Block Periodisation in Triathlon | EP#68
Block periodisation has the potential to be a more effective approach to periodisation than all others for advanced triathletes.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- What is block periodisation, and how is it different from traditional periodisation
- How can triathletes apply block periodisation to their training
- Who should consider using block periodisation in their training
- Research studies showing the superiority of block periodisation over traditional periodisation
- Question marks around and limitations of block periodisation
What is block periodisation?
Two types of block periodised training
1. Concentrated unidirectional training model
- This is really only relevant and beneficial when you can get away with training just one ability at a time.
- An example is on jumping sports where you only need strength/power and speed.
2. Multi-targeted block periodised training model
- This is a better approach for endurance sports, where you may need to train more than one ability at a time.
- This consists of blocks lasting 2-6 weeks. Each block corresponds to a single mesocycle.
- Each mesocycle includes a highly concentrated workload directed at a minimal number of different training modalities and abilities.
- Unlike traditional mixed programs that are directed at working several different abilities or modalities at the same time, the block periodised training system uses consecutive development of abilities.
- You would do one block and focus on just one or a small number of abilities. Then you would do a second block where you would target a different ability.
- The aim here is to get the optimal interaction and superposition of these blocks.
In block periodisation, you get rid of all those extra training modalities and focus on just one or two things that you’re trying to develop in each 2-6 week mesocycle.
Three types of mesocycles
1. Accumulation phase
- This focuses on basic abilities. For endurance athletes, these may be aerobic endurance, muscle strength, and general technique or coordination.
- This focuses on sport-specific abilities. Depending on the sport, this might be high-intensity anaerobic work, maximum strength, or muscular endurance. This is the hardest phase.
- This phase is where you’re focusing on something more intense and in a highly concentrated workload. It might be that you want to improve your VO2max, so you do a highly concentrated workload of VO2max workouts.
- For triathletes, muscular endurance is typically the ability to develop in this phase.
- This focuses on recovery and peaking towards competition.
- Ensure you don't have too long mesocycles so that the residual training effects can be maintained.
- In each mesocycle, optimize what you gain from it by training compatible abilities and energy systems with compatible training methods. Avoid any conflicting physiological responses.
- An example is a highly anaerobic or even alactic training. These types of training may conflict with building aerobic endurance.
- A basic of knowledge of physiology and exercise science is good to have here.
Combining mesocycles and annual training plan
- These 3 types of mesocycles are joined together to form a training stage that lasts around 2 months. It usually ends with participation in a competition or race.
- The annual cycle then consists of several of these 2-month training stages. There can be 5-7 of them depending on how long the mesocycles are.
- You can and should time your mesocycles with your races. This is one of the biggest advantages of block periodisation. You have a great way to peak for each of your key races.
Results of block periodisation in endurance athletes
History and anectdotal results
- The first block periodisation experiments started in the 80s. One of the first successful examples of applying block periodisation is from hammer throw, with gold medals being won at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games.
- Kayaking and canoeing had several successful teams using block periodisation. For example, the USSR national team had 3 gold and 3 silver medals in 1988 and 8 and 9 gold medals in the world championships during 1989 and 1990.
- In swimming, one of the renowned coaches Gennadi Touretski coached Alexander Popov (5-time Olympic champion, multiple World and European Champion) and Michael Klim from Australia (2-time Olympic champion, multiple world champion). He used block periodisation fo their training.
- A recent Norwegian study from 2014 by Rønnestad titled Effects of 12 weeks of block periodization on performance and performance indices in well-trained cyclists is one of the better examples of scientific evidence of block periodisation.
- It was a 3-month study of very well-trained (but not elite) cyclists. They found a superior effect of block periodisation compared to the traditional mixed periodisation training.
- The kayaking/canoeing example mentioned above is another of the better examples of scientific research on block periodisation in endurance sports. They had a good number of participants and lasted for 1, 2, or 3 years (3 different studies from three different countries have been conducted to date).
- However, the amount of good scientific evidence comparing block and traditional periodisation is very limited. A few of the other studies listed in Issurin's review are either too short (I'd suggest you need at least 3 months to make any claims about the periodisation superiority) or have too few participants (some are just case studies).
- The promising thing though, is that all of the studies that exist have shown the superiority of block periodisation compared to traditional periodisation.
- There are also studies from other fields aside from endurance sports that support this notion may be better than traditional periodisation. One example is A Comparison of Traditional and Block Periodized Strength Training Programs in Trained Athletes (Bartolomei, 2014, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research)
Because of the limited amount of evidence, we can't draw any conclusions at this point about the potential superiority of block periodisation compared to traditional periodisation.
However, we can say that it seems very promising indeed, and here's hoping that more researchers start doing similar kinds of studies that Rønnestad and colleagues did.
More on the Norwegian study in 2014 by Rønnestad et al.
- It is titled Effects of 12 weeks of block periodization on performance and performance indices in well-trained cyclists
- Definition of terms: Trend – close to statistical significance but not quite. For example, generally you need a 95% statistical confidence level to state that a hypothesis is true (or technically to reject a null hypothesis). This is called statistical significance. But if you have 90-95% confidence, then you might say that something is trending, although it's not quite statistically significant.
- The study enrolled 18 well-trained cyclists. The volume of high-intensity and low-intensity training was almost exactly the same in both groups.
- The block periodised group conducted one week of 5 high-intensity training sessions followed by 3 weeks of 1 high-intensity training session, with the rest of the sessions focusing on low-intensity training.
- This 4-week block was repeated 3 times to make up 12 weeks in total.
- The traditional group did 2 high-intensity training sessions per week throughout the study, with the rest being low-intensity training.
- They used heart rate to classify intensity and power meters to measure performance.
- The high-intensity sessions alternated between 6x5 and 5x6 minutes at above-threshold intensity.
- They measured VO2 max, blood lactate profile, 40-minute time trial performance, and haemoglobin mass (which is a big component of VO2 max) before and after the 12-week intervention.
- There were no performance or physiological differences between groups before the intervention.
- At the end of the sudy, VO2max improvement was statistically significantly in favour of block periodisation. This group had an 8.8% increase in VO2max from baseline, compared to a 3.7% increase in the traditional group.
- The power at VO2 max increased by 6.2% in the block periodised group and 3.5% in the traditional group. This was trending but not quite statistically significant.
- Haemoglobin mass change was not statistically significant or even trending. The block periodised group did increase it by 5.6% versus just 1.2% in the traditional group, but there was a large variance across individuals.
- There was a trend towards higher power at 2 millimoles of lactate per liter of blood, which is usually defined as the aerobic threshold. The power at this aerobic threshold saw a 22% improvement in the block periodised group compared to 10% in the traditional group.
- There was a trend towards power output difference in the 40-minute time trial. There was an 8.2% improvement in the block periodised group and 4.1% in the traditional group.
- Also, the perceived well-being in the legs was worse in the block periodised group than in the traditional group in the harder weeks (with 5 intense sessions).
- The authors of this study conclude that block periodisation seems very promising but needs larger studies.
- The effect size of the relative improvement in all measured parameters revealed a moderate effect of block periodised training versus traditional training. A moderate effect in this case is actually in endurance sports something very much worth considering because you are looking for marginal gains.
- The authors also concluded that larger stimuli might be necessary to achieve further improvements in already well-trained athlete. Therefore, those blocks of high-intensity training with 5 sessions per week is likely to explain the favourable adaptation to block periodisation.
In this study, block periodisation was found to have superior effects on several endurance and performance indices compared with traditional periodisation.
How triathletes can apply block periodisation to their training
Who is block periodisation for?
- It is definitely for very well-trained triathletes. All research in block periodisation in endurance sports has been done in elite or very well trained athletes.
- This may change if more research is done in the future. However, at this point, I wouldn’t recommend it for somebody who isn’t at the top-end or fighting for podiums in their age group, or at least being in the top 10% or so.
- Another thing to consider is that you need to have time to do volume in the accumulation block. This block really is dependent on that. Aerobic endurance is one the basic abilities in triathlon.
- If you’re restricted to 10 hours or less per week then this probably isn’t for you.
How do you actually do it?
- This depends a lot on your goal races.
- Work backward from your goal races and try to fit in the accumulation, transmutation, and realization mesocycles of various lengths between each goal race.
- If you have a long time between goal races, then repeat this cycle multiple times.
- You need to have volume and develop your basic abilities. You can do aerobic endurance through long, slow distance training. If you use a 5-zone system, that would be Zones 1 and 2.
- Technique is another basic ability to focus on here, although it can be part of your aerobic endurance training.
- Strength training is the third basic ability you may consider adding in here. For your strength training, you could do either low reps, high weight or high reps, low weight depending on where your strength training limiters are.
- Strength, technique, and aerobic endurance are the basic abilities of triathlon. They should go into your accumulation block and nothing more. No intervals workouts.
- Depending on your athletic profile, it could be muscular endurance workouts (very likely) but it could also be VO2max workouts (for some athletes).
- This transmutation block may be a whole lot of muscular endurance training. You could do the classic 3x20 minute intervals on the bike and similar.
- Your volume drops significantly and you focus just on those highly intense sessions on muscular endurance in the three disciplines.
- If you feel that your VO2max is holding you back (you might have done some lab testing to come to that conclusion), then you might do a VO2max-focused block here.
- Some race intensity but low volume and good recovery. This is a classic taper.
Other application-related factors
- One more thing to consider in the application for triathletes is how to think about the three disciplines – swimming, biking, and running. Should you do the same type of training in all three disciples in the same block?
- There is no right or wrong answer here. There’s no proven answer out there at the moment.
- Physiologically, doing specialised work like anaerobic endurance training or even speed endurance in one discipline can affect how you perform in training in other disciplines.
- For example, speed endurance training in running or swimming might affect your muscular endurance training in biking, and it can be detrimental. For example, your nervous system might need longer to recover from that type of training.
- You should aim to stress the same energy systems and the same abilities in all three disciplines in the same blocks.
- But, you will need to be an advanced athlete to do this type of block periodised training. You need to be strong across the board in swimming, biking, and running.
- Block periodised training has huge potential. It’s very promising. The current evidence indicates that block periodised training may be a better way to periodise than traditional periodisation, but we can't make conclusive claims about that yet.
- Block periodised training may be more beneficial for advanced athletes since they require bigger stimuli to improve further. This type of training is, at least based on current evidence, for well-trained athletes and not for beginners or even intermediate athletes.
- It’s fantastic for structuring your annual periodisation around multiple peaks in and around races and competition, which is always a challenge. For triathletes, this is a highly relevant benefit.
- Block periodised training could be recommended for advanced athletes that have reached a plateau and feel they are not improving at the. However, if you are improving with what you’re currently doing, you don’t need to change your approach. Wait until you hit a plateau at some later point.
- There is not enough evidence yet to draw any conclusions. More research is needed, specifically in endurance sports. Several larger studies with at least 30-40 participants would be ideal.
- A lot of the research that is labelled block periodised training is way too short in time period for it to be relevant.
- There are also question marks on how well this works in a multi-sport like triathlon.
- Does something like muscular endurance training count as one ability or does it count as three abilities since we have muscular endurance in swimming, biking, and running?
- Should we think about it the other way around and focus the blocks not on the energy systems and abilities, but rather on the different disciplines?
- There is no answer to those questions at this point. So, we’ll rely on experimentation on ourselves and find out what works for us at this point.
- One final thing is that you always need to be mindful of the residual training effect when planning your training in a block periodised fashion. So, you don’t want to build an ability up but lose all of the gains by the time competition comes. This may require some knowledge of exercise science and physiology.