Segmented Training plans: Working with blocks

David Van Skike

*This is an excerpt from our textbook.  We’ve attempted to simplify linear or block periodization into a format that is more easily understood and applicable to the average individual.  

Many high level athletes have been successful reaching training goals without long term periodized planning and still others have adhered to plans that upon reading, seem to be of almost incomprehensible scope and variety. In fact, if you read some of the major works on sports programming, there is a very real chance you’ll come away significantly confused and less informed. However, the underlying philosophies and principles of programming are relatively straightforward, regardless of how advanced the trainee. Further, the very process of thinking ahead enough to formulate an individualized long term plan will put you and your trainees ahead of many coaches.

In simple terms, Blocks are periods of time dedicated to a specific focus (sports specific endurance, strength, sport skills, body composition etc.) In formal block periodization, these periods of time are characterized into as few as four types: Rehabilitation, Accumulation, Transmutation, and Realization. To simplify these terms for our practice we can use the following general definitions:

Rehabilitation
“Fix what’s broke”
Accumulation
Base training
Transmutation
Very focused training
Realization
Competition Block

 

 
Again, this is a gross simplification of the block periodization concept, but as with the basic strength exercises like the squat, press and pull, mastering the basic pieces is more than 80% of the process.   Once you have internalized these conceptual blocks and put them into practice, you will be well prepared to organize more complex training models.
 
As should be obvious, each block has a priority. What may not be as obvious is that each block will also have a second and possibly third priority as well. This sounds more complicated than it is.  Why this is important is that as you are laying out these blocks, you’ll need to be mindful of:
  1. Focusing on Priority 1
  2. Maintaining the other needed qualities, Priority 2.
  3. Transitioning slowly to the next block. Priority 3

Rehabilitation: Fixing what is broken

In the context of a training plan, rehabilitation should be thought of broadly.  Most individuals beginning a training protocol need some level of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation in some ways is GPP but in the most important sense, it is filling in the gaps needed to begin training in earnestBeyond general health, here are some examples of a Rehab block focus:
 
  • Post competition malaise
  • Body composition (overweight, underweight)
  • Joint health
  • Major muscle imbalances
  • Significant skill deficits (for athletes shifting between sports)
  • Significant flexibility deficits

 

 

An individual with a number of strength imbalances, injuries, or who significantly lacks  flexibility and conditioning will require a longer block for the simple purpose of assessing where all the needs are and figuring out how to best address them.   Even the process of fixing problems can reveal others.  This block with many trainees can be 4 to 8weeks.  If you have a severely detrained individual, the bulk of their program would be in an extended rehabilitation block.  However, if the needs for rehab are this large, rehab itself will become the goal of the plan and therefore would still be broken out into several segments, at the very least, Rehab and Accumulation. 

By the same token, a healthy athlete coming off a season of competing who is injury free, may only need a short block of 2 to 3 weeks of active rest.  In this case, the rehab block serves a mental rather than physical purpose.
 
The key to the rehab block is to identify what needs fixing before one is really ready to train and how much time can you afford to spend on it?  These needs should be ranked and prioritized into no more than three areas of focus and the block should be at least two weeks with  no real upper limit except that injuries and major imbalances that take more than 4 months to address should probably be the first focus before moving on.  Significant fat loss would be an example.
 
This is not to say we have completely “solved” the issues we identified in the rehab block, the athlete has simply gained enough of a handle on them such that he is ready to shift to more focused training in earnest.  There is no hard and fast rule that smaller rehab blocks can’t be used as a transition between later blocks, they can and often this is a smart way to think about transitions between periods of training.
 
When we move from rehabilitation to accumulation, we have fixed all we can or need to fix and we are moving on to developing a skill, strength and/or endurance Base for our sport.  The length of this block could be as little as 4 weeks, and as long as needed to prepare the athlete for the next phase.

Accumulation: Base training

Accumulation is focused training on the essential qualities or needs of the goal.  It is Base training.  It is putting in large volumes of general training focused on a specific goal. Many sports or training goals require focused work on multiple essential qualities.  The key question to ask is this: what are the most essential? The Latin phrase Sine qua non, “without which nothing,” is a useful concept in figuring this out.  What are the qualities that, without which, the goal is not attainable at all.  Examples:
  • Shot putters need to be strong but they MUST have solid throwing technique in the ring. 
  • 10k runners need to be able to sprint, but they MUST have a solid aerobic base and elemental running mechanics. 
  • Wrestlers need to be explosive, powerful, and they need stamina but above all else, they MUST be able to execute throws and holds.

 

A limit strength base would be established
during the Accumulation block.
This sounds simple. That’s because it is and yet it is the most common place that training goes wrong.  A lot of coaches and self-coached athletes misidentify the essential nature of the sport activity.  
While, the he accumulation period is focused on base training it also includes working on those other qualities that are needed to support the larger plan, or shore up weaknesses or condition the athlete for more intense training blocks later. Because this is the phase to both establish a Base AND to make the athlete more well-rounded, there is a tendency to overstretch the athlete in this segment,  include too many elements (excessive GPP is a common culprit) or to train at medium high intensities combining conflicting physical qualities (max strength and aerobic endurance for example).
 
Key questions for assembling this block are:
  1. What is the Base for this goal? 
  2. What is the greatest hurdle standing in the way of this goal for this athlete? 
  3. What is this athlete’s greatest strength?
The first two should be intuitive but the third is often overlooked. Not only are we making the athlete well rounded in this block, we’re also trying to express that athlete’s unique abilities. No matter how novice the trainee, there is some inherent strength or knack they have and to ignore it is as grave a mistake as ignoring weaknesses.

