Using “training units” to plan and describe block periodization

Original Post
JCM · Mar 9, 2016 · Seattle, WA · Joined Jun 2008 · Points: 5
TL;dr: I ramble for a long time about how training “units” are a useful measure for planning your training and understanding the different forms of periodization.

A concept I have been incorporating into my training, planning, and scheduling as of late is the training “unit”. This is nothing revolutionary, but is a nice measure you can use to plan your periodization schedule, track training volume, and balance the training of different attributes. It may also serve as a good measure for communicating a schedule to others. Some others on this forum may also find this useful.

One “unit” of training is defined as the amount of training that you can recover from in 24 hours. This allows you to compare the training load of otherwise very different elements of your program. You might accomplish one unit of training in 20 minutes of intense hangboarding, or with several hours of outdoor mileage. This amount is measured by the amount of time required to feel recovered, which is being used as a proxy for how much you are taxing your body. The training load (volume times intensity) of a unit is also highly personal, based on your capacity to perform and recover from hard training. A 1-unit day for J-Star would probably be a 5-unit day for me (if I could complete it at all). For a given person, the volume included in 1 unit will expand as your training progresses.

A given session often includes more than one unit of work. For most people, a normal training day at the gym or a try-hard day at the crag represents 2-units, such that you feel tired afterwards but can recover with one proper rest day. An ARC day, or an easy cragging day usually is just a 1-unit session; after one of these days you don’t really feel tired, and can do this for many days in a row. A hard strength training day often represents 3 units, and you are totally worked afterward. 4+ unit days are generally not recommended in training, but do happen with climbing outside. For instance, climbing El Cap in a day or competing in the 24HHH comp might be a 7+ unit day, requiring a week or more before you start to feel normal again.

By this definition, the most training you can reasonably sustain in 7 units per week; this represents your total recovery capacity. A bit lower, 6 units per week, is generally better in the long term, to provide a buffer against overtraining. You can push the volume higher for short periods, and this is often useful to shock the system, but after doing this you may need to take a longer layoff period. For instance, some training plans call for, essentially, several 7-9 unit “load” weeks followed by a 3 unit “unload” week. When trying to perform at a high level, it is advantageous to drop to volume to ~5 units per week so that you feel really fresh on your send attempts.

When counting units, you can have units of different factors within a given session. 40-60 minutes of dynamic bouldering followed by a short hangboard session might be 1 unit of power and 1 unit of strength for the day. It also is sometimes worth counting half units (such as a 20 minute ARC cooldown = 0.5 units aerobic base fitness; and I often describe my hard power days as 2.5 units, since they aren’t quite ), but going below half units is too much splitting hairs for me. Not all units count as training units. A lot of the gym (and crag) climbing people do is “junk miles” that makes them tired but doesn’t train anything very effectively. You definitely still have to count junk miles units, since they eat into your bank of recovery ability. Warming up time I usually just roll into the factor I am warming up to do; if I am doing a 2-unit bouldering session, the warm up bouldering I do at the beginning of the workout is just counted as a part of the 2 units of power I do that day. Excessively long warmups, such as if you get distracted before your hangboard session and do 90 minutes of moderate bouldering, can turn into junk miles and should be counted that way.

Non-climbing specific exercise units (such as running or yoga) do not count into your climbing units/week count, so long as they do not interfere with recovery. It may be worthwhile to have a separate tally of total exercise, and try not to let that go over ~8 units long term. If I am doing 6 units per week of climbing, I can usually add in 2 1-unit runs per week without causing trouble; any more turns into too much and I need to dial down either the running of the climbing. Trying to 4 units of running and 3 units of yoga on top of a 6 unit per week climbing schedule would probably sink the ship.

With these recovery limitations in mind, you can use this system to budget your training. This is especially useful if you are pursuing a “block” or “non-linear” periodization plan, where you have to strike a balance of training various different factors. The problem with a true non-linear plan, where you are trying to train all factors in a given week, is that no one factor gets enough attention to make significant progress at it. In my experience, training a given factor (strength, power, anaerobic PE, aerobic endurance) 1 unit per week lets you maintain it at a low level, or to slow down the decline. 2 units per week will generally let you maintain something at a relatively high level, or potentially make slight progress. 3 units per week is good for making progress at something. 4-5 units per week is good for going “all-in” on a given factor and making big progress (such as in a LP program). Going beyond 5 units per week for a given factor does not seem to have much benefit, and courts injury or burnout. Training something 0 units per week tends to lead to a relatively quick decline in that factor.

In a classic linear periodization plan, you put all your effort (5-7 units) into one factor each phase, and everything else is left to atrophy. The Rock Prodigy program is linear-ish, but gives some space for other elements. In this program you are probably doing 4-6 units per week of the main focus for the phase, and 1-3 units split between everything else. A block program is a bit more diversified, with 3-4 units per week of the main focus and 2-4 units to maintain other factors. True NLP might feature 1-2 units each of strength, power, power endurance, and aerobic endurance.

