Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

Traditional vs. block periodisation with Nicki Winfield Almquist, PhD | EP#362

 October 31, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:

Nicki Winfield Almquist - That Triathlon Show

Nicki Winfield Almquist, PhD, is a post-doctoral researcher at University of Copenhagen, Denmark. In this interview, we discuss a recent study comparing the effects of 12 weeks of block periodisation with "best practice" cyclic, progressive traditional periodisation, as well as the general consensus on different periodisation patterns.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Defining block periodisation and cyclic, progressive traditional periodisation
  • Previous evidence showing some benefits of using a block periodisation approach vs. traditional periodisation
  • The findings of this new, more methodologically solid comparison of block and traditional periodisation
  • Block periodisation as a tool in the toolbox
  • Conclusions on the science and practice of periodisation patterns

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Shownotes

Nicki's background

03:20 -

  • I am a post-doc at the University of Copenhagen in the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, where we focus on lipid metabolism and nutritional interventions in endurance training.

Information on block periodisation

04:07 -

  • The study we will discuss was part of my PhD in Lillehammer.
  • We did this study on male and female athletes, where we wanted to compare the effect of long block periodisation to a more traditional approach.
  • Block periodisation focuses on developing specific abilities in succession and avoiding potentially different stimuli types.
  • For example, we can have blocks where we only focus on high-intensity training for a week, then switch to low-intensity training and maintain a high-intensity session the following weeks.
  • Traditional periodisation is a mixture, and it is what most athletes do. (all types of sessions during the week)
  • In theory, focusing on one thing might be better by not providing different stimuli.
  • My group did a meta-analysis summarising the literature on block periodisation studies and found that it had a beneficial effect on VO2max and maximum aerobic power compared to traditional periodisations.
  • However, there was a significant divergence between studies, possibly to the different sample sizes and training programs.
  • For example, some studies might only include low or high-intensity training (without moderate-intensity training), and there are also some differences in age and sex in participants.
  • The meta-analysis had only ten studies, so much research was needed.
  • The best training practices typically show the inclusion of all exercise training intensities. The distribution of training intensities is regularly pyramidal (the majority is low intensity, some moderate intensity and only a tiny fraction of high intensity).
  • Therefore, there is an argument for introducing moderate-intensity training for comparing block periodisation with traditional periodisation.
  • Athletes also have a progression in training load.
  • Athletes might add another session or do longer intensities to push the boundaries, which was not in the other studies.
  • So, we included a progressive increase in the training load.
  • We also looked at molecular signalling in this study to evaluate the rate of adaptation to exercise. (as athletes get better, the adaptations slowly decline)
  • It means that block periodisation could be beneficial, but it could also benefit traditional periodisation when you increase the training load.

Observational studies of block periodisation

10:44 -

  • We have two case studies in Norway that tracked the most successful winter Olympic female athlete.
  • She did the different periodisations and obtained different results.
  • Block periodisation is something the best athletes do, but we do not know if triathletes/cyclists implement this approach.
  • However, block periodisation has been a topic since the 80s.

Study methodology and participants

12:11 -

  • We included 30 trained participants (four women) with an average VO2max of 58 mL/kg-min. 
  • Participants would train 6-7 hours per week, and we expected adaptations would occur within 12 weeks of training.
  • The previous studies only had 5-week training periods, so we wanted also to evaluate the effect after four and twelve weeks.
  • We increased the training load by around 40-50 % compared to the baseline over that period.
  • The low-intensity training was free (athletes could do what they desired: cycling, cross-country skiing or running) and controlled training by HR.
  • All moderate and high-intensity sessions were in the lab with supervision.
  • The moderate intervals were 4x12min at an RPE of 14-16. (0-20)
  • The high-intensity intervals were 5x5min at an RPE of 18-19. (0-20)
  • In the traditional periodisation group, we gradually increased the load.
  • We did three four-week mesocycles: with the traditional periodisation, we started with 3x12min and 4x5min. In the second week, they did 4x12min and 5x5min. 
  • In the last week, they did 5x12min and 6x5min. After these three weeks, they did a recovery week.
  • The next mesocycles were similar to this one. (building up again)
  • For the block group, we put it all together. The first week was moderate intensity (only these intervals), the second was only low intensity, and the third was high intensity, followed by a recovery week.

