This is Part 5 in a series of posts about training and preparation for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters Switzerland in early March 2017. See Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 for an overview, specific training plans, strength training, and an evaluation of the required pace to podium in the M07 and F06 age classes. This post will begin a critical review of “block periodization” as applied to cross country ski racing training for masters skiers.
As stated in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I (Bumble) have adopted a “block periodization” approach to training for the cross country skiing race season this year. The other half of Team Bumble Bee (Bee) has decided to stick with the traditional (linear) training periodization that got her to two Olympics and many National Championships and National Championship podiums. Perhaps a wise choice but since we have almost 40 years of history of training together in many sports (road cycling, mountain biking, cross country skiing, road and trail running, and adventure racing) it will be an interesting season to see what the effects of a block periodization approach can have for an ageing athlete- both good and bad.
To obtain a detailed understanding of Block Periodization you will be well served to read Issurin’s book on the subject. The following is a brief synopsis of some take-aways that I have found useful in adapting Block Periodization (BP) to cross country ski racing training and specifically for a 60 year old experienced endurance athlete. I am assuming that the reader has a basic grasp of periodization and training plan development. For a good introductory-to-intermediate exposition on periodization I will suggest Chapter 8 of Friel’s book Total Heart Rate Training or Chapter 2 of House and Johnston’s book Training for the New Alpinisim.
Traditional periodization is comprised of a Macrocycle that is a year-long or many month-long sequence of Mesocycles called Base, Build, Peak, Race, and Transition. Here Base is “General Preparation”, build is “Specific Preparation”, “Peak” is Pre-Competition, “Race” is Competition, and “Transition” is the period between seasons (or between “A” races) for rest and recovery (both mental and physical). Within the Mesocycles are the individual workouts or series of workouts and they are called Microcycles. The “periodization” of this sequence has to do with not just the macro sequence of periods but also the length of each training period and the workout progressions in each period. Many athletes will have multiple Macrocycles in a calendar year to target multiple “A” races.
The distinguishing aspect of traditional periodization is that in each of the mesocycles all relevant abilities are exercised in parallel, although with varying focus. So a traditional periodization mesocycle will have appropriate levels of endurance, high intensity intervals, technique, speed, and strength stimuli to achieve the desired training effect.
It is important to point out that cross country skiing has a 10-12 week racing “season” where world-level competitors will be racing every week (and possibly more than once each week). Typically there are a couple of rest periods (a week of no racing) distributed during the season. This leads to a long “Race” Mesocycycle and this period needs to focus on staying sharp and rested for the entire season (or most of it). Some athletes choose a few races and develop a “race” mesocycle that allows for numerous peaks along with “B” races mixed in. The best skiers, however, are able to race competitively for the entire season with perhaps a short break before the most important “career” races like World Championships (every two years) and Olympics (every four years). For masters competitors the racing density is typically much lower (perhaps as often as every other week) and recovery between races is less challenging, although the slower recovery rate for ageing athletes can make such recovery just as challenging as for the World Cup competitors.
This long race season is the reason that the oft-heard quote “successful cross country skiers are made in the summer” holds so true. There is no making up for training once the season starts; so your fate as a competitor is essentially sealed by mid-December- just about the time that reliable snow is on the ground. It is critically important to do the general work from May-August, the specific work from August-November, and the Pre-Comp work in November-December. Once there is snow on the ground you will be racing.
The period sequencing allows an athlete to develop abilities (for instance, muscular endurance) and then maintain these abilities with reduced stimuli in subsequent periods that have a different focus. The macro progression needs to be sequenced in a way that is particular to one’s sport, the type of racing that is targeted, the timing of the races (or race season), and the time and commitment of the athlete. In the case of cross country skiing racing, endurance is the focus of the base period, VO2max development and Lactate Threshold pace are the focus of the build period, the peak period focuses on speed skill, technique, and getting sharp and rested, and the race period is focused on staying sharp and rested. This can be fairly complicated given all of the individual particulars for each competitor and is the reason that having a coach to help is a good idea for any committed athlete, including masters. But you can develop an effective training plan yourself if you are sufficiently motivated and knowledgeable.
