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Polarised training: my personal experience

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I was already 3 weeks into a polarised training programme last November when I posted a blog article entitled Threshold or Polarised: why should you care? This was much too soon to draw any personal conclusions, but I promised at the time I would post a new blog with the results a few months later. So here it is!

The bottom line

There’s no question that Polarised training works very well. Plenty of research backs this up, demonstrating higher levels of adaptation than Threshold training. I summarised this research in  my first article and you can find much more through an internet search.

The more interesting question is: should you be training this way? I decided to try it myself and share here my experience and results. The conclusion? It seems to work for me. I have learned from the first block and I am now in a second block of polarised training that will hopefully result in significant gains.

However, it isn’t right for everybody. Read on for the full story and some caveats.

What is polarised training?

First a quick reminder. Polarised training is a method that is followed by the majority of professional endurance athletes. It consists of training mostly at low-moderate intensity and periodically at high intensity, with very little in between.

Using Coggan’s seven zone system and FTP (Functional Threshold Power) as the reference points, this means the pros train mostly in Zones 1 and 2, very little in Zone 3 and lower Zone 4, and sometimes above FTP (upper Zone 4 and higher).

This contrasts sharply with the Threshold training followed by most amateur riders, which is targeted mostly at medium-hard intensities and especially the so-called “sweet-spot”. This is upper Zone 3, lower Zone 4, exactly the intensity level that is avoided by the professionals during their training.

The chart above contrasts the two approaches, showing a typical split of time-in-zone over a 4-6 week block of training, in blue for threshold training and in red for polarised training.

Research

There is a substantial body of research, both descriptive and experimental, that supports the claim that polarised training is more effective than traditional threshold and sweet-spot training, even at training volumes as low as 6-7 hours per week.

The theory behind it is simple: you get all the adaptations you need to develop aerobic capacity by riding at low intensity, and to develop anaerobic capacity you need to train at high intensity. Riding at medium intensity provides no additional benefits and has the significant disadvantage of increasing fatigue at a faster rate, with the result that the high intensity sessions are not hard enough.

Read my previous blog for more on this, including the references.

My personal experience

I followed a polarised programme from just after my final event of the 2017 season, the Haute Route Ventoux, until February 8, 2018, a total of 4 months.

During these 4 months I trained 78 times for a total of 152 hours, averaging 11.7 hours per week. The longest week was 13h37’ and the shortest 4h29’. Training included 29 road rides, 10 sessions at the velodrome and 39 turbo sessions. Throughout the entire period I avoided cycling in Zones 3 and 4 (on the Coggan 7-zone system) as much as possible. On the road and at the velodrome I tried to maintain a steady endurance pace towards the upper end of Zone 2, whereas the turbo sessions consisted of structured intervals in Zones 5, 6 or 7 with rest periods in Zone 1.

My actual times-in-zone during the 10 months prior to starting the polarised programme and during the 4-month polarised period were as follows:

Results

I did a 5 minute maximum power test on January 24, setting a new record of 341W. The previous record was 331W, set on September 15, 2017, a few days after completing three 7-day Haute Route totalling approximately 2,500km and 60,000m of climbing over a 4-week period. I was coaching others, and therefore riding mostly in Zones 1 and 2. The super-compensation produced by this amount of riding should be maximal, so the +3% improvement seen 3 months later seems quite significant. One would normally expect a decline in peak power through the winter.

For comparison, my 5 minute maximum in January last year was 307W, so the year-on-year improvement is +38W (12%).

I then did a 20 minute power test the following day, January 25, and also set a new record, at 291W. This was nevertheless only a marginal improvement over my previous 20’ best (287W, set on February 20, 2017).

Since then I have set personal bests at 1’30” and 3 minutes.

Discussion

The first and obvious statement to make is that these results are anecdotal and in no way scientific, since they concern me alone and there was no way to set up a control. Clearly the approach was not detrimental to my current performance, but was it superior to my previous approach of riding as much as possible in the sweet-spot? Unfortunately, there is no way to tell.

However, I did learn a few things along the way that may be worth sharing with you.

Was my training intense enough?

I did not achieve the target of 10% high intensity (defined as Zones 5 and above), still less the 20% achieved by the cyclists in the study by Neal et al mentioned in my previous blog post. Over the four month period I spent just 6% of my total training time at high intensity, although roughly half the sessions included high-intensity intervals.

