When it comes to endurance sports and athletes, one of the most common questions I get is how can I get better? How can I get faster? For all beginners, the best thing you can do, is to go out and do the sport. As you get your feet wet, start doing the activity for longer periods of time, more time makes you better. Let’s break this down into more specifics and use cycling as an example.
For the newbie on a bike looking to improve or even compete, the best way to get better at the start, is to ride the bike. And then ride the bike some more. If you are into trying out racing, sign up for some races as they too are a great way to push your limits and build on what you have. A little healthy competition is sometimes the best medicine to keep you motivated.
As people get more into biking, a lot forget the basics when it comes to training. Cyclists tend to think that more and harder is better, and maybe that is true to some degree, but you need to be careful. Let’s get into the topic for today, and that is Base Endurance, or what I like to call the Magic Zone!
For most cyclists, most of their time should be spent in this zone, as in 80% of the time during training. Base Endurance is meant to increase your aerobic endurance and should be done as a moderate level of exercise. Don’t worry if you go under or over the recommendations on a downhill or uphill, just make sure to vary the intensity up within your range, don’t stay at the bottom, middle, or top end of the range all the time. It’s also a good idea to keep your cadence between 82 and 98 RPM. People with a running background tend to have a slower cadence, but can train their way into hitting this sweet spot.
What do you gain from training in the magic zone? You build up your aerobic endurance, or as I like to call it your aerobic engine. You build up the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell. During your low to moderate exercise, the mitochondria break down primarily fat and carbohydrates to keep you going during these what I like to call magic zone training rides. When you ride at this intensity, the mitochondria use oxygen and the fuel sources listed above to make the energy to keep you exercising. The more time you spend in the magic zone, the more mitochondria you build, the bigger your mitochondria get, the more oxygen your body is trained to use, the better you become at making energy. It is a very magic zone that trains the mitochondria in your muscle cells to get bigger and become more efficient at making energy for you to use during exercise! It’s good to note that type I muscle fibers contain the most mitochondria out of the three muscle fibers, type IIa and IIb have far less mitochondria and are used more as you increase the intensity of exercise. Now that we have that out of the way, I should also mention that type I muscle fibers also help clear lactate as it builds up in the muscles via the MCT-1 transporters. As you ride in zone 2, your body becomes better at clearing the lactate which is clearly something very important in endurance athletics. Zone 2 also teaches the body to utilize fat as the source for energy production while trying to preserve glycogen. This is important, as it is nice to have that glycogen store for use when needed at the end of the race for that all out winning sprint!
Other benefits of training in zone 2/base endurance/magic zone are as follows; lower resting heart rate, increase your ability to exercise longer, decrease blood pressure, improve insulin resistance, improve your ability to handle harder training efforts, increase your plasma blood volume, increase the capillary density in your muscles, heart stroke volume and cardiac output will increase, and you may get a little increase in your lactic threshold.
Don’t forget about scheduling in recovery, more exercise is not always better. Make sure you take rest days every week, and if you are feeling like you are tired a lot, grumpy, moody, or your resting heart rate is high or exercise heart rate is low, it is definitely time for more rest.
A sample week of training to improve your health would be 3-4 hours on Saturday, 2 hours on Sunday, with two rides during the week 45-90 minutes that contain some level of intervals, but the rest of the time is in zone 2.
If you have no clue on how to find your zone 2, you need to perform some kind of an FTP test to figure out where you are, and then apply those results into the zone 2/endurance zone ranges to get your zone 2 numbers. Whether that be with the use of a power meter, heart rate, or both, that is up to you!