Aerobic Base Training is Dead – The Scientific Proof

Ever since I came out about a year ago and blasted some huge holes in the idea of aerobic base training for DH and 4X riders I’ve had a lot of people doubt my sanity. Aerobic base training has been a staple of training programs for decades and many an off season program for mountain bikers has included an extended period of time reeling off boring miles on a trainer. While some people embraced my concepts (and proceeded to achieve better “aerobic endurance” despite doing little to no aerobic training) many others have questioned why this concept is so different that the “scientific” one.

Well, one of the problems is that the sports sciences are more like sports training history. Let me explain – people in the strength training trenches figure out what works in the real world (which is MUCH different than a controlled lab setting) and then implement it. Sometimes what we do flies in the face of the traditional “science” of training. Sports scientists pick up on what we are doing, study it and then tell us why it works. This process usually takes about 10 years or more to go from the cutting edge in the trenches to being taught in the classroom.

So, this meant that there was not a ton of scientific studies to confirm what I knew – aerobic training is worthless. But, now there are two landmark studies that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that anaerobic interval training is vastly superior to the out dated models still being promoted by the mainstream fitness media.

The only reason that mountain bikers feel compelled to include aerobic training in their program, particularly an aerobic base period, is to increase their aerobic capacity. The scientifically accepted method to determine aerobic capacity is VO2Max (Maximum Volume of Oxygen Consumed), which is an indicator of how well your body can utilize oxygen. Aerobic training had been shown to increase your VO2Max, so therefore was considered necessary for overall cardiovascular development.

However, few people realize that the best way to raise your VO2Max, and therefore your aerobic capacity, is through interval training, not aerobic training! While this may not make a lot of sense, it is true. Several recent studies on anaerobic intervals produced some of the largest increases in VO2Max ever see, including studies done on aerobic training.

One study in particular was done on what is popularly known as the Tabata Protocol. This method calls for 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds rest and these mini-intervals are repeated 6-8 times per round. A workout may involve 1-3 rounds (complete recovery is allowed between rounds).  Researchers found massive increases in the subjects VO2Max in addition to the anticipated increases in anaerobic endurance markers. The increases in VO2Max were some of the largest ever seen in a study and proved that aerobic training is not the only (or the best) way to increase aerobic capacity.

Another landmark study that came out in the September 2006 Journal of Physiology studied the effects of 20 minutes of interval training (30 second sprints followed by 4 minutes of rest) vs. 90-120 minutes of traditional aerobic heart rate zone training. They found that the interval group which did only 1 hour of exercise per week had the same improvements in aerobic capacity as the aerobic group. Did I mention the aerobic group spent 4-6 hours per week exercising?

4 to 6 times as much exercise to get the same results in aerobic capacity? This isn’t even taking into account that the interval group improved their anaerobic capacity, something the aerobic group did not. This finding is astounding and shows just how much time you waste with aerobic training.

I’ve mentioned this before and here is the proof – anaerobic intervals will increase your aerobic capacity as well as your anaerobic capacity but aerobic training does not increase your anaerobic capacity. All of this means that if you have limited training time (and who doesn’t) you are wasting your time with aerobic training. Anaerobic intervals are the only way to maximize the effectiveness of limited training time.

Also, there is no evidence at all that you will burn out or get injured by training with intervals year round. This is simply a myth that has been told so many times that it has been taken as the truth. I challenge anyone to find me a single study that backs this claim.

What has been found is that going straight into hard training (either strength or intervals or aerobic) without a preparatory period will increase the likelihood of injury. So, like everything else, you must work into full blown hard core intervals and cycle their intensity and duration but there is no reason you can not do intervals year round.

Now, just to balance this out, there are 2 times when aerobic training has a place in your program. First, if you are so out of shape you can not tolerate even the easiest intervals then you should spend some time doing aerobic training to build your work capacity up a bit. But once you can do intervals you should make the switch.

Second, aerobic exercise is great for active recovery (something I have also mentioned before). Going out for a light 20 minute jog or ride will help to flush blood into the muscles and help you recover from your strength training and interval sessions faster. Outside of these 2 things, though, aerobic training is dead.

My mission in life is to drag our sport into the 21st century. Old and outdated training methods that waste your time and effort need to be confronted and dealt with. I know that taking on sacred cows like this will never make me popular with the mainstream bike industry but as one of the best strength coaches in the world Mike Boyle puts it – “I will never cease to be wrong, I may just cease to be popular”.

So, there you have it. It took me a few tries to get everything out there but I feel that I have proven that aerobic training, particularly aerobic base training for DH and 4X riders, is a waste of time and effort. You can get better results in aerobic capacity in less time while also increasing anaerobic capacity. This should be something that mountain bikers everywhere rejoice at because aerobic training is some of the most tedious and boring stuff around.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I did not plug my MTB DB Combos 12 Week Program which centers on the use of combination drills (a method of anaerobic intervals) to increase your overall cardio capacity better than anything else available to you as a mountain biker. You can check it out at if you don’t have it already (and if you do then you know how right I am).

-James Wilson-

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  1. Telmo says:

    That’s really interesting
    Using that aproach what was the biggest FTP improvment you’ve seen in tour athletes?

    Reply • January 7 at 1:07 pm
  2. ben says:

    Does this just relate to DH and 4X? What about XC riders?

    Reply • August 18 at 6:57 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, XC racers need to avoid the long slow distance riding as well as the cardio it builds is not very applicable to burst type cardio they need when they race. The intervals might be longer but you still need to ttrain the body to go hard and recover instead of just go at the same pace for a long period of time.

      Reply • August 19 at 10:24 am
  3. taylor says:

    Great Post bro. A great book that goes into detail about this myth is Running Science. As a runner and triathlete I have spent much time adhering to the aerobic base method, only to feel slow, weak, and get injured easily. Now I only do interval training, 3-4 times a week. Its fun to hit the track hard. I honestly hate running long distances slow. Keep spreading the word! it could really help improve many peoples health and performance.

    Reply • February 5 at 10:18 pm
  4. Johan Lahti says:

    Hey James.
    I think you are slightly underestimating the complexity of it all. It seems that a highly experienced trainer like you would know some science about training below the aerobic threshold to increase such things as ventricles volume and possibly capillary density. You are definitely right about the benefits of interval training for aerobic capacity, but basic aerobic training has nothing to do with aerobic capacity.

    Reply • March 29 at 7:02 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      This is an older article and I’ve come to appreciate what “long slow distance” can do for a rider. The problem like you pointed out, though, is that those benefits have little to nothing to do with building and “aerobic base” and that the it is important for riders to know that. I like the book 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald as a good look at what you really want from your base miles.

      Reply • March 30 at 10:59 am
  5. Pat says:

    Hi James,
    Great article, but, people should know that Vo2 isn’t the be all and end all – it’s just a number. I know people with a Vo2 of 40 and they regularly win races. What you fail to mention is the R-Quotation and it’s importance, especially for anyone intending to race over 1 and a half hours when there glycogen has been depleted. One of the main points of aerobic training is improving fat oxidation. It would be really interesting to see how in-efficient and how R-Quotation values sore if people only do HIT training.
    Would love to see someone at the end of a 3 hour endurance ride who’s only done HIT training and didn’t have a decent aerobic base gained from lost of Zone 2 rides.

    Reply • November 20 at 10:30 am
  6. Siven says:

    Hi James

    I’m not sure when this article was published. I super confused now, as I’ve just read primal endurance which I thought made alot of sense. Although I just figured out how I’m going to keep my heart rate that low on the trail.

    I would love hear your take on their way of building an aerobic base

    Reply • October 3 at 12:48 pm

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