These were typical of my interval sessions:

As a comparison, the interval sessions followed by the cyclists in Neal’s study were 6 x [4’Z5 – 2’Z1], with 15-20’ of warm-up and cool-down. Taking 15’ this means their time at high intensity was 24’ out of a total 51’ and thus the percentage figure was 47%. This reduced to 20% over the complete week when the Z1 sessions were added to the calculation: overall they did 3 high intensity sessions (cumulating 72’ at high intensity and 96’ at low intensity) and an additional 3.5-4 hours at low intensity to reach the 20/80 balance.

Averaging almost 12 hours a week, I was training for nearly twice as long as those in the study. The additional time, however, was mostly at low intensity, so overall my training lacked sufficient work at high intensity. Being 20 years older may have something to do with this!

Furthermore, I made things hard for myself by progressively increasing the intensity while keeping the interval duration constant. As we will see below, it might have been better to do the opposite, i.e. increase the duration or the number of intervals but keep the intensity constant.

To summarise, the improvements noted were obtained after substantially reducing the time spent in Zones 3 and 4, while making no significant change to the time spent in Zones 5 and above. It should have been possible to spend more time at the higher intensities.

Practical issues

The polarised training method suits people who are highly motivated and mostly train alone. If you rely upon group rides for your motivation and don’t like doing intervals, it is not for you!

Following a polarised programme requires discipline and sticking to the plan. If you are self-coached, it is important to spend the time to understand what you are doing; to design an appropriate programme and to measure, monitor and adapt as time passes. Depending on how you value your time, investing in a coach may make good sense.

There’s no such thing as a guaranteed response to training: every individual is different. There were substantial individual variations in the study mentioned above, with some showing almost no improvement (with either polarised or threshold training). The results for the 12 cyclists in a 40km time-trial were an average gain of 2.3 minutes, with a maximum of 4.5 minutes, and a minimum of 0.1 minutes. An experienced coach should be able to identify the reasons for the lack of response.

80% “easy”

As Stephen Seiler has pointed out on numerous occasions, easy doesn’t mean brainless, nor is it literally easy! The term is relative. To be effective, all training must be purposeful: discipline is critical. Each ride should have a purpose: to focus on technique, on cadence, on position, on breathing, or on some other aspect of your riding. The pace should be mid-Zone 2: any higher and you will find yourself frequently crossing the first lactate threshold. Since this is painless you won’t notice, but the fatigue will build.

20% “hard”

In this context, hard means “very hard”. These sessions should hurt, a lot. A key goal is pushing out your ability to tolerate pain and to keep going when your body is yelling at you to stop. The more you do this, the more you can tolerate. As you progress, the emphasis should be on making the intervals longer and doing more of them, rather than increasing the intensity.

According to Seiler’s studies of Olympic athletes, the goal is ultimately to do 40, 50 even 60 minutes of work above FTP. To make this achievable the intensity needs to be in the range 105-110% of FTP, and the interval length between 4 and 10 minutes.


A good starting point might be 4 x 4’ at 105% of FTP with 2’ rest, stretching this out over a period of weeks to 10 x 4’ (with 2’ rest) or to 4 x 10’ (with 5’ rest).

Preparing for a race

The obvious gap in a polarised training programme is time spent at race pace honing reactions and bike-handling skills. The professionals have built these skills over many years and use training camps and minor races to sharpen up. This may work for some amateurs but not for all of us. For many amateur cyclists it makes sense to adjust the plan to allow for joining some fast-paced group rides in the month before the first race, for example replacing one of the endurance rides by the group ride and one of the interval sessions by a recovery ride.

What next for me?

I have now begun a second cycle of polarised training, with the intent to increase the percentage time spent at high intensity from 6% to at least 10%.

In practical terms this means I will do fewer Zone 6 interval sessions and more in Zone 5, and I’ll introduce some longer intervals at just above FTP (e.g. 3 x 10’ in upper Zone 4).

In parallel, my endurance rides should become significantly longer, stretching out to 4 and ultimately 6 hours.

Verdict in 8 weeks!