A very common traditional periodization approach used by cross country ski athletes is based on 7-day microcycle within a 4 week mesocycle. This approach includes stimuli for many energy systems (abilities) in each week of training. For example, a typical traditional periodozation week might have a mid-length endurance workout and strength session on Monday, lactate threshold intervals on Tuesday, another endurance workout on Wednesday, a technique focus workout and strength session on Thursday, VO2 max intervals on Friday, a Tempo workout on Saturday, and an over-distance (OD) workout on Sunday- then rinse and repeat. This pattern is then adjusted within weeks to accommodate a 4 week cycle that includes one or more volume weeks, one or more intensity weeks, and, typically, one recovery week. For instance, in the “build” period an emphasis will be put upon VO2max and Lactate Threshold sessions and endurance, technique, speed, and strength will, to varying degrees, be de-emphasized. Multiple similar 4 week mesocycles can be scheduled to elicit the desired training stimulus (e.g. a longer endurance focus in the “base” period). The 4 week mesocycles are then planned such that as the race season approaches the training focus is shifted to the abilities that are most important for racing excellence, in the case of cross country skiing these are VO2max and Lactate Threshold pace.
Block periodization (BP) does not attempt to keep all abilities equally developed, rather each mesocycle has a singular focus (or, at most, two) that allows the athlete to fully develop a given ability. A basic tenet that drives the assertion of the efficacy of BP is a particularly strong argument for what some call “advanced” athletes. These are individuals that have been in rigorous periodized training regimens (typically in a traditional periodization protocol) for many years and have either reached or come close to their ultimate athletic potential. For advanced athletes following such a protocol, it is asserted by BP proponents that the traditional periodization approach has essentially taken the athlete to a performance plateau that is either the end-point for this athlete or represents a platform from which further performance improvements can be made by additional focus on the ability and/or intensity (or abilities/intensities) that are critical to racing success. So, in contrast to developing all energy systems (abilities) together on a weekly basis (traditional periodization), BP utilizes multi-week “blocks” of singular focus on a given intensity (or ability) to attempt to lift the athlete off a performance plateau by “fully” developing the energy system that drives that ability at that intensity. For example a common BP approach will have a 4-6 week VO2max mesocycle where the athlete does 3-5 VO2max workouts per week and essentially nothing else but rest and recovery. This could be followed by a 4-6 week Lactate Threshold pace mesocycle where, similarly, the workouts are singularly focused on maximizing Lactate Threshold pace. It is claimed that traditional periodization cannot do as good a job of ‘fully” developing such energy systems since efforts and time at intensity are diffused across a number of abilities and energy systems during the weekly training plan. Numerous studies have shown such a “block” protocol to be superior to traditional periodization in numerous endurance sports including cross country skiing.
Makes sense right? Well, there is a lot of data and substantial World and Olympic Championship history to support the efficacy of traditional periodization. This is the reason why an overwhelming majority (I estimate greater than 95%) of the best endurance athletes use some version of traditional periodization. However, BP is relatively new to endurance sport having only been incorporated in a meaningful way in the last 1-1.5 decades by a comparatively small number of world-level elite athletes. Perhaps the results of well-designed BP programs have yet to be highly publicized partly due to the highly secretive nature of many coaches and athletes when it comes to the specifics of their training regimens. Additionally, given less experience with BP, coaches may have difficulty with dosing, particularly with the highest intensity work. One of the primary negative feedback issues that I have discussed with a number of advanced and elite athletes that have tried BP is that they felt like they had perhaps too much intensity prior to the race season and then felt flat at important races. This is where the all-important 3 D’s come in- density, dose, and downtime. You need to get this right or you may well go over the edge- that perilous edge that defines the difference between success and failure that highly developed athletes face on a daily basis- a situation that a training program and associated coaching is supposed to avoid. This is yet another reason to have a coach. It is still early days for the application of BP to cross country skiing (and other endurance sports) but there is promise, particularly for “advanced” athletes.
block periodization for masters athletes
Many serious masters athletes are “advanced” athletes, that is they have been competing at a high level in their sport(s) of choice for many, many years- perhaps as many as 30-40 years- like me. Such athletes have likely reached performance plateaus and may be looking for a training approach that will allow them to break off the plateau and begin to see significant performance increases. This is one reason why BP is a good choice for advanced masters competitors.
