Building a Base
For multisport athletes like you, the trick isn't getting in shape. It's staying there. Here's how.
There Are No Shortcuts
The Pillars of FitnessTo get in peak shape try out all four parts of our comprehensive series.
YOU ARE AN OUTDOOR ATHLETE . Start training like one. No more “hot” yoga, four-minute workouts, or carb-free diets. No more chasing trends that deify all that is new this month while disparaging all that was new last month.
Times have changed. And so should your workouts. Booming sports like trail running, cycling, nordic skiing, and surfing demand high levels of year-round endurance, strength, and agility fitness that cookie-cutter gym routines and fad diets simply can’t deliver.
That’s where our four-part Pillars of Fitness series comes in. Over the course of the next year, we’ll guide you through the bad habits, myths, and disinformation that permeate much of the wellness community, which focuses largely on America’s obese and sedentary, and replace it with essential truths for the athlete in you. Our panel of fitness experts (see right) will create workouts, explain the science, and consult on everything in our series. The goal isn’t to create a single, year-long program that will turn anyone who follows it into a honed and agile multisport phenom. (No such plan exists). Rather, it’s to deliver essential knowledge so you can get there yourself.
We begin this month with Pillar One: Building and maintaining fitness when your objective is to be injury-free and strong all year from spring skiing to summer mountaineering to fall mountain biking, or whatever your addictions may be. From there we’ll move on to aerobic fitness (May), strength (August), and agility (October).
This isn’t a periodization plan (though we will explain those this month and suggest that you start following one) but, rather, four installments of timeless advice that will apply to everyone from weekend warriors to aspiring pros. You won’t stay in peak form all year if you tried, you’d eventually blow up but as we progress, you’ll gain a better understanding of your fitness potential and how to achieve it.
There are no shortcuts. But, then, this series isn’t about two-week miracle plans and six-pack abs. You don’t live like the masses; you shouldn’t train like them, either.
Meet the Experts
CURTIS CRAMBLETT: A USA Cycling coach, physical therapist, and certified strength-and-conditioning coach with Revolutions in Fitness, in San Jose, California, Cramblett works with the Garmin-Chipotle pro cycling squad and is an expert at identifying and addressing musculoskeletal dysfunctions.
NEAL HENDERSON: The sports-science director at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, Henderson is an exercise physiologist and retired elite triathlete who coaches cycling and skate skiing and builds training programs for pro athletes, weekend warriors, and obsessive-compulsive home-office CEOs.
CHAD BUTTS: The chief exercise physiologist at New York’s Cadence Cycling and Multisport Centers a training outfit with more than 300 clients Butts is a Cat 1 road racer and cycling coach.
Step 1: Tune Up
Before you build your base, make sure all your parts are working
Field Test: Lactate ThresholdProgram a heart-rate monitor to log one-minute intervals, then warm up and push yourself at your fastest sustainable pace for a 30-minute run or bike ride. (For the latter, it’s best to find a route without any downhill sections.) You want even power output: If you’re surging and backing off, scrap the test and try again another day. When you’re done, average the results from the last 20 minutes of the test. That heart rate is a rough measure of your lactate threshold–the upper limit of sustained aerobic performance. With smart, structured workouts that target= that number, you’ll eventually be able to go faster and longer before hitting your LT heart rate.
Everything is connected. As you sit, your hip flexors try to pull your knees to your chest, causing your back to curve forward. When your calves are stiff, the stress shifts to your foot or your knee. If the quads can’t move fluidly, they lock up the pelvis, which in turn yanks on the IT band—the tendon running down the side of your thigh—and eventually you feel the pain in the knee. To compensate, your other leg works harder and the twists and knots and shock waves propagate, sending stress to the lower back, neck, pinkie toe …
“It’s called tensegrity,” says Cramblett. “Think of the body as an interconnected chain. Every link transfers stress up the chain. When your foot hits the ground while you’re running, the ankle takes an impact equivalent to at least three times your body weight. If you couldn’t absorb and transfer that energy, your ankle would shatter. The average American sits way too much, weakening the chain.”
Before you resume your base training, you need to get in sync. But you may want help. “If you’re very recreational, then you’re probably OK without a visit to a physical therapist, as long as you don’t have any pain,” says Cramblett. “But if you’re pushing into max and even sub-max levels chasing a goal, then a PT check might help you avoid an injury that could cost you a lot of money and time.”
This article isn’t a substitute for such a personalized once-over, but since it’s March and most of us work at desks and watch too much TV, we have commonalities. Here, Cramblett offers some tips for eliminating weak links from your chain. Do these at least three times per week.
