Cycling is a sport built on tradition. For many years those who participate and coach the sport have adopted similar training plans to build fitness. A base-building phase of low-intensity cycling for 3–4 months during the offseason is commonly followed by a tapering off period that focuses on shorter rides and race-specific training.
While these methods can build endurance and be a great idea if you’re a professional or competitive cyclist participating in stage races, putting in multiple long rides of more than three hours per week just isn’t realistic for most of us regular folk with an eight-hour workday and family obligations. So what are we to do to maximize our time on the bikes and still get into good enough shape to reach all of our cycling-related goals?
Polarized training is one method that has gained popularity recently, and could be a way for you to get more from your training without spending hours on the bike each day.
POLARIZED TRAINING EXPLAINED
As the name suggests, polarized cycling training revolves around including both low-intensity aerobic workouts with higher-intensity interval sessions in the same week. This means that at least two of your weekly workouts feature interval sessions meant to build your endurance and VO2 max, while the other 2–3 sessions are slow workouts for recovery. If you’re competing in longer races, one long ride on the weekend when you have time is generally recommended.
The idea behind this training philosophy is that while slow, long rides build endurance, short bouts of high-intensity training can also do the same thing. This study conducted to explain how cycling can reverse the effects of aging at the cellular level also showed high-intensity exercise can make more proteins for energy-producing mitochondria — which is essential for helping you build endurance to ride longer. As an added benefit, high-intensity exercise also elevates the heart rate even when you’re off the bike, allowing you to continue burning calories and increasing your aerobic capacity long after your workout has concluded.
HOW POLARIZED TRAINING WORKS
Instead of a more traditional base-building period of 12 weeks, polarized training relies on 3–6 week cycles to build VO2 max and improve endurance. Two rides per week are performed in high-intensity heart rate zones (zones 3–5), while the other rides are done in zone 1 or 2 for recovery.
One of the good things about polarized training is it can significantly cut down on your exercise time while still building fitness. If a busy work schedule or demands at home are keeping you from getting out for a ride during the week, the interval sessions can easily be done on the indoor trainer at home. While the workouts can vary depending on your goals, here is what a sample week might look like:
SAMPLE WORKOUT WEEK
Interval session: After a 10-minute warmup, complete 4×8-minute intervals in zones 3–4, recovering for 2 minutes in between each set. Cool down for 10 minutes.
Recovery ride: Ride easy, zone 1–2, for 30–45 minutes.
Cross-training: Include yoga, weights, running or some other activity that focuses on building strength and improving upon weaknesses.
Interval training: After a 10-minute warmup, ride for 6×30-second intervals in zone 5. Recover for 1 minute in between each interval. Cool down for 10 minutes.
Recovery ride: Ride easy, zone 1–2, for 30–60 minutes.
Saturday or Sunday
Long ride: 3 hours or more.
Like anything else, as your fitness improves, the length and number of intervals can be increased to make your workouts more challenging. After a 3–6-week cycling block has concluded, take a week off from this type of training and either cross-train or schedule a week of easy rides to let your body recover. When you plan your next 3–6-week cycle, figure out what worked for you, what didn’t and adjust your training plan as necessary.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Like anything else, polarized training might not be for everyone. If you have a history of injury, consult with a sports medicine doctor or physical therapist before changing your training plan. Since interval training can be more taxing on your joints and muscles, taking precautions to recover properly is essential to avoid injury.
Also keep in mind that if you’re doing a lot of training on the indoor trainer, your bike-handling skills can suffer. Spending some time each week practicing things like pacing for long rides, consuming food and fluids during a ride, and things like your cornering skills are important, and an aspect of cycling that won’t be a focus of those interval sessions.
Consider including sessions specific to a racecourse or route you’ll be riding for a goal event. If you are planning to ride a hilly course, for instance, including hill repeats in one of your sessions could be a good idea. If you plan to compete in a really long race, increasing the duration of one of your easy days may also be needed — just make sure to keep the intensity on the lower end of the scale.