A second reason for a masters competitor (not just advanced masters) to give serious consideration to BP is based upon a critical assessment of Friel’s “Big 3” performance limiters for masters athletes. Recall that these are:
- decreased aerobic capacity
- decreased muscle
- increased body fat
BP is ideally suited to address both the aerobic capacity issue and the muscle mass issue by allowing the athlete to focus on these within appropriately scheduled blocks in the periodization. Not only could BP break a masters athlete off a performance plateau, but those blocks focused on VO2max (aerobic capacity) will give the masters athlete the chance to beat back the foreboding effects of age and stop reductions in, or, hopefully, increase their VO2max.
These are the reasons that I am going with a BP program this season.
Training update – the first VO2max block
As you can see from my ATP, I spent July and August in a 9 week endurance “block” and entered into a 4 week VO2max “block” in late August through late September. I did some mini-block training this past spring while training for two ultramarathon running races and that seemed to work well, or at least as well as a traditional periodization. So with a bit a of familiarity, I went “all in” on a difficult block in September. Having not done any real high intensity training for over 10 weeks I eased into the workouts by starting with 1 minute duration efforts for the first week, 2 minute for the second week, 3 minute for the third week, and then ladders for the last week. This made the workouts less monotonous than some BP workouts I have seen and they were quite challenging as well.
Getting back to the “3Ds” (density, dose, and downtime) mentioned earlier, I was careful about how much intensity to start with and what to build up to. As far as density, although I wanted to do three VO2max workouts per week, I scaled that back to two in this first block to ensure that I did not go over the edge. For dose, after doing a bunch of research on the subject, I settled on starting at around 12-15 minutes of L5a-b work*** progressing through the block to about 25 minutes of L5a-b work***. I did more recovery (downtime) than I thought I needed, just to be careful at this point. Specifically,
All workouts are hill bounding with poles on steep (10-15% grade) to very steep (20-30% grade) hills with active rest periods:
week 1/workout 1: 10 X 1 min on 1 min rest on an uphill (10 min total work)
week 1/workout 2: 20 X 1 min on 1 min rest (20 min total work)
week 2/workout1: 7 X 2 min on 2 min rest (14 min total work)
week 2/workout2: 10 X 2 min on 2 min rest (20 min total work)
week 3/workout1: 5 X 3 min on 3 min rest (15 min total work)
week 3/workout 2: 7 X 3 on 3 min rest (21 min total work)
week 4/workout1: ladders- 2 X (1-2-3-3-2-1 min) on equal rest (24 min total work)
week 4 workout 2: ladders- 2 X (1-2-3-3-2-1 min) on equal rest (24 min total work)
Here is a typical heart rate trace and elevation profile from one of the ladder repeats:
I was getting 18 -24 hour recovery indexes from my Garmin 920XT after these workouts so I probably went into the block with good rest and seem to be absorbing the work fairly well, meaning that the downtime I implemented was sufficient. I will put up a separate post on why I think the FirstBeat recovery index that you get on a Garmin 920XT (and other models) is a valid assessment. One concern that I have is that I did an easy 10 km run today (September 30) during this recovery week and I got a TE (FirstBeat training effect) of 3.6 and a recovery index of 27 hours- not good for an easy run. I will be taking things very easy the next few days before embarking on a 4 week LT block.
I am also curious to find out if this extended VO2max block has had any impact on the FirstBeat measurement of VO2max. My VO2max has peaked at about 72 according to the 920XT over the past 2 years of use. If one has confidence in the FirstBeat algorithim this value would be only about 13% less than a “real” VO2max assessment of 82 done in 1979-1980 at the OTC at age 24. I am highly skeptical that such a small decline in VO2max is possible after almost 40 years, so I question the accuracy of the FirstBeat algorithm. However, based on the analysis protocol, VO2max trends are probably quite accurate and worth following. Prior to the recent VO2max block the watch had detected a peak of 63 during the summer endurance block. So I will be looking to see if this has changed significantly as I proceed into the LT block where the watch will be regularly detecting circumstances that allow for a calculation of VO2max. This should prove to be interesting.
