To get faster, our training has to inspire physiological adaptation in our bodies. This adaptation is spurred by various forms of stress we undergo during cycling training — as long as said training disrupts the body’s state of equilibrium, aka its physiologic homeostasis. Disruption is most effectively achieved through progressive training — the foundation for the Base, Build, Speciality cycle.

Understanding the Nature of Adaptation

Disruption can be achieved in a number of ways, all of them stressful in one way or another. Whether high-intensity intervals are repeated, longer, milder effort is sustained for exceptionally long durations, or some form of work that falls between these two extremes takes place, some type of stress that challenges the body’s current capabilities is necessary.

As the body adapts to new levels of stress and eventually reestablishes homeostasis at a greater level of physical capability, only a higher level or different form of stress will disrupt this new level of equilibrium, i.e. allow you to get faster. This means that the same workout that originally prompted adaptation will no longer exert enough stress on the muscles to inspire further adaptation when the body enters a subsequent period of recovery.

Simply, the body must be continually and increasingly challenged (and then rested) if it is to become stronger, faster, more capable — this is the often discussed principle of progressive overload.

Understanding Traditional Periodization

Weekly training load can only be increased so far before the body reaches a temporary plateau or even pushes up against its own genetic limitations. In either case, more stress is unlikely to elicit further positive adaptation and training can either level off and enter a maintenance phase, halt during a brief or longer-term training hiatus, or it can shift its emphasis from quantity of stress to type of stress.

To gradually improve fitness and lend organization to the process of progressing training overload, training is periodized. This is in recognition of the fact that we can’t improve all types of fitness simultaneously.

Progressive training allows athletes to focus on particular types of fitness adaptation at particular times of the season, layering more specific forms of fitness on broader, more fundamental forms of fitness, and eventually bringing overall fitness to a well-timed peak level. Enter the Base, Build, Specialty (BBS) cycle.

Owing to training principles dating back as far back as the 1940s, and more recently, Leonid Matveyev’s 1977 model of periodization, the BBS cycle of training sees athletes progress from high amounts of low-intensity training volume to lower amounts of high-intensity training volume, increasing event-specificity all the while.

But this traditional approach, which prioritizes training duration above all else, is limited in the context of part-time amateur athletes who simply can’t dedicate the long hours necessary to spur adaptation via long, steady, low-intensity hours of endurance riding. This is the primary reason that TrainerRoad training plans favor interval training and a focus that falls more on training intensity — athletes get faster in less time with this approach.

Traditional-ish Base Phase Training

During the Base phase, the traditional approach places extreme emphasis on the accumulation of low-intensity mileage in order to elevate aerobic capabilities, and not much else. But interval training has been proven time and again (and again) to elicit similar levels of aerobic adaptation as low-intensity, steady-state work, while at the same time improving other aspects of health, body composition, and cognition.

Considering that scientific support, the focus during the Base phase of our BBS cycle is to use interval training to introduce varied forms of stress in an effort to steadily improve a variety of general fitness forms while gradually escalating the weekly stress load in order to accomplish overload in a broader sense.

By incrementally escalating the weekly training load and lifting an athlete’s Training Stress Score/TSS (a metric we use to quantify the amount of work performed on the bike via the measurement or estimate of power output) overload and subsequent improvement in these basic forms of fitness is all but assured. But that assumes that this progressive workload is properly balanced with adequate recovery, something we’ve built into every one of our training plans regardless of the training phase.

Due of the very productive nature of this varied, higher-quality form of conditioning, athletes immersed in this non-traditional training progression often find themselves already capable of competing in low-priority events.

Build Phase Training

During the second phase of training, the Build phase, each type of workout takes on a more event-specific homogeneity where greater emphasis is placed on escalating the weekly stress load via workouts that are more event-specific than what was encountered during the Base phase.

This is where increasingly event-specific types of training are emphasized with the intent to improve more particular, pertinent types of fitness while the more basic forms of fitness are merely maintained. If you’re not training for a specific event, view this phase of training as the one in which the intent is to grow your Functional Threshold Power the most.

Not only does the Build phase allow athletes to heighten their level of training specificity, but it also brings their fitness to a point where middle-priority events can start to factor into their weekly training.

Specialty Phase Training

Finally, during the Specialty phase, the overall stress load declines slightly in order to restore a higher level of race preparedness. At the same time, the workouts shift their emphasis from building further fitness to honing the established fitness into its most event-specific forms.

This is where the workouts reach the height of their intensity, but each week’s training volume actually experiences a mild decline. This becomes a delicate balance between workouts bent on truly testing an athlete’s event readiness while gradually trimming the overall training stress to a point where their best performances can be realized.

By subjecting athletes to the most unforgiving and challenging workout structures in the entire BBS cycle, balancing that abuse with an overall reduced training load, and eventually steering them to and through a peak-fitness taper, the Specialty phase aims squarely at top performances in the highest-priority events.

For more answers to your cycling training questions, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast presented by TrainerRoad. New episodes are released weekly.


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  2. Gibala, MJ., Jones, AM., (2013). Physiological and performance adaptations to high-intensity interval training.
  3. Tjonna, AE., Leinan, IM., et. al., (2013 May). Low- and high-volume of intensive endurance training significantly improves maximal oxygen uptake after 10-weeks of training in healthy men.
  4. Gibala, MJ., Little, JP., Macdonald, MJ., Hawley, JA., (2012 March). Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease.
  5. Skelly, LE., Andrews, PC., Gillen, JB., et. al., (2014 July). High-intensity interval exercise induces 24-h energy expenditure similar to traditional endurance exercise despite reduced time commitment.
  6. Zimmer, P., Bloch, W., Schenk, A., et. al. (2017 August). High-intensity interval exercise improves cognitive performance and reduces matrix metalloproteinases-2 serum levels in persons with multiple sclerosis: A randomized controlled trial.

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Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is a Level II USA certified cycling coach and the host of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. His background in the sport of motocross has translated into a passion for cycling, mountain biking and all things training. If you have a training question, submit your question for Jonathan to answer on the next episode of TrainerRoad’s podcast.