Maintaining an aerobic base

Credits: Andy Porter

Today’s post is the second of two posts answering the question of how much training is necessary.

A quick recap. Last week we looked at MAF training and how to build aerobic fitness, which directly improves performance in most outdoor sports. Aerobic fitness, or your aerobic base, is your ability to move at a “slow,” sustainable pace for an extended period of time – around several hours. However, the initial question was how to maintain the minimum level of fitness necessary to go on a sudden hike into alpine territory, do a long-distance bike ride, or whatever. We can break this down into two questions:
 
1. What kind of aerobic base do you need to be able to go on a sudden epic mission without any preparation in the way of physical conditioning?
 

2. How much do you need to do to maintain this base?

How fit is fit enough?

Don’t allow poor fitness to kill your adventures. Credits: Anthony DeLorenzo

First, you will need to decide what level of fitness you need to maintain. Bear in mind that although there is a certain degree of cross-over, the principle of specificity means you become good at what you practice. If you want to be able to ride 100km of trails in a day, then you need to put the time in on a bike, not running for example (although running is a very good option for cross-training). So, do you need to be able to run a cross-country marathon with no preparation, or would a simpler 10k suffice? Note we are not talking about training for a competition. This by definition requires programming your training for peak physical performance on a specific day. Instead we are setting a baseline of fitness that we consider adequate. It should go without saying that if you need to complete a certain distance in a shorter time, you will need a higher level of fitness, so you also need to decide on the intensity as well as the volume.

So decide on the volume and intensity of the activity you want to be able maintain. This is your answer to question 1 above.
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Maintenance mode

If you stop training completely, your fitness will decrease significantly within a short period, like two to three weeks. However, it’s possible to reduce the level of your training yet sustain a given level of fitness, even over a period of several months. This is called maintenance mode. During maintenance mode, you can drop the volume of your training by 30-40% from when you were building your aerobic base, but still maintain your fitness level until you are ready to ramp it up again. In practice, this means keeping intensity (running speed, cycling power output, etc.) at your normal training level while shortening distance and/or cutting back on the number of days you train. For example, you can reduce your weekly distance by about 40% from your longest distance weeks. At the same time, if you were running five or six days a week, you could probably cut down to three days a week.
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The bad news

Experienced athletes don’t have to train as much to maintain the same aerobic base. Credits: Bridger Ridge Run

Experienced athletes don’t have to train as much to maintain the same aerobic base. You might have noticed I’ve hedged a lot of what I said. That fact is, the exact details of how much you need to train to maintain a certain level will depend on your personal situation. Factors that will come into play are the usual suspects: age, stress, diet, recent injuries and medical conditions, and probably your zodiac sign or something. Another one is experience in your discipline. Someone newer to ultra-running might need maintain a volume of 80-100 km per week if they want to be able to run 60 km at any time. But someone who’s been running ultras for a decade could likely stop doing long runs for a few months entirely without losing the ability to complete an ultra at a moment’s notice. Which would annoy the hell out of everyone else.

Like, whatever man, just tell me how much to train

Ok, fine, jackass. Once you have achieved a certain level of fitness, the steps below should point you in the right direction.
 
1. Make sure your total weekly training volume is about 1.5 times the distance you want to maintain at the required intensity.
 
2. Do a workout that corresponds to about 70% of the distance at the same intensity you want to maintain every 2-3 weeks.
 
3. Actually do your target workout at least every three months.
 
This is my hedged answer to 2. above. Give it a try, adjust to your personal circumstances and see if it works for you.
Or am I completely off the mark? Let me know in the comments!

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