Comments

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Tomas
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Tomas

I was following Matt Fitzgerald 80/20 Polarized plan for multi sport (running, cycling) athlete. I was familiar with 80/20 guidelines and to my surprise majority of hard workouts were prescribed in 91-100% FTP (That’s Z3 in 5 zone model) and only a few in higher Z4 (102-110% of FTP) or even Z5 (above 110% of FTP).

What are your thoughts on this approach to Polarized training?

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

Hi Tomas My understanding is that the whole point of polarised training is to make the hard workouts VERY hard. I have never seen them prescribed below FTP before; more usually they would be prescribed at mininimum 105% FTP, where we are taking FTP as a proxy for LT2. If I was for some reason to do a workout at (say) 95% FTP I would make the intervals very long and the accumulated time to be more than 60mins. For example 3 x 30′ @95%FTP. There might be a good reason to do this and I wouldn’t want to second-guess… Read more »

Krispen Hartung
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Krispen Hartung

Marvin – I am curious where you are on this. Everything still going well? Here is my update. I just started my 9th week of strictly following a polarized training plan. A few days ago I did a performance test and my FTP was higher than it has been in 3 years of plateauing. I produced a 5% increase from my highest FTP in the past. I also increased my training load (more Zone 1 time on top of the 2 VO2max intervals sessions a week) to 10-12 hours a week, and I’m now maintaining a weekly TSS that I… Read more »

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

Hi Krispen, Thank you very much for your post. It’s good to hear that you have broken through the plateau, and a 5% increase in FTP is very satisfying. Increased training load is certainly key to this and as you rightly point out that means you have to drop from sweet-spot to Z1 to avoid burning out. Excellent idea to track HRV, RHR etc. I personally use HRV4Training to track the same parameters. As you probably know there is some interesting research showing that people who use HRV as a guide get better results than those who just stick to… Read more »

Patrick Murphy
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Patrick Murphy

Nice article, I’ve recently begun training polarised after hearing and reading much of Seilers work. One point about 80/20 for a poster above, it’s 80% of sessions not 80% of time. Indeed Seiler has indicated that if you follow the 80/20 session split you’ll likely be nearer 90/10 on time. I’m currently doing a 9 week block, 2 weeks on, 1 reduced repeated 3 times. Mon: Rest or 60 minutes recovery (50% FTP) Tues: zone 3 (4×8) with 2 minutes recoveries Wed: 90-120 Zone 1, 65% FTP Thu: zone 3 (30/15) x 10 with 3 min recovery x 3 Friday:… Read more »

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

Hi Patrick
Thanks for the comment. Your plan looks good. If I was to change anything I would progressively increase the Sunday ride to 4hrs and even 5hrs. The magic happens after 2hrs, and there is no way to short cut this. The more you do after 2hrs the more adaptation you will get. Interestingly, your muscles will start to recruit the Type II fast-twitch fibres after 2-3hrs, even though you are at a very low intensity.
Good luck!
Marvin

Krispen Hartung
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Krispen Hartung

“But if we use % of time, then based on someone’s response below, that would appear to be more like 90/10, and after listening to an interview with Seiler last night, he alluded to this. But this is inconsistent with the WKO4 reports for polarization, which track to Zone 1 as less than 65% of VO2max, Zone 2 as between 65 and 85%, and Zone 3 as greater than 85% of VO2max. ????” Correction on this. WKO4 is not prescribing any % of time in the 3 zones above, rather it only defines the Zones based on VO2max. However, I… Read more »

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

My understanding of Seiler’s research and recommendations is to aim at an 80/20 split on the basis of time spent working out, not time spent in zones. The total workout time is easy to count in Z1; Z3 workouts are counted as 100% in Z3 no matter how much time is actually spent in Z3. To give an example, 2 workouts done as follows would respect the 80/20 rule: 4h Z1, 1h HIT (15′ Z1 – 8 x [3’Z5 – 2’Z1] – 5’Z1). In practice of course the HIT workout is no more than 40% in Z3, depending on the… Read more »

Krispen Hartung
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Krispen Hartung

It strikes me as odd that Seiler et al all used % of workouts in zones vs. % of time in zones across a given range of training. It’s seems somewhat imprecise and can lead to all sorts of absurdities when trying to develop a week-based plan over time. Firstly, unless we are doing 2 workouts on some days, 4 Zone 1 workouts and 1 Zone 3 workout would be 80/20, as would be 8 Zone 1 workouts and 2 Zone 3 workouts (who is going to do 10 discrete workouts in a week? Not me). Or this forces us… Read more »

