The Pros and Cons of Polarized Training for Cyclists

by Peter Glassford
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The Pros and Cons of Polarized Training for Cyclists

Should you skip threshold work and focus on very easy and some very hard efforts for your best endurance performance?

Polarized training is not a new concept, but it’s one that’s gaining more recognition in light of the HIIT trend. The concept of polarized training is that rather than training moderately, we should train either really easy or very hard — at the poles of the intensity spectrum.

Polarized training uses a lot of endurance riding and some time spent on very hard efforts over your threshold. The good news is: no long, torturous threshold intervals or monotonous tempo sets. But the catch is the hard work is really, really hard and the endurance part is long and steady.

This concept comes from a variety of studies and sources, often including Stephen Seiler, that look at the training patterns of elite endurance athletes in a variety of sports over seasons or longer. Through many large studies of many types of endurance athletes, the pattern of large amounts of endurance training and small amounts of very hard training seemed to emerge.

Many of the studies use a simple 3-zone system, which is a valuable concept on its own. New athletes or those who are burnt out on complicated training programs really like this method of organizing training:

  1. Zone 1 is high-volume, low-intensity up to the first ventilatory threshold and under 2 mmol lactate. This would be up to approximately 80% of maximal heart rate (MHR). I like to encourage very steady pedaling for these workouts, improving cadence range and minimizing coasting for time-limited athletes especially.
  2. Zone 2 is the threshold range that is between the first and second ventilatory thresholds, 2–4 mmol of lactate and between approximately 80–88% MHR
  3. Zone 3 is the high-intensity zone that is pushing up over 88% MHR, over 4 mmol lactate and over the second ventilatory threshold.

HOW POLARIZED TRAINING HELPS RECREATIONAL RIDERS

Since the polarized concept came from studying elite-level endurance athletes, it’s possible it doesn’t work as well for time-limited athletes. However a few studies looked at what polarized training can do for recreational athletes and it seems there’s a positive adaptation over a medium term and there are many personal accounts, such as Marco of HRV4Training, who boosted his running with 80:20 polarized concepts.


READ MORE > 5 STEPS TO IMPROVE YOUR CYCLING THRESHOLD


I use both threshold and polarized concepts in my coaching and believe the important message for the age-group athlete is that classical periodization is a good idea. Try to progress seasonally from general preparation toward more specific training in short phases or blocks, instead of doing the same thing all year. I know too many recreational athletes who come close to burning out by riding hard every day to try to maximize their limited training time.

Polarized training reminds us to use steady, endurance training as the main focus while also valuing maximal exercise periodically (ie. when you are recovered). If you work on sprinting and short maximal efforts, you experience your sport in high speed, which typically replicates key moments in races and helps you become more comfortable at lower intensities. With cyclists, I often re-teach the skill of standing and sprinting because it’s lost due to years of riding slowly or moderately without any intensity or athleticism.

Focus blocks of your year on endurance, others on muscular endurance ( Zone 2) and other blocks of the year on high intensity. Traditionally this means a base phase in the winter focused on endurance, strength training and coordination (cadence). Then later base or build phases working on muscular endurance or threshold. As racing season approaches, work on the more anaerobic, or high-intensity, Zone 3 range to peak for your goal race.

For ultra-endurance athletes who race longer than 3–4 hours, it may be worth mixing this periodization up and doing high intensity after your base phase, then in the weeks to months before your goal event, lengthen out to Zone 2 training for your specific preparation. For Ironman training or ultra runs this may be a perfect recipe.

Even if you love threshold training it’s worth considering, and tracking, how much time is spent in Zone 1. Very often hard endurance (edging into Zone 2) that is combined with more threshold work in Zone 2 means most of the work done is moderate and missing the objective of both easy and hard days. Try 2–3 days out of a week focused on quality threshold work and the other days as lower-intensity endurance work to see if you get even better results.

Polarized training offers great insight into the training of elite athletes. For regular athletes, without as much time to train, there are obvious differences in training loads to reconcile, however, focusing on certain aspects of fitness at different times of the year and each day of the week is a valid reason to include polarized training concepts in your annual training plan.

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  • NW

    I basically use interval training and pyramid training based on either 500m or 1K efforts, what I have found though is that when we do it at the club or in company riders will just not recover in-between efforts and I feel that that is due to the need to maintain either a speed or a wattage etc, the effects are pretty obvious in that they then fall away after limited reps or the interval or the second half of the pyramid the message should be that the recovery element of any training is when you don’t look down to your computer and see
    whats the speed etc ( does it work ? I am, a slightly overweight 57yr old man who likes beer and I bob along on a long run easily at an average of 33-35KPH)