Polarised training: your questions answered
The concept of Polarised Training has been used by professional and elite athletes for decades, but it only came to the attention of the majority of amateur cyclists in the past three to four years. It is counter-intuitive and contrary to the way most amateurs train, and thus controversial. The purpose of this article is to answer the most common questions and misconceptions.
In a Polarised Training programme, 80% of your training rides should be at easy, low-intensity endurance pace, and the remaining 20% of your rides should include some very hard, high-intensity intervals. You should avoid training at middling intensities between these two extremes.
The main objection to this approach is that it doesn’t feel right. How can riding at an easy endurance pace possibly have a training benefit? Surely no pain means no gain? It doesn’t obviously make sense to train at an easy pace when you are planning to ride a race as fast as possible. And yet… this is the way the professionals train, across all endurance sports1,2.
- Professionals make their easy training very easy, and it represents roughly 80% of their training time. Conversely, they make their hard training very hard.
The next objection is: OK, maybe it works for the pros. They have the time to train 20-30 hours a week. It can’t possibly work for amateurs who can only train for 6-8 hours per week. Well, the research shows that even at low training volumes3, there are still clear benefits in following a polarised training programme.
The 80/20 rule is deceptively simple however, and there are a lot of nuances in how to apply it. Read on to learn more, and if we don’t answer your question, post it in the comments at the bottom.
Polarised Training: what is it?
We have written extensively about polarised training in previous blog articles:
To summarise, in a polarised training plan you should do 80% of your rides at an easy pace, and include hard (or very hard) intervals in the remaining 20%.
- The 80% “easy” should be done at a pace below your aerobic threshold (AeT, also called VT1 or LT1, approximately 75% of your FTP). In a typical 5 zone model this means in Zone 1 or in Zone 2, no more.
- The 20% of rides that are “hard” should include a significant amount of time above your anaerobic threshold (AnT, VT2 or LT2, CP (critical power) or FTP). This means the top end of Zone 4 and above. The actual time accumulated above threshold will typically be less than 10%. The rest is warming up, resting between intervals or cooling down.
- You should avoid training in the middle (in Zone 3 and in low-mid Zone 4).
What is the rationale behind Polarised Training?
Aerobic endurance is the foundation for any endurance sport (the clue is in the name…), so all other things being equal, the more endurance you have (the bigger your aerobic engine) the better you will perform. So far so good: nobody disagrees with this. The surprising insight behind polarised training is that when the specific goal is to build aerobic endurance, there’s no benefit to riding at higher than endurance pace. If you do this, the only result will be more fatigue, not more fitness.
Riding at endurance pace results in a host of aerobic adaptations, among the most important of which are: decreased heart rate, increased stroke volume, increased mitochondria density, increased capillarisation and increase in Type I muscle fibres efficiency and fatigue resistance. If you continue for longer than two hours, as the Type I muscle fibres start to tire you will recruit more and more of the Type II muscle fibres, resulting in Type II adaptations as well. As you push the time out to four, five, six hours or more, you will find that maintaining endurance pace for so long is not an easy workout.
So much for the aerobic endurance side of the equation. However, the event demands of all but the most extreme long distance cycling events include the need to make periodic short, sharp efforts above threshold (you may never need to sprint, but you are likely to want to make the effort to stay with the group up a short rise, or to get back in the wheels after a road junction, for example). This is where the 20% “hard” or “very hard” training comes in, and if the rest of your training has been at an easy pace you will be fresh enough to get the most out of your hard training.
Polarised training done well thus corrects the frequent criticism of the way self-coached amateurs train: they make the easy days too hard and the hard days too easy.
But surely I need to train hard in order to ride hard?
Yes and no. Let’s address the no first. A workout with the objective of building aerobic endurance does not need to be hard, because all the necessary adaptations are stimulated by riding at endurance pace. The harder you ride, the more fatigue you will generate, for no additional benefit in terms of aerobic endurance adaptations. The extra fatigue will only make it harder to repeat the workout next time round, and if repeated too often may even lead to over-training.
On the flip side, there’s more to bike racing than aerobic endurance with the occasional hard effort and a sprint at the end. You will never sharpen your skills in fast bunch riding during a long endurance training ride, for example. One is a high-speed, high-stress ride with wide variations in intensity as you take your turn on the front or sprint to get back on after a road junction, the other is a moderate-speed steady effort with little or no variation in intensity.
This is where the principle of specificity comes in: the closer you get to a target event, the more your training should resemble the event. If you will need to ride fast in a bunch, or do a couple of 30 minute climbs at threshold, then build some of this into your training in the last few weeks. Better still, add some low-priority events to your racing calendar. The result is that the intensity distribution of your training in the last few weeks before your event will no longer be polarised, but pyramidal (see more on this below).
One of the obvious differences between professional and amateur cyclists is the number of racing days. Professionals race much more frequently and over a much longer season than the typical amateur. Since they are getting so many racing days, it is natural for them to “train easy” between the events. As amateurs, we need to be more self-disciplined to avoid the “smash it every time” mentality that leads to nowhere, especially early on in the season.
Why avoid training at sweet-spot?
Let’s clear up one misunderstanding first: you should spend some time training at sweet-spot as you get close to your event. At this point your training is no longer strictly polarised but is adapted to the specific demands of your event.
You should avoid training at sweet-spot however during the Base and perhaps also the Build period (depending on your target events and their dates). The reasons are twofold: it is more effective to train the energy systems separately, and by training at sweet-spot you accumulate extra fatigue for no benefit in terms of aerobic adaptations (decreased heart rate, increased stroke volume, increased mitochondria density, increased capillarisation, increase in Type I muscle fibres efficiency and fatigue resistance, etc.)
Where does Pyramidal Training fit into this?
First a definition: Pyramidal Training refers to an intensity distribution of approximately 70/20/10 (compared to 80/20 in Polarised Training). In a Pyramidal training programme 70% of your rides should be at low intensity (below AeT), 20% of your rides should include