The Power of Overload: Why Block Periodization Makes You a Faster Cyclist

Professional cyclists like Peter Sagan sprint for the victory on the last stage of the Tour de France in Paris being well-prepared by block periodization training.

Due to my obsession for improvement, I always strive to improve my cycling performance. I’m looking for new ways or concepts that are evidence-based and help my fitness grow further.  One such approach I came across some time ago is block periodization. 

Block Periodization is a well-researched and scientifically grounded concept nowadays. While it might not be the best choice for all kinds of cyclists, it might be the next step for you to break through a performance plateau if done right.

1. What is Block Periodization 

Put simply, block periodization means placing your high-intensity efforts in the first week of the training month instead of spreading it more evenly across the month. This is important because a training month usually represents a mesocycle, which is a specific training block within your training year. Hence, block periodization is nothing else than a mesocycle organized differently.

In comparison, a review by no other than Dr. Seiler states that endurance athletes should perform two or occasionally three threshold or HIT sessions each week and that more HIT sessions can cause symptoms of overreaching or overtraining while not bringing further improvements. You also want to avoid back-to-back HIT sessions to give your body time to recover before the next tough interval session. So, traditional linear periodization would give you two weekly interval sessions across the whole training block.

Block periodization, in contrast, throws all those basic training principles out of the window.

Well, at least in the first week… During the initial block week, you have to complete five HIT sessions while only having one weekly HIT session in the following three weeks. This method is a rather unconventional way to organize training. According to science, however, it looks very promising. A very concentrated training load seems to make a lot of sense and is similar to the concept of Training Density. I dedicated a whole article to the science of Training Density, and I highly encourage you to read it. 

On white background 6 training sessions are presented with one being a recovery ride. The rest of the sessions are threshold and HIT intervals that will cause a huge stress on your body to trigger adaptation.
A sample Block Periodization Overload Week for Cyclists Training around 10 Hours

2. High Risk – High Reward Training

The block periodization concept is one from the high-risk-high-reward category. Regular readers of my blog know that training is a fine line between doing too little and too much. 

Due to the concentrated overload week, there’s a substantial risk of overreaching and overtraining when applying block periodization. Therefore, block periodization is an advanced training technique. Such a technique should only be applied by well-trained cyclists. You should always enter a block periodization cycle out of a recovery week. Starting the block cycle a little bit beaten is the base for disaster.

How can you assess if you’re well-trained? Well, your training level is less about your FTP and more about your base fitness and years of serious training. Riders with 1-2 years of structured training should neglect block periodization and focus more on a solid traditional build-up. If you have three-plus years under your belt, you earned my trust to go for block periodization.

For those approved let’s look at what the science has to say. Most studies on block periodization were done on cyclists or cross-country skiers. Scandinavian researchers implemented both a 4 and 12-week block periodization intervention study. 

The 4-week block study divided 21 male cyclists into a block group and a traditional group. The block group performed 5 HIT sessions, consisting of 5x6min and 6x5min intervals in the first week, with one weekly HIT session in the following three weeks.

The traditional group did the same intervals only twice weekly across the 4 weeks. The rest of the sessions were all done at low-intensity known as easy zone 2 training in a 6-zone model. Also, both groups performed matched volume and intensity. The results? While the traditional group stagnated, the block group improved their VO2max, max power, and their power at 2mmol lactate.

The 12-week block periodization study showed similar results.

Researchers separated 18 competitive cyclists into a block and a traditional group. Intervals were the same as in the 4-week study. The only difference this time: the block group had to repeat the 4-week block three times. Hence, you had to suffer through an overload block every fourth week. Now, that sounds fun! But once again the block group came out on top with a larger increase in VO2max, 2mmol lactate power, and a higher power in a 40-minute time trial. 

A 5-week block periodization on cross-country skiers came to a similar result. The only difference here is that in addition to the 5 HIT sessions in the first week, subjects had to complete 3 HIT sessions in the third week.

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3. My Experience and The Stage Race Effect

So far, the block periodization concept seems like a solid alternative or additional concept for serious cyclists to get even more serious. 

That was enough for me. I wanted to experience block periodization firsthand. Down below you see my first-ever block week. All sessions are HIT workouts. I learned my lessons, and nowadays, I suggest a mix of both threshold and HIT sessions. A study from Seiler and colleagues done on 10km runners suggests that both HIT and race-pace sessions in combination lead to peak performance. For context: The HIT and the race-pace group had similar finish times. If you ask me, I don’t want to miss out on both of them.

Here’s my overload week in detail:

  • Monday – Rest day
  • Tuesday – 2 hours with 4x6min VO2max Intervals
  • Wednesday – 1.5 hours with 4x4min Fast Start Intervals
  • Thursday – 1.5 hours with 5x3min Fast Start Intervals
  • Friday – 1-hour recovery ride
  • Saturday – 4 hours hilly ride with unstructured full-gas climbs with durations of 2-6 minutes
  • Sunday – 2 hours with 3x8x30s/30s intervals
  • Total Volume: 12 Hours – 731 TSS

What you see immediately is a relatively high TSS of 731. I achieved a similar TSS with a 20 hours+ high volume endurance week but I felt completely different afterwards. TSS fails to measure the intensity accurately. As a result, my fatigue was substantial after the block week compared to the low-intensity week.

