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Periodisation for optimal cycling performance

Written by Science2Sport.

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We have recently launched a short course entitled, “Cycling Science: the essentials of cycling physiology and coaching”. For further information about the course, please click HERE.

In this article, we are covering content from the third module of this short course. The complete module covers the principles and different models of periodisation and also includes a year planner template, accompanied by an instructional video to help you set up your own annual plans.


Periodisation may be defined as the systematic planning of short- and long-term training programmes through implementing variation in intensity, volume and frequency. Although the underlying philosophies of periodisation have been questioned, the preponderance of scientific research studies have shown that periodised training regimes are more effective than non-periodised training regimes (Kiely, 2012). Although periodised structures, specifically within cycling, have not been empirically validated, there is no doubt that variation in programme design is critical.

In support of the benefit of variation, there is also evidence of the negative consequences of a lack of variation, or monotony. Increased monotony may lead to increased risk of over training, poor performance and illness (Foster, 1998). Contrary, a training programme which is too varied may also dilute specific targeted improvements. For example, if a specific target is not sufficiently stressed, adaptation may not be optimal. We may therefore infer that a cyclist does require a certain amount of repetitive stress, but that the repetitive stress is varied, and the athlete is not exposed the same stress for a prolonged period.

2. Models of periodisation

Russian physiologist Leonid Matveyev, is recognised as the father of periodisation. In the 1960’s he proposed the classical or traditional model, whereby he described how training should be planned (Matveyev, 1964)). The model proposes that one has 3 main periods (mesocycles) (Preparatory phase, Competition and Transition phase) in a training cycle (macrocycle). The plan uses an approach of progressing from high to low volume, and low to high intensity. This traditional model of periodisation has been augmented in more recent scientific literature, to include additional mesocycles, and different nomenclature for the mesocyle names. A common criticism of this traditional model of periodisation is that it was originally designed to only include a single peak a year (Issurin, 2010). Today’s demanding race and competition schedule often requires cyclists to be racing year round, with several key events throughout the year.

Further criticism of the traditional model is that a specific mesocyle, such as the preparatory mesocycle, may include concurrent development of several abilities (basic aerobic, threshold improvements, anaerobic capacity etc.). For these reasons, and other principles which are dealt with in greater detail within our short course, a more targeted approach may be more beneficial to the athlete.

In the early 1980’s, high performance coaches started using “training blocks” within their training programs. These blocks were typically highly concentrated periods of training of specialised workouts. Meaning that the block would include similar targeted abilities. This practice eventually led to the appearance of block periodisation. This system of periodisation is made up of three short specialised mesocycles (blocks), repeated continually throughout a training year.

3. Traditional vs. Block Periodisation

Block periodisation became increasingly popular within cycling after the research study by Ronnestad et al (2014). This study investigated an extremely aggressive form of the periodiation model, where research participants were divided into either a “block periodisation”(BP) group of a “traditional” (TRAD) group. The BP group performed five high intensity training (HIT) sessions in a week, followed by 3 weeks of only 1 HIT session per week. All other training during the 4 week period was low intensity training (LIT). The TRAD group performed 2 HIT sessions per week throughout the 4 week period, resulting in a similar amount of HIT and LIT intensity distribution between the BP and TRAD group.

The study demonstrated that the block periodisation led to several superior effects, with a significant improvement in VO2max for the block periodisation approach. The study also measured effect sizes and all measured parameters, including a 40 km time trial, maximal power output and hemoglobin mass showed a moderate effect of block periodisation vs. a traditional periodisation. Although further research may be required to further validate these findings, the results indicate that block periodisation may further enhance training adaptations.

4. A practical model

Although the approach shown in the Ronnestad et al. (2012) study seems like a simple approach, long term development of all training abilities requires a more integrated approach to ensure a cumulative training effect from macrocycle to macrocycle, ensuring that all abilities are improved. The aggressive study design of the block in the Ronnestad et al. (2012) study, may also increase the risk of injury or illness within athletes not accustomed to this form of training. The approach that we have found to be tried and trusted, which has resulted in the best results across a range of cyclists abilities, includes the following:

  • Each training cycle should consist of approximately 16 weeks, this cycle may be called the macrocycle and should conclude with a key target race.
    • Due to the shortened macrocycle length, and lasting residual effects from cumulative training, this approach will result in the ability to target several races, year round.

    [*]This macrocycle should be further divided into approximately 4 blocks (your mesocycles) of between 2-4 weeks with a week of rest in order to recover before starting the next block.

    • Mesocycles should be kept short to ensure that training is not too monotonous and to ensure an optimal residual effect.

    [*]Each block should include a high concentration of training sessions targeting similar training adaptations.

    • Approximately 2-3 high intensity training sessions should be performed per week. There should still be optimal (2-3 days) recovery between high intensity sessions to ensure the risk of over training, illness and injury are reduced.
    • A more concentrated block may be implemented under close monitoring, within more advanced athletes.
    • Each block should consist of key training sessions which target similar adaptations; ie. Improvements in functional threshold or improvements in glycolytic energy system.

5. Conclusion

We have learnt that variation is the key to programme design. It is critically important that a periodised plan, implementing the correct amount of variation, should be employed. However it is critically important to note that biological adaptation to future training is not predictable and does not follow a determinable pattern (Kiely, 2012). Training adaptation to a training stress is highly reliant on individual genetics, stress history and resilience, prior training and injury history and current level of fitness, and current stress status, to name a few (Kiely, 2017). Individuals will respond differently to the same training plan and training session, and group based patterns, as often compared in research studies, may be misleading when applied to individual athletes. This implies that the success of a periodised training programme requires the constant monitoring of both internal and external load metrics. These metrics, with athlete coach interaction should result in a dynamic plan. Such a dynamically changing plan is critically important to ensure optimal adaptation and performance. Although it is recommended to follow the basic biological principles we have discussed here, it is reasonable to assume that there is no optimal training plan across a range of athletes. A skilled coach should apply basic biological principles, all while constantly monitoring the individual athletes’ response to training. Working closely with an athlete and gathering this data should guide the subsequent periodised plan and approach.

If you would like more information on periodisation, or would like to use our annual plan templates, please follow this link to our short course.


FOSTER, C. Monitoring training in athletes with reference to overtraining syndrome. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998, 30:1164–1168. 

KIELY, J. Periodisation Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven? Int J Sports Physiol Perf. 2012, 7: 242-250.

KIELY, J. Periodisation Theory: Confronting and INconveneint truth. Sports Med, 2017, 48(4): 753-764.

MATVEYEV, LP. Problem of periodisation in sport training. [in Russian]. Moscow: FIs Publisher, 1964.

RONNESTAD, BR. ELLEFSEN, S. NYGAARD, H. et al. Effects of 12 weeks of block periodisation on performance and performance indices in well-trained cyclists. Scand J Med Sci Sport, 2014. 24(2): 327-335.


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