From Elite to World Class Level: How Block Periodisation Transformed a Master Cyclist

Pro cyclists ride up a climb in the Tour de France with huge salt stains on their cycling shorts due to the hot summer.
Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

Are you curious how good you can become, if you train seriously for a more than a whole year? Well, no other than Norwegian scientist Bent Rønnestad put that question into practice. He hired an experienced cyclist and put him under block periodisation for 58 weeks. And as you might know Rønnestad is one of the main researchers around block periodisation. 

Since a case study expresses the lowest research standard, we should transfer its knowledge carefully. However, with multiple science-based methods applied on the subject, there’s a lot to discover from this interesting case study. 

Let me tell you that this rider completely transformed his cycling fitness. And given his age makes it even more remarkable. In fact, the guy was 37 years old, started with a VO2max of 73.8 ml/min/kg and nailed the last test with a VO2max of 87 ml/min/kg. Therefore, the following case study might change our understanding of endurance performance forever.

Let’s dive right in… 

The Man, The Myth, The Rider

Before we get into the detailed training plan, we should discuss the rider that had the pleasure to change his traditional training to block periodisation. 

The participant was a 37 year old cyclist, who trained from a young age on. He was no stranger to lab tests and aware of the test protocols. Depending on how trained he was his VO2max fluctuated between 65 to 76.5 ml/min/kg, his maximum aerobic power (MAP) between 5.76 to 6.52 w/kg, and power at 3 mmol lactate/l blood between 3.4 to 4.1 w/kg. Body weight at pre-test was 71.3 kg and gradually decreased to 68 kg at post-test.

Two things stand out already: This dude is a) very talented, and b) has built a huge aerobic base since youth. 

Quite fittingly, the cyclist reached his best values 1 year out from the official study. During this time he trained a total of 550 hours per year. Half a year out from the pre-test he trained between 5 to 13 hours weekly, focusing on low-intensity (LIT), moderate intensity (MIT), and just 1 weekly high-intensity session (HIT). He neglected any forms of strength training though. 

Now that we have a better picture of the athlete, we can break down the whole training year heading from macrocycle, to mesocycle, to microcycle. 

The Full Training Cycle 

The total training volume across all 58 weeks (macrocycle) was 678 hours spread across the three zones and strength training: Accordingly, 451.6 h was LIT (67%), 124 h was MIT (18%), 69 h was HIT (10%) and 33.6 h was strength training (5%). 

A quick note on training zones: Science divides zones by two physiological breakpoints. Thereby, LT1 represents the upper border of LIT and LT2 the upper border of MIT. Put simply, LIT represents your endurance pace, MIT tempo and threshold, and HIT everything above it. 

Anyway, average weekly hours were 12 h with a huge difference depending on the block focus. And we will get to the exact block structure in a bit. But for now let’s focus on the intensity distribution. 

Rønnestad was driven by the curiosity that most intervention studies on block periodisation were short on time, lasting up to 12 weeks, and only focused on LIT and HIT sessions. However, in the literature we see that both MIT and strength training improve endurance performance when added to high portions of LIT.

With that in mind he applied a whole new concept of overload weeks. Let’s talk about that now.

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1. Overload Weeks and Their Shapes and Sizes

In contrast to regular overload weeks from block periodisation studies, where 4-6 HIT sessions with lowered training volume are applied, we see a different story in this study. 

Each block lasted between 1-2 weeks. Considering that block periodisation is a balance of overload and recovery, the total weekly structure was as follows:

  • LIT Blocks: 7 (7-10 LIT sessions)
  • MIT Blocks: 11 (4-6 weekly MIT sessions)
  • HIT Blocks: 11 (4-6 weekly HIT sessions)
  • Recovery Blocks: 19 (reduced training volume at 7-10 hours)

According to studies on periodisation the first 8 weeks consisted of LIT and MIT blocks with around one weekly HIT session. Training volume gradually increased and peaked at 25 hours in week 8. The idea was to provide an easier stimulus and build up from there. Similar to what we see in contemporary base training. Keep it easy but don’t exclude intensity. 

Based on this, Rønnestad aimed to change the focus from one block to the next to achieve a different training stimulus. Thus, the first HIT block came in at week 9. 

“The main idea was that it is important to regularly emphasize the three main intensity zones for endurance training and to change the stimulus from one block to the next block.”

Bent Rønnestad

What I find interesting are the LIT blocks. The 7 LIT blocks had a weekly volume of 25 up to 30 hours. This is a huge difference compared to his regular volume we already discussed. When you look at what empirical advice suggests or pro cyclists do in training camps, LIT blocks are essentially the same. If you head to warmer environments you have more time and usually double your weekly volume. It’s no surprise that pros rip up to 35 hours weekly in a camp compared to their standard 20 hour weeks. 

But a good training plan isn’t just LIT and volume. Instead, it’s the art of including interval training to maximize training load without overdoing it. 

Here’s what the master rider did.

2. Interval Sessions – Why and How? 

Interval training comes to play at MIT and HIT. The goal of both is to maximize sustained power, threshold, and VO2max among others. Because intervals alternate between work and recovery, you can accumulate more time at intensity than giving it one shot. However, at MIT intensities it can be useful to perform one steady effort. 

This is exactly what the subject did. MIT sessions consisted of either a steady 40-70 minute effort or 5-8 x 10-15 minute intervals both at 83-87% of max heart rate. The heart rate percentages are around the threshold.

On the other hand, HIT sessions were performed as either intermittent intervals like 3x13x30/15 or “traditional” intervals like 4-8 x 4-6 minute intervals. 