I also noticed something similar between the block week and the stage races I did. The first two days were tough, but on the third day, I was sore off the bike but felt really good and powerful on the bike. Although pounding yourself, your power numbers don’t drop off.

Dylan Johnson refers to it as the stage racing effect. It explains why Vingegaard had such an outstanding TT performance in stage 16 of the 2023 Tour de France. Dan Lorang, head coach of Bora-Hansgrohe, could confirm this effect in an interview. Therefore, block periodization is a great way to get yourself ready for stage racing because you’re getting used to punching yourself in the face day after day.

But once you take your gas off the foot, fatigue sets in…

4. Block Periodization: A Way to Go For Well-Trained Cyclists

As already addressed earlier in the article, you should only apply block periodization if you are a highly-trained athlete with a decent amount of proper training. Less trained cyclists might get into a hole where they can’t get out of for long.

But everyone will experience a performance plateau at some point. And as you may know, you need to stress your body more or differently to achieve adaptation.

For example, if you notice your FTP stagnating for some period, it might be time to mix things up. A similar conclusion comes from the researchers in the 12-week HIT study. They state that If you are a highly-trained individual a high stimulus like this might be necessary to achieve further improvements.

Another important finding from the 12-week Block Periodization study is that the well-being of the legs was worse in the block group. The traditional group didn’t experience any bad legs. I can confirm that. Once you start the recovery process you will feel the delayed onset of muscle soreness you accumulated during the block week. If you get the recovery right, however, you will experience higher power numbers week after week. The block group could increase their power numbers week after week as they recovered from the huge load. 

To get you ready for what’s to come, here is my recovery week suggestion:

  • Monday – Rest Day
  • Tuesday – 1-hour recovery ride
  • Wednesday – 1-hour endurance zone 2
  • Thursday – 1-hour endurance zone 2
  • Friday – Rest Day
  • Saturday – 3 hours with 3x10x30s/30s back to normal
  • Sunday – Long Ride 4 hours endurance zone 2
  • Total Volume: 10 Hours

Note that you can never make a recovery ride too easy, but you can easily make it too hard. A pretty exciting observation I made is that after completing several block periodization cycles, I saw a huge increase in my VO2max power and FTP. After the block mesocycle stated above, I rode my best-ever 20-minute power test of 411 watts at 65kg. Also, I can complete any HIT interval session “easily” ever since. 

Talking peak performance, you should place your block week at least four weeks before your A-race. With that particular planning, you will arrive at your race recovered and in the best shape ever.

6. Putting It All Together

Block periodization is a promising alternative approach to traditional periodization. A more recent Meta-Analysis and Review on block periodization from 2019 found small favorable effects on block versus traditional periodization regarding VO2max and max power.

Hate it or love it, but a block periodization will give you a different training stimulus and is the reason why World Tour pros prepare in week-long stage races for Grand Tours.

If you are serious about your performance or sit on a performance plateau, block periodization can be your recipe to see your FTP go up and break through your stagnation. Furthermore, if you want to peak for a stage race, a block cycle will get you ready to punch yourself in the face day after day. 

I wouldn’t go as far as the research and go through 3 cycles of block periodization but supplementing your training plan with block periodization can help you arrive at your target race in the best shape ever. I made a lot of progress with block periodization and see good results in my athletes as well. 
A 12-week study is the longest intervention period done on a group basis. There is, however, an interesting case study where they put a subject on block periodization across a whole training year. I break down the study and show you what we can transfer from it in the next article. Just click here.

Discover my block periodization plans

If you find this article helpful, you will love my training plans on TrainingPeaks. Check out all my plans here or get straight to work with my block periodization plans below:

  1. RV Block Periodization 2.0, 10 Hours (12 Weeks)
  2. RV Block Periodization, 6 Hours (4 Weeks)
  3. RV Block Periodization, 10 Hours (4 Weeks)
  4. RV Block Periodization, 15 Hours (4 Weeks)

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Studies Used in this Article

  1. Block periodization of high-intensity aerobic intervals provides superior training effects in trained cyclists
  2. Effects of 12 weeks of block periodization on performance and performance indices in well-trained cyclists
  3. Block periodization of endurance training – a systematic review and meta-analysis
  4. Training Periodization, Intensity Distribution, and Volume in Trained Cyclists: A Systematic Review
  5. No Differences Between 12 Weeks of Block- vs. Traditional-Periodized Training in Performance Adaptations in Trained Cyclists
  6. 5-week block periodization increases aerobic power in elite cross-country skiers
  7. What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?
  8. A Scientific Approach to Improve Physiological Capacity of an Elite Cyclist
  9. Influence of Interval Training Frequency on Time-Trial Performance in Elite Endurance Athletes

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