Measured variables

17:03 -

  • On the first day, we did a lactate profile, where we increased the intensity gradually until reaching lactate levels above four mmol.
  • We did a 6-second all-out sprint, followed by a VO2max ramp test (25 W per minute).
  • After a short recovery, they did 45 minutes at 60 % of VO2max to finish with a 5 km time trial.
  • On the second day, we did a muscle biopsy, did a 40 km time trial, and measured the red blood volume.
  • After each mesocycle, we would do the lactate profile, and the protocol described for the first day.

Results

18:43 -

  • We saw significant improvements in both groups at power output at four mmol of lactate and maximum aerobic power at 5 and 40 km time trials.
  • Both groups improved by 8-12 % in these measurements.
  • We did not see any changes in VO2max in either group.
  • Gross efficiency (fatigue resistance) was also higher in both groups.
  • The increased training load led to an increase in fatigue resistance.
  • Red blood volume increased 10 % more in the block periodisation group compared to the traditional group.
  • In the traditional group, capillarisation around the muscles increased more than in the block group.
  • However, there are significant individual variations in this data.
  • Therefore, I would not conclude that red blood cells would increase more in the block periodisation group or that capillarisation occurs more in the traditional group.
  • We only used these metrics to explain our performance differences.
  • For athletes, the most important is if they improve the 40 km time trial power.

Conclusions from the study

23:16 -

  • Our data do not support the idea that block periodisation is superior to the endurance performance of trained cyclists compared to the best practices of endurance periodisation. And this is one of the crucial points.
  • In other studies, they found an improvement in block periodisation, using block periodisation (one week where we do five sessions), compared to a control group with regular training.
  • We included both low, moderate and high-intensity training in our control group.
  • If you are well-trained and do only low and high-intensity training and two high-intensity sessions per week, you will not push the "boundaries".
  • In this case, a block periodisation for well-trained endurance athletes could be a good idea.
  • However, compared to our design, where we gradually increased the load in the traditional periodisation group, we do not see the differences. This reason might explain why other studies found differences between different approaches.
  • Our approach was to implement protocols that allowed athletes to perform the sessions throughout the 12-week training period.
  • However, there were significant differences between athletes: block periodisation would be a significant overload for some, while for others, it would not.
  • If a person is pushing the limits at high-intensity sessions, you would expect that the best session they will do would be the best. (they would accumulate fatigue over time)
  • However, we did not see that. The block periodisation group had a lower relative intensity than the traditional group.

Block periodisation final thoughts

28:05 -

  • If you are an athlete who has stagnated in your training improvements, some drastic changes might allow athletes to step up.
  • We should see block periodisation as another tool to mix things up, not only for the training adaptations but also for the psychological purpose that you are switching lanes.
  • For some athletes, block periodisation is perfect.
  • They might have one week where they focus entirely on high-intensity training that fits them perfectly because athletes know they can do low-intensity training only needing to focus on one session.
  • Moreover, it will depend on the athlete's recovery and how deep they will go.
  • We could expect that an anaerobic type athlete can go deep into high-intensity training but will require more extended periods to recover from those sessions.
  • It should be a tool in the toolbox that you should try out in a part of the session where it is not a significant risk.
  • You should not do it right before the first competition that you will peak.
  • For non-weight-bearing sports, block periodisation could be a tool athletes can use. (swimming, skiing)

Practical takeaways

31:50 -

  • We improve our time trial performance when we do more exercise.
  • We saw an improvement in gross efficiency in a more fatigued state, only in 12 weeks of training in well-trained athletes.
  • For triathletes, training for extended periods leads to improvements that athletes should look at in their training.
  • Moreover, we also see improvements in the sprint output, so fatigue resistance could be a parameter that athletes should focus on preparing for an Ironman.

Project Nicki is working on at the moment

33:57 -

  • It is still a secret project that includes cyclists and triathletes from Team Denmark and National Sports Federation.
  • We are looking at a specific dietary intervention, where we manipulated the total amount of carbs and protein over six weeks and how this affects protein synthesis.

Rapid-fire questions

35:10 -

What is your favourite place to train?

Norway

What is a bucket-list race that you want to do?

I will do Mallorca 312 next year.

If you could acquire an expert level in any skill for yourself, what would it be?

I would love to know more about statistical programs and statistics in general.

LINKS AND RESOURCES:


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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