Priorities

No matter how simple the goal, the list of “essential” qualities needed in the accumulation block will be in competition for time or will have conflicting training stresses (again ,back to max strength and max endurance).   It’s easy to get bogged down by this but there are a couple of simple rules and a philosophical construct that will help sort through these competing priorities.
 
Time on the road is money in the bank.
Thing One. Always focus first on the quality that takes longest to develop.   In general these are maximal strength, aerobic endurance and most important, sport skill.   One of these three will ALWAYS be included in an accumulation block.  Many training faults can be traced back to problems of insufficient base in one of the three.
 
Thing Two.  When there is an inherent conflict between high priorities, each of those priorities should have its own sub-block.  This may mean multiple week cycles within the accumulation period and ultimately, a longer overall accumulation master block.  In block periodization language this is called a microcycle and a mesocycle.  For example, hypertrophy and limit strength/power, strength and endurance, or power and skill. 
Thing Three. Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that accumulation blocks are long because this is where the bulk of the work of training is taking place.  In fact, most athletes will never really go beyond this accumulation period of training, especially in the first several years of their sport.  There are several very divergent training methods that essentially rely on a slow steady accretion of training volume towards a larger goal.  When a goal includes a specific competition though, the next phase is really the most critical one in honing the athlete’s performance.

Transmutation: Very focused training.

The word transmutation actually traces its use back to the practice of alchemy in turning base metals into gold.  This is actually a perfect word for the activity.  Then goal of a transmutation block is to take all that built up base capacity from a long (in most cases, sports specific) accumulation block and focus it towards the highest level of athletic capability possible in the time allotted.  This block is what most people think of as “training”, and it is the stuff of montages and training highlight reels. It’s the subject of a sport cliché in that the athlete is “8 weeks out” from competition. 

This is due to the fact that for many athletes, it’s not sustainable for more.  Eight weeks for strength and combat athletes, 12 weeks for most team sports (think training camp) is about right. The reason is that transmutation involves a narrow enough focus and a high enough level of intensity to provoke week to week fatigue.  Towards the end of transmutation, most athletes will be in a state of moderate overtraining.  The whole purpose of this is to provoke supercompensation in the next block: Realization.

 
During this phase, the plan eliminates all extraneous training that could interfere with the specific skills required for the sport.  At this stage, field sport athletes will drop most other training with maybe one maintenance strength, endurance, or flexibility training session per week.  Long distance endurance athletes will usually drop strength training in the weight room in favor of power and sprint work in their specific training mode.  Strength athletes will focus on their competition lifts and/or throws.  Any nonspecific work during this time period is typically for injury prevention or maintenance of the strength/endurance base. 
The questions to ask when setting up this block are:
  1. What are the specific demands of the competition and how can those particular skills be maximized? 
  2. How close to competition conditions can these be trained without actually competing? 
  3. What can safely be eliminated form training to allow maximal recovery? 
  4. How much can volume and intensity be slowly increased without provoking true overtraining?

Beyond than these general guidelines, transmutation blocks will vary tremendously from sport to sport and individual to individual as a great deal depends on how big of a base the athlete built in the prior block.

Realization: Competition Block

Realization starts out like a more intense form of transmutation.  For most athletes it will begin with two weeks of very strenuous sport specific work sessions about once every three to four days. The rest of the work sessions will be active recovery. Being well-rested for each of these workouts is critical.  A Highland Games thrower might do nothing but practice throws the last two weeks before a competition.   An Olympic weightlifter might focus solely on setting openers for his or her competition.  A marathon runner will get in his or her longest distance run during this time. 
 
The second half of Realization is a taper before a single event or series of events. It is not much fun.  During these 4-10 days, the athlete will do very little but active recovery and virtually zero intense work.  They will have difficulty sleeping and will be in a near constant state of agitation from inactivity. 
 
Realization:  You’ve trained; its
time to 
recover and compete.
Once the athlete begins a series of events everything has been done that can be done.  It takes an extremely experienced coach to bring this block to fruition on a single day.  In fact, most who try, probably fail.  However, when this realization block is targeted on a series of events like districts, regional and then state, the athlete has a chance to settle in and find a rhythm. One fact that eludes most people is that the very act of being in peak form changes your form.  For instance, a thrower who has become markedly stronger will find their throws and timing need adjustment or a cyclist who has been targeting a series of races may find their expectation of race pace different from training. This is why whenever possible it’s best to aim for a peak performance over a period of weeks rather than a day.
 
This begs the question, what do you do in between events in a realization block.  The reflex of most athletes is to return to the training that that got them there, the high intensity and volume of transmutation.  This is of course, dead wrong. In between events it’s best to adopt a combination of very short hard training sessions with many of the activities that made up late rehabilitation and accumulation phases.  For a cyclist this can mean easy miles and a little yoga, for a thrower this may mean light fast gym lifting and light conditioning. In any case the worst thing one can do is to try to provoke an unplanned double peak by introducing a short transmutation block.  This will fail.
 
In summary, there is probably an upper limit to the length of time one can be in a realization block and to be fair, performance of most athletes will to erode after 4-6 weeks.  So, if a longer competition period is called for, the safest thing is to plan another short accumulation block, a transmutation block with lower priorities, and a second shorter realization block.  Again, like peaking on a single day, this is the stuff of masters and takes years of working within a single discipline to make work.

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