THE GLITCH: Your desk job has gummed up your glutes and locked your hips like John McCain at a rave.
THE FIX: Dynamic stretching and soft-tissue mobilization. “If you can see a massage therapist or PT for an initial pass, do it,” says Cramblett. Then buy one of those $20 foam rollers and use your body weight to loosen your hip, IT band, quads, and glutes. You can do this cold.
THE GLITCH: Tight calves cause foot numbness and tingling in ski boots and bike cleats and Achilles tendinitis for runners. “If the calf is tight, the ankle can’t flex enough, and the foot takes more force,” says Cramblett.
THE FIX: Invest in a simple marvel known as the Stick. It’s a glorified rolling pin with plastic rollers instead of wood, but as a calf massager it’s unmatched. $30; thestick.com
THE GLITCH: Desks, chairlifts, and bikes force our spines out of their natural arch. “You lose your lumbar extension,” says Cramblett. “You end up holding up your head with your neck instead of your core.“
THE FIX: Roll your spine back and forth over an exercise ball. Use your legs to drive the motion.
THE GLITCH: Desks, cars, and couches have bunched up your hamstrings.
THE FIX: Those squishy balls office workers squeeze to pump their forearms work wonders on your hamstrings. While seated, place a ball under your hamstrings and self-massage with your body weight.
Step 2: Know Your Limits
Base building takes planning. Before you start using words like foundation as code for backing off, know this: You're going to go harder this year.
You know the expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? When it comes to fitness, it’s totally true.
An example: A few years ago, I spent 11 days hammering through the French Alps with several friends. No ride was shorter than three and a half hours. I’d never ridden so hard. But on my first ride back home, I could barely pedal. I told myself I was “overtrained” and put the bike away.
Less than a week later, I went on a local group ride to see if I could hang. The peloton was mostly pros and other categorized racers, and it usually took everything I had just to cling to the back. But on that ride, I was the guy pulling off the front. Which made me wonder: Was I ever overtrained?
“Overreached is the better term,” says Allen Lim, coach and physiologist with the Garmin-Chipotle pro cycling team. “Overtrained means you’re really screwed up. Overreaching is something you strive for, because if you rest a person who’s overreached, he comes back stronger.”
Unfortunately, we part-time athletes don’t get that message. Whether building explosiveness for skiing or endurance and power for running, we live in fear of overtraining and fail to push hard enough.
And while overtraining is a serious condition affecting a tiny percentage of athletes, Lim has seen only a handful who fit the description in 12 years as a pro coach.
“Even if you’re doing two-a-days for three weeks, you’re not really at risk of overtraining,” says Dr. Steven J. Keteyian, a distance runner and the program director for Preventive Cardiology at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. “Take the weekend or a week off and you’ll be better.”
The takeaway: When the time is right, go harder, then rest. “The hardest part of being an athlete is forcing yourself to rest,” says Henderson. “Overreaching breaks you down until you feel it’s worth resting.”
But coordinating overload, recovery, peaks, and goals is tricky. To do that, you need to get on a periodization program.
Step 3: Periodize
To get the most out of your body, put it on a schedule built for you
Periodization: You’ve seen the term in magazines. A typical plan involves blocking out a month or so for easy endurance training (the foundation or base period), followed by a few weeks adapting to more structured work (the build period), then a few weeks of high-intensity training (the performance period), followed by recovery.
Fair enough, but that’s a periodization plan for people who focus on only one sport and possibly just one peak a year. Maybe you spent the past two months nordic skiing. Maybe you’ve been to spinning class twice a week and snowshoed on the weekends. Why spend time building a base you already have?
“It’s OK to get some intensity training in during the foundation period,” says Henderson. “Folks who revert back to some idea of base fitness are throwing away the gains they made.”
Periodization plans work best when they’re customized. That begins with figuring out lactate threshold (LT)—the point at which the body shifts from aerobic to anaerobic. This number tells you exactly how hard to train. Lab tests are the most accurate, but it’s possible to estimate this yourself (see “Field Test”).
Build.Stress. Rest. Repeat.
The following is a six-month periodization outline for multisport athletes. After the final phase, simply start over, timing your peaks to your most important events.
Four weeks of 6 (run) to 10 (bike) hours per week
Hold baseline fitness while honing strength and skills for harder work
Moderate intensity and volume plus stretching and strength work. Break up endurance workouts with tempo training and intervals midweek.
Four weeks of varied volume and intensity, with a sharp reduction in volume for week 4.
