least for the first month or two. You need to build up that motor and prepare your body to train! Practice some patience--wait to be a rockstar until the races are just around the corner! On the other hand, if you've been at this for years and years and only took off a couple weeks after your last race, then maybe your base phase can look a bit different. Either way, you're out there training, getting ready for an XTERRA, pushing yourself to accomplish something great! And that, my fellow athletes, is always a good thing.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA. Check out their upcoming training camp in Scottsdale, Arizona set for April 26-29 at https://nextlevelendurance.net/camps or email them at info@nextlevelendurance.net.

Couch to Trail