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 three zones:
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 remarkable results.
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 variable.
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 mesocycle.
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 print].