Overreaching and resting to get yourself back to near-peak form
Increase volume (time) and intensity by 40 percent over Maintenance 1 in week 1. Decrease volume by about 20 percent in week 2 and again in week 3 while upping intensity. Week-4 volume should be half of what you did in week 3.
Four weeks with a bit more intensity than Maintenance 1
Active recovery that allows you to continue exercising at a high level without burning out
Remember to work on skills and do massage and dynamic stretching between hard days.
One week with only a few hours of easy endurance work
Reap the benefits of the past three months by resting
Stretch, soak, eat, drink. Catch up on reading and chores. Acknowledge spouse.
Three weeks at your highest intensity and volume
Using new fitness and refreshed will to go harder than ever
Race at will. Take time off from work for long, hard efforts. Finish endurance workouts at threshold pace. Ignore spouse at own peril.
Three weeks of 8 to 10 hours per week
Backing off to Maintenance 2 levels so you can recover and prepare to peak
Focus on quality instead of quantity—mix in intervals, hill climbs, and sprints.
REST TO PEAK
One week tapering with just a few hours of exercise
Recovering ahead of your biggest goal
Easy spins, jogging, stretching, and rest. Fire up your system in the days before your event with short bursts of intensity sprints and intervals.
Step 4: Get Going
Now that you know your LT, put it to use with a periodization plan like the one on the previous page, using the schedule below for the Maintenance 1 period. After four weeks, move to Overload 1, and so on. For all-around fitness, switch between run and bike workouts. Rest on Monday and Thursday.
TUESDAY: Go at your fastest sustainable pace for 10 minutes of a 30-minute run, or ride for 30 minutes at 95?percent of LT.
WEDNESDAY: One hour of strength and form work (below).
FRIDAY: Train at 80 percent of LT for 20 (run) or 60 (bike) minutes. Form drills for 30 minutes.
SATURDAY: 90-minute run or three-hour ride.
SUNDAY: Strength work for 30 minutes, then a one-hour run or two-hour ride.
Shoot for two to three of these sessions a week to maintain muscle mass during endurance training
SINGLE-LEG SQUATS: Do leg presses at the gym, squats with one leg in the air and an exercise ball between your back and a wall, or step-ups onto a bench. One set to exhaustion on each leg. As you get stronger, hold dumbbells in your hands.
HAMSTRING CURLS: Use leg curls with an exercise ball to balance your hamstrings with your quads. Place both heels on the ball, with your back flat on the floor. Bridge up and pull the ball under you before pushing it back and dropping the hips. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 12. As you get stronger, do one leg at a time.
PLANK: The simple plank and side plank (30 to 60 seconds each) are great ways to work the small stabilizing muscles in your core. You can make it more challenging by putting your feet on an exercise ball.
SEATED ROW: Cable rows (at the gym or with an exercise band) help the shoulders and upper spine maintain a healthier upright and open position. Do one set of 12 to 15 reps.
EXERCISE-BALL BRIDGES: Your abs can overpower your lower back. Spend as much time strengthening those lower-spine stabilizers as you do on your six-pack. With an exercise ball beneath your shoulders, rise up into a simple bridge and lift one leg in the air, then lower it and raise the other leg. This ties in the glutes and hamstrings. Do eight to 10 reps on each leg. Not hard enough? Close your eyes.
Since you’re not going too hard yet, use the base period to polish your form
DRILL: One-leg pedaling. Hold one foot to the side and pedal for 30 to 60 seconds, Repeat on the other side.
BENEFIT: Improves spinning and strengthens hamstrings and hip flexors.
DRILL: Spin-ups. Start at a moderate cadence and then bring your RPMs up to a sprinting leg speed.
BENEFIT: Improves leg speed and cadence without tearing muscle fiber.
DRILL: Rolling dismount. Swing your strong foot over the back wheel and between your other foot and the frame. Land in a run.BENEFIT: A mountain-biking and cyclocross must, this routine move can save whole seconds in a race.
DRILL: High knees. Stand in place and pull your knees up like a football player running through tires in practice.
BENEFIT: Opens up range of motion and improves leg turnover without the stress of sprinting.
DRILL: Bounding. Take a “high knee” to its extreme and bound in a slow jog. You should feel like you’re in a Monty Python sketch.
BENEFIT: Lengthens stride and strengthens muscles without the wear of miles.
DRILL: Butt kicks. Standing in place or jogging slowly, kick your butt with your heel. Your knee should point down.
BENEFIT: Incorporates your hamstring into your stride and builds speed.