While LIT sessions were performed as steady rides, it’s worth mentioning that these ranged from 3-7 hours. 

Apparently, up to this point the training structure looks quite simple.

No bells and whistles. Do x intervals in y zone for z times. It’s as simple as that. The results speak for themselves. 

Next we will look at strength training

3. Lifting Heavy Weights 

Recent research has shown that heavy strength training improves cycling performance. Once again Rønnestad left his mark on these studies. 

In fact, the benefits from heavy strength training seem to come from a delayed activation of less efficient type 2 fibers, conversion from type 2x fibers into more fatigue resistant type 2a fibers, improved neuromuscular efficiency, and better musculo-tendinous stiffness. 

In our example strength training was incorporated after the first test in week 10 or 39 in the study. 

Basic periodisation was also applied to it. Firstly, the individual performed two weekly sessions to improve strength. Hereafter, strength work was only performed once every 7th to 10th day for maintenance. 

When we look at the increased fitness of this individual, we can assume that strength training contributed to the overall performance increase. 

Since the benefits of a serious training plan seem obvious already, at one point or another we will all face some obstacles. 

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Training is a Continuum

Even this experienced cyclist didn’t get away without any issues that interrupted his training. 

Toward the end of the intervention period the cyclists suffered a crash and a sickness that lost him 1.5 weeks of training. Furthermore, just 8 weeks out from the last test the athlete had a business trip that allowed only limited training time. 

Nonetheless, he reached his best ever performance at the end of the intervention period. And this is the key here: All your obstacles or interruptions, like sickness, work, or injuries are relative to your consistency. If you stick to your plan both on good and bad days, periods of training cessation won’t kill your form. On the contrary, you might get back to the grind quickly. 

Alright, now let’s discuss what lessons we can learn from this useful case study for our own training.

Discoveries from Training One Block at a Time 

Remember that the mentioned rider had a pre-test VO2max of 73.8 ml/min/kg, a MAP of 6.14 w/kg, and a 3 mmol lactate power of 3.6 w/kg. 

After 58 weeks of hard work the last test revealed a whopping VO2max of 87 ml/min/kg, a MAP of 7.35 w/kg, and a 3 mmol lactate power of 4.9 w/kg. Keep in mind though that usually 4 mmol lactate is used to determine threshold. Hence, 3 mmol might be an underestimation of “true” lactate threshold 2.

Yet, the relative numbers don’t tell us the full story, as they’re relative to body weight. And as already discussed the subject started with 71.3 kg and finished with 68 kg. Therefore, the absolute powers are of huge value because more absolute power won’t only improve our uphill performance but also our flat one. Also, absolute numbers tell us a better story of real progress.

What’s interesting as well is the fact that the athlete saw a huge increase in VO2max only with LIT and MIT blocks. This confirms findings in the literature that suggest that if training load is adequate, VO2max will improve from different intensities. 

In terms of absolute gains the athlete saw a 12.3% increase in VO2max, a 14.2% increase in MAP, and a 29.3% increase in power at 3 mmol. 

Since this is a case study, we can’t translate general recommendations, as response to training stimuli is individual, but here are my five learnings from this article:

  1. Train Consistently. First you should train often. Ride your bike consistently and make the bulk of it LIT. 
  2. Focus on Different Aspects of Your Fitness.  Have a clear goal during a training block. Want to improve your threshold? Focus on that. Lacking high-intensity? Focus on that and so on.
  3. Apply different Block Models. Think outside the box. There’s no one size fits all. An overload week could mean going for a week long training camp and getting in as much LIT as you can handle. 
  4. Balance Training Load and Recovery. If you stress your body repeatedly, you accumulate fatigue. At certain times you need to shed it off to become faster. Remember it.
  5. Find a Strength Routine. Almost all studies on strength training and cycling see performance improvements. Build a strength routine you can maintain across a season and adapt it based on the training cycle you’re in.

The Block Training Process in Short

“Considering the already high physiological level and high age (37 years) this is a large improvement.”

Bent Rønnestad

The training process is the act of applying different exercise stimuli with adequate recovery. One way to approach cycling training is following the five learnings from this unique block periodization study. 

We’ve seen huge improvements in this individual considering his high age and high level of performance. I think it’s time to move away from age limits or other excuses why performance can’t be improved. Instead, the focus should be on permanent feasibility. A simple training program with a high focus on LIT, less but substantial amounts of MIT and HIT, and a strength routine will allow you to make constant progress while giving you enough time to recover and process the work. 

Being a fast cyclist isn’t about any magic interval session. Rather, it’s about connecting basic scientific principles with results-proven practice and apply them over a long period of time. 

Ready For Ongoing Improvement?

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Studies Used in This Article

  1. A Scientific Approach to Improve Physiological Capacity of an Elite Cyclist
  2. Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review
  3. What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?
  4. Effects of 12 weeks of block periodization on performance and performance indices in well-trained cyclists
  5. Strength training improves performance and pedaling characteristics in elite cyclists
  6. Short-term performance peaking in an elite cross-country mountain biker
  7. HIT maintains performance during the transition period and improves next season performance in well-trained cyclists
  8. The bioenergetics of world class cycling
  9. Tour de France versus Vuelta a España: which is harder?
  10. Performance Enhancement: What Are the Physiological Limits?
  11. Is there an optimal training intensity for enhancing the maximal oxygen uptake of distance runners?: empirical research findings, current opinions, physiological rationale and practical recommendations
  12. Strength training improves cycling performance, fractional utilization of VO2max and cycling economy in female cyclists

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