This breakdown shows pretty clearly the issues with both LP and NLP, and that Rock Prodigy and Block periodization aren’t that far apart from each other on the periodization spectrum. In LP, you are doing 0 units of everything other than the main focus, and you loses these factors too quickly. In true NLP, you never give any factor enough emphasis to make solid gains. The differences between Rock Prodigy and Block aren’t that big, and you can easily blur the line between the two by adjusting the balance of training between your primary focus of that phase/block and the other factors. The “NLP” that Mark did a blog post about last winter is actually probably more like block periodization (with the emphasis being PE) than it is true NLP. My experience seem to be that the best program for me uses a Rock Prodigy style balance in the early stages of the cycle (Base, Stength), and then starts to look more like block periodization as I move into power, and PE/performance.

Lets look at some examples of how you might count these different units and use them for planning. I’ll use my strength phase as a winter “training season” example. I typically start strength phase days with around 40-60 minutes of bouldering, ramping up from a warm up to working a few “hard” (not “limit”) boulder problems. I count this as 1 unit of power. I then go do a hangboard session and supplementals, which add up to 2 units of strength. This makes for a 3-unit workout, requiring 72 hours (well, 70 hours) rest. Averaged out over the strength phase, this means that I do 4.66 units of strength and 2.33 units of power per week. This tells me that I am in the optimum zone for pushing strength forward, and adding more volume of strength work would be a bad idea. It also tells me I am doing enough power work to maintain a reasonably high level of power, or even push it forward. These both check in well with actual experience. Also, I can see that I am doing a full 7 units of training per week, which means I am doing as much as my body can reasonably handle. This is also corroborated by experience.

A second example is during prime outdoor climbing season; this is essentially a long PE block-periodization phase. During this period, I am likely to climb outside both weekend days (Sat, Sun), and go to the gym on Tues, Thurs to train the elements that I miss outside. Lets say I spend Sat and Sun trying hard at the local sport crag, which offers PE-focused climbing. We’ll call this 2 units each day of PE. What should I do at the gym during the week? I essentially have 3 units left for “spend”, so I can’t do hard sessions on both Tuesday and Thursday. Also, I am already doing 4 units of PE per week, so I probably won’t benefit from trying to stack on much more PE. In the gym on Tuesday I might boulder for 40-60 minutes and then do an abbreviated hangboard workout; this gives me 1 unit each of strength and power, which is enough to slow the decline and maintain enough of these to extend the performance phase. On Thursday I’ll just do a 1-unit session to allow recovery before the weekend. The default is to do an ARC session to maintain this type of fitness, but I can replace this with a short 1-unit power or PE session if I feel like I need an extra bump of one of those factors. Note that this is a 7-unit week, which means I can’t sustainably add any more, and it might be a bit too much for peak performance. If I feel like I need a bit of extra rest, I might drop Sunday down to a 1-unit day, or I might do a single 2-unit gym session (1 unit of strength and 1 unit of power) on Wednesday. If I feel my power or strength starting to fade, I can do a 1-month block where I drop out 1 of the PE-focused outdoor days in favor of a strength or power focused gym day or outdoor bouldering day.

Let me know if you find these ideas useful, or if you have any other ideas to add.

reboot · Mar 9, 2016 · . · Joined Jul 2006 · Points: 50
Interesting theory. You do make an assumption that I'm not necessarily sure is valid: that you can define a training unit with additive property. Some training types probably mesh well together (complementary) than others (competing). Difference training duration/intensity/frequency may affect the overall possible training volume. One could say the objective is to maximize overall training volume (by splitting training sessions, and/or find good complementary training/practicing emphasis).

Also, in climbing, there are a lot of specific emphasis that may be lumped together as strength/power/endurance: there are various grip type, wall angle, and styles and it's possible to effectively block train one aspect w/ a short strength/power session. Endurance, on the other hand, probably can't be split into sub units.

JCM · Mar 9, 2016 · Seattle, WA · Joined Jun 2008 · Points: 5
reboot wrote:Interesting theory. You do make an assumption that I'm not necessarily sure is valid: that you can define a training unit with additive property.
Fair point, and a good reason to not get too deep into trying to optimize the arithmetic, or to start counting units to the second decimal point. Probably this is best used primarily as a way to explain periodization programs.

Short Fall Sean · Mar 22, 2016 · South Lake Tahoe, CA · Joined Sep 2012 · Points: 0
I dig this idea. If nothing else it could work for someone like me who always says they should track what they do but never bothers to actually do it. I think I could manage to tally up units in a spreadsheet even if I don't bother to write down exactly what I did in the workout.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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