Earlier this month I reported on a study of block
periodization that found it superior to a traditional (linear) periodization model. This
study lasted 4 weeks with well-trained cyclists in the two groups (Block and Traditional
periodization) doing the same workouts. The only difference was that the Block
group did 5 of the 8 high intensity training sessions (HIT) in the first week
and then only 1 HIT per week in the following 3 weeks. The Traditional group
did 2 HIT each week. They both also did low intensity training (LIT).
The results were rather remarkable. The Block group had an
increase in VO2max of 4.6%, peak power at VO2max rose 2.1%, and their power at
approximately their aerobic thresholds rose a whopping 10%. There were no
changes for the Traditional periodization group, which seems strange but may
tell us that 4 weeks of traditional periodization is not enough to stimulate
significant change. Perhaps.
So along comes a 12-week follow-up study from the same Norwegian group of researchers at Lillehammer University. They
used the same study design only did the above 4-week mesocycle 3 times for
each group. The results were even more remarkable. I’ll come back to that
shortly. But first let’s take a look at what the researchers called “high” and
“low” intensity workouts.
Using heart rate monitors, all workouts were divided into
Zone 1 60-82% of max HR (MHR)
Zone 2 83-87% of MHR
Zone 3 88-100% of MHR
At 82% of MHR an athlete is usually in the vicinity of their
lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), the point at which heavy breathing begins
and is marked by the sensation of being “redlined.” Some athletes’ LTHRs are at
a higher percentage of MHR and some are lower. (This is why I recommend LTHR
rather than MHR for setting up heart rate zones; it’s simply a more accurate
way of defining the most critical heart rate intensity for serious athletes.)
All of the cyclists (15 well-trained riders) in this study
did LIT in zone 1. Their HIT was in zone 3. These HIT sessions are critical to
understanding this study as these are more than likely what produced the
All HIT was done as intervals. They did either 6 x 5 minutes
at zone 3 with 2.5-minute recoveries, or 5 x 6 minutes at zone 3 with 3-minute
recoveries. So they totaled 30 minutes of zone 3 in a single session. These are killer workouts. Extremely hard. If you
use my heart rate zone system, their zone 3 is the equivalent of my high zone 5b
and zone 5c. In other words, the athletes were doing intervals at right around
their VO2max. Other research has shown that well-trained cyclists can only maintain their VO2max velocity for
about 3 to 5 minutes. VO2max velocity and VO2max heart rate aren’t exactly the
same thing but I think it safe to say that each interval was nearly a max
effort. And the recoveries were very brief. For a VO2max interval I usually
assign a recovery after each that is about the same duration as the preceding
high-intensity piece. Here they did recoveries that were only half as long.
I wouldn’t recommend doing such a workout, let alone 5 times
in a week as the Block athletes did in this study. I can imagine how difficult
it must have been for the subjects to finish each subsequent session in the 5
HIT-session weeks (in weeks 1, 5 and 9).
But the results were, indeed, impressive. And as may be
expected, the numbers were higher than with the 4-week study I reviewed above.
In this more recent research VO2max for the Block athletes rose on average 8.8%
compared with 3.7% for the Traditional group. Power at 2mmol/L lactate (about aerobic
threshold) rose 22% for Block and 10% for Traditional. They also did a
40-minute time trial to see what average power they could produce. The Block
athletes’ rose 8.2% while the Traditionals’ went up 4.1%. The difference
between these time trial results was insignificant.
The protocol used for the Block group in both of these studies is similar to
what is sometimes called “crash” training as described in my Triathlete’s Training Bible, Cyclist’s Training Bible, and Mountain Biker’s Training Bible books. In this extreme training strategy, workload is greatly increased for
several days followed by several days of reduced training. This has been shown
to stimulate significant changes in fitness, but the risks are also extreme.
You can read more about it in my books.
This is an excellent study as research on periodization of
endurance athletes is rare. There are only a few as most use weight lifting as
their sport focus. And the fact that this one lasted 12 weeks also makes it
exceptional. The downside of all periodization studies is what I mentioned in
my last piece on the subject—both the subjects and the researchers know who is
following which protocol. That always introduces the placebo effect as a
Nevertheless, I am convinced that block periodization is
superior to traditional (linear) periodization for the advanced athlete. By “advanced” what I mean is someone who
has been training seriously and consistently for years, has attained a very
high level of performance, and is so close to their potential that producing
greater fitness improvements is extremely difficult to do. Most professional
endurance athletes and elite age group athletes fall into this category. They
would more than likely benefit from a block periodization program—if they know
how to do it. It’s not as simple as it seems from these studies and requires
careful planning to pull off.
Athletes who are not what I am calling advanced here are
still better off following a more traditional periodization program as
described in my books. For them a block plan may well produce a loss of fitness
since the training emphasis is focused on only one or two abilities in each
Crash training may be done by either group but must be used
with caution as it can easily result in injury, illness and burnout. Again,
read more about it in my Training Bible books before attempting it.
Rønnestad BR, Ellefsen S, Nygaard H,
Zacharoff EE, Vikmoen O, Hansen J. 2012. Effects of 12 weeks of block
periodization on performance and performance indices in well-trained cyclists. Scand J Med Sci Sports [epub ahead of