Concurrently with the VO2max cardio block, I have been going through a max strength build program (“block”) as described in Part 3 of this series and on the ATP. All is going well and the build continues for another week where I should terminate the progression at over 150% of body weight for the pull up work. I met with a stubborn plateau at the 3/4 mark of the progression but with a bit more rest I was able to push through to the next weight increment. The hypertrophy is clearly in evidence- hopefully that slows down as it is a fine line for an endurance athlete between muscle mass and efficiency. A second max strength build progression will start sometime around November 1 (shifted from October 1 due to the stubborn plateau in the first progression), but I will have to get yet another heavier weight vest as I have maxed out the heavier one I got in August for the current block. That will make three increasing weight weight vests purchased over the past year. I do expect a hard plateau to come with this next heavier vest.
So having made it through the first high intensity block without any issues things are on a positive vibe- but being just at the beginning of this experiment I will defer any assessment until the first races in December. Having not ever done that much high intensity (VO2max) work over such an extended period ( 4 weeks), it seems that the protocol is “doable”, but the real question is: is it better than traditional periodization? – we will be finding out!
*** important note on heart rate zones
I utilize Friel’s heart rate zones which are enumerated in the back of his book Total Heart Rate Training. The values are based off percent of lactate threshold (LT)- a method that is derived from this easily measured physiologic variable. Many other systems utilize a percent of maximum heart rate- something that can be difficult (or dangerous) to reliably measure. I include three heart rate zone charts below to illustrate the differences that are yielded when using three different protocols- Friel’s based on LT (I give approximate % max HR values as well), “Nordic Elite” (an historical categorization typical among Cross Country Skiers) and the categorization shown in the book Training for the New Alpinisim. Friel (and many others) break up Zone 5 (Level 5) into three sub-zones (a,b,&c) and has workouts designed around these additional demarcations within Zone 5. The US Ski Association (USSA) also does this now where Zone 5 is split into sub-zones called 5, 6, 7 which are equivalent to Friel’s Zones 5a, 5b, and 5c. However, the USSA (USST), in their coaches training manuals, use very different zones than those typified by the Friel system. For instance, the USSA Level 3 is too broad and encompasses most of Friel’s Zone 2, all of Zone 3, and all of Zone 4. For instance, the USSA Level 3, for me, is from 139 bpm (90% of LT) to 155 bpm (100% of LT). So for my LT (155 bpm) the USSA Level 3 goes from low aerobic pace to race pace. Therefore proper segregation of effort into Friel’s (and many others) aerobic Zone 2, the “no man’s land” of Zone 3, and the very important steady state-tempo-lactate threshold Zone 4 is not defined. The USSA “Level 3” ends up confusing many athletes familiar with traditional five and seven zone systems- systems that are highly ingrained into the endurance training literature. In addition, in the manual, the description of and example workouts in “level 3” refer only to the upper end of this level (Friel’s Zone 4) and no mention is made of the ill effects of spending much training time in the lower end of the USSA level 3 (the traditional “zone 3” no man’s land). So why have such a broad categorization? It does not make sense. For these reasons I recommend not using the USSA system and that one consider the Friel-type protocol as a primary operative and intellectual construct.
But remember that it is critically important that one accurately define heart rate zones to efficaciously utilize heart rate as a training tool. This is the principal mistake that many athletes make when using heart rate monitoring for training- they do not take the time to set the zones accurately. Also, if using LT as the basis for the zones, one must update the zones regularly when you are in intensive training because LT will move around a bit depending what the focus of the training is. For example, my LT typically moves from 153-155 as a function of whether I am in an endurance focus (153) or an intensity focus (155).
HR Zone charts based on Friel, Nordic Elite and New Alpinisim protocols for a few max HR and LTs: