Periodise your training: latest research in beating your PBs

Andrew Hamilton talks us through the latest research in better performance

One definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results. Unfortunately, many cyclists follow the same basic training routine, month after month, year after year, in the expectation of PBs.

But when their performances don’t improve significantly, they scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong. One of the things that went wrong of course was that they failed to periodise their training in a productive way.

Periodisation involves changes in your training volume, intensity and frequency at different points in time in order to ensure the right training adaptations occur at the right time – for example, just before that all-important race or sportive. There are a number of ways to periodise your training routine using different types of periodisation plans.

And in addition to the more usual or ‘traditional’ periodisation plans, there are also ‘block’ periodisation plans. In these block plans, you complete a whole block of one type of training before moving onto the next phase. This approach differs from more tradition periodisation plans where different training types are mixed up and interspersed with each over a longer period.

But which is more effective for cyclists – the traditional approach or block periodisation? This is what Norwegian scientists attempted to discover in a brand new study.

The science
The purpose of their investigation was to compare the effects of two different methods of organising endurance training in trained cyclists during a 12-week preparation period.

One group of eight cyclists performed block periodisation, wherein every fourth week during the 12-week period, they performed five sessions of high-intensity aerobic training (HIT). In the 3 weeks between these high-intensity weeks they performed just one HIT session.

Another group of 7 cyclists performed a more traditional organisation of their training, with twelve identical weeks in which they performed two HIT sessions per week. In both groups of cyclists, all of the HIT was interspersed with low-intensity training so that similar total volumes of both high-intensity and low-intensity training were performed in the two groups

The findings
When the results were number crunched, the researchers found that the cyclists performing block periodisation achieved a larger relative improvement in their maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) than the cyclists following the traditional plan (gains of 8.8% vs. 3.7% respectively).

Moreover, the block cyclists achieved larger increases in their power output at a given concentration of fatiguing lactate in the blood (22% gain vs. 10% gain) – in plain English, they were able to increase their steady state pace more before fatigue due to lactate accumulation set in.

The icing on the cake was that the block-trained cyclists had greater increases in blood haemoglobin (meaning better oxygen carrying capacity) and were able to sustain higher average power outputs during an all-out 40-minute time trial.

So what?
Any kind of structured periodisation plan is likely to give you better results than doing the same training week in, week out. However, what this shows is that when it comes to cycling endurance and performance, arranging your high-intensity training in fairly dense blocks seems to be a superior to spreading it out across a long period of time.

It’s hard to say why this is the case but one possibility is that a blocked approach allows for better recovery and hence, greater adaptation.

Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2012 Nov 8. doi: 10.1111/sms.12016. [Epub ahead of print]

This article was first published in the November 22 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.