Base training basics can make all the difference in your performance by spring. For athletes of all ages, and particularly Baby Boomers, now is the time to focus on base building.
As we age, the recovery and rebuilding of our athletic foundations becomes even more important. I know this because early in my bike racing days, I didn’t fully understand the principles of recovery, nor was I savvy to the cumulative stress associated with months of training and racing. I paid the steep price of underperformance, trips to the sports doctor, and a chronic IT band injury.
“The aging athlete has to look at recovery more significantly than they do their training. The bigger the performance, the bigger the foundation that will be needed,” says Jeff Lockwood, cycling coach and owner of Lifesport, Inc., a professional coaching company based in Arizona.
A Baby Boomer himself, Lockwood understands exactly what it takes to optimize performance well after 50.
“At our age, recovery is more important than ever. I’m 55 and I feel great, but I don’t feel 45, and I certainly don’t feel like I did when I was 35. What became the most important marker of my training was that recovery required a greater importance. I can train hard, but if I want to train hard, I have to recover hard.”
Base Training Basics
Whether it’s cycling, running, or triathlons, with any endurance sport, we must respect the risk-reward ratio. Fact is, the physiology of older athletes simply requires a longer progression of training, says Lockwood.
Base training is the time to establish the fundamentals required to specifically train to peak for your chosen event. Attention goes to practicing proper technique and form, understanding soft-tissue integrity and establishing muscle symmetry. “You need enough time to learn how your body responds to the stimulus of the training,” says Lockwood.
“We take a look at what an athlete’s foundation is built on and assess chronological age and athletic age.” For example, an athlete in his 50s who has never exercised needs a very different training approach than an athlete in his 50s who has trained for years.
“The bigger the performance goal, the bigger the foundation that is needed if the athlete wants to go faster, further, or to finish something that’s way outside of what they previously have done,” he adds.
So consider base training your mandatory ingredient for peak athletic performance. “You can’t race yourself into shape, despite what some people think,” says Lockwood. “This is about not fooling Mother Nature or Father Time. The two are ever-present and will always be victorious.”
Timing of Base Training
The date of your target race or event will dictate how long your base training period will last. The application of periodization training principles, or a fancy way of saying planned variation, is key – even in the base training period.
“If you’re doing the same thing, the same way every time, you’re not going to grow or make progress,” Lockwood says. “Your body will stagnate and stall out.”
Base training requires a variation of well-timed low-intensity and high-intensity training. “Variation is the key, or you will compromise your body. We want to create a stimulus as opposed to a stress. And the older we get, the more careful we have to be to understand that. It all corresponds to how the body reacts to the training and making the right adjustments.
How Much is Enough?
How much base training should you do? It all depends. I hate that answer, too, but it’s our reality as we consider our current fitness levels vs. the magnitude of our goals. Bigger goals will require a longer training build-up.
If you’re serious, Lockwood recommends hiring a coach and signing up with an online software tracking program like Training Peaks to monitor your progress.
He also recommends the book Serious Training for Endurance Athletes by Rob Sleamaker and Ray Browning for athletes who want to learn more about periodization training.
Lockwood offers four key principles to keep in mind when you begin winter base training.
- Principle of Overload. Remember the acronym FIT – Frequency, Intensity, Time. These are the only three variables you can manipulate to improve your ability to perform. And they come in that order. You must first increase the frequency of what you’re doing before you can increase the intensity and time.
- Principle of Specificity. Train to your sport. Don’t train on a treadmill if you’re trying to be a swimmer. It causes muscle confusion. Cross training is great as a break from your chosen sport in the off-season.
- Principle of Individual Differences. This is gender and age-based. Every individual responds to stimulus in a little different way. Too many times, we see cookie-cutter programs, and everyone does the same thing for the same amount of time. Think of it as a bell-shaped curve. Some thrive. Some do nothing. And some completely fall apart.
- Principle of Reversibility. You can’t pick up where you left off if you’ve been sick or had surgery, been out of town, or had to curtail your training for any reason. If you come into the base training period and have not been training at all, you will lose some of your fitness. You can return, but respect the time you’ll need to rebuild your fitness.
Five Tips for Successful Base Training
- Focus on quality of movement over quantity.
- Preparation of fitness and sports is based on a crockpot timeframe, not a microwave.
- For whatever you are training for the base period should start a minimum of 16 weeks out, ideally up to 24 weeks. Count back from your target date to prepare your periodization schedule.
- Find ways to pre-test and post-test your fitness. You can’t judge where you are going if you don’t know where you came from.
- Document your progress so you have a trail to look back on to see why you were successful or unsuccessful. Without documentation, you have no road map.
“You have a genetic code that sets the tone for what you can do, and obviously some people are genetically gifted in athletics more than others,” says Lockwood. ”On a scale of progression, up to about 40 years old is what you do with that code. Beyond 40 is how you manage yourself with that.”