Krispen Hartung
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Krispen Hartung

Thank you! Fortunately, I am a user of WHOOP, which tracks HR, HRV, RHR, sleep, stress, and fatigue 24 hours a day. I’m really liking it so far and its making more accountable on my recovery and sleep. It’s a fascinating product and service. On another notes, I have been search and searching, and I am really surprised there are not more formal training plans out there on the polarized model. TrainingPeaks has a handful, but they are shorter plans….I’m talking a base to race 20+ week plan, ideally for us masters. I basically had to create my own

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

I’m not sure that many people (amateur riders) have bought in to the polarized model yet. At first sight it doesn’t make sense, and the Z1 rides feel like a waste of time. Not many Type A personalities have the patience for it. My view on standard training plans is they are a bit like off-the-peg clothing: you are lucky if they fit. They can provide a good starting point if you know how to adapt them to your own situation, but most people don’t have the time or ability to do this, nor to make the changes needed after… Read more »

Krispen Hartung
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Krispen Hartung

Super interesting! Thanks for sharing. Polarized training and research seems to be in the air, because I too have been doing the research and just recently put my 2019 polarized training plan together in TrainingPeaks. I’m a 51 year old masters cyclist, mainly track, and I was at one point time seduced by STT, and realized by experience that it simply wears me down and forces me to spend too much time in the stress zone, thereby not allowing me to ever recovery, adapt, and obtain gains. It basically keeps me in this “in limbo” state of fatigue and fitness.… Read more »

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

Thanks Krispen for a great post.You have invested a lot of time to understand the approach. Your training plan makes a lot of sense. As always, expect the unexpected and be ready to make changes over time. If you are not already doing so, you might want to consider using a HRV monitoring aid such as HRV4Training to guide you on when to go all out and when to take it easy. It’s not because the plan says do an HIT session that this is necessarily a good idea on the day.
I wish you luck!
Marvin

Gerry
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Gerry

Hi Marvin nice article. I am a hobby cyclist 56j old. Since I am a number guy (engineer) I bought a powertap 8 years ago. For 4 years I do strict polarized training. In summer ~6 hrs a week in winter 3hrs. Before that especially in younger years almost every ride was an attempt to set a new record on the training lap. I.e. almost pure threshold. Since I do polarized I am equally fast as 10 years ago. I train less and I am less thrashed after training and able to enjoy life afterwards. Even after intervals. I would… Read more »

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

Hi Gerry, Thanks for the comment: a great contribution to the polarised discussion. I agree with the point you raise about how to calculate the relative percentages spent training high vs. low. This wasn’t clear to me when I initially wrote this article back in March. Since then I have heard confirmation from Stephen Seiler that the percentage split published in the research is calculated by session time and not interval time: in other words a one hour HIT session with (for example) 20 minutes at high intensity would be counted as one hour and not 20 minutes. A related… Read more »

Ben
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Ben

Great read! Thank you! I have been reading and researching about Polarized Training for a while now and have also implemented it as my training plan. What seems to be confusing and conflicting between papers and reviews of the polarized training plan is the 20/80% training rule. Some say 20% of your training sessions should be in Polarized Z3 and 80% of your training sessions in Polarized Z1. Others say 20% of your overall work time should be 20% L3 and 80% L1. The two are very different, but which is correct as people seem to be interpreting the study… Read more »

Marvin Faure
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Marvin Faure

Those are great results Ben, well done. It shows that your plan is working. You will find that after a while you will need to change the plan to provide a different stimulus in order to continue your progression. To answer the question on how to calculate the 80/20 split: this is not a magic number, but has been shown to be empirically true for many elite athletes. I have also seen 90/10. In practice, some athletes respond more to low volume/high intensity, whereas for others it is the opposite. This could explain the difference. More on this from Alan… Read more »

Jürgen Kerstna
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Jürgen Kerstna

what is not clear to me is how to count recovery time between reps. I have searched and some sources (can’t recall which ones) say these should be included in high intensity time. So that 6 x [4’Z5 – 2’Z1] high intensity time is 24′ not 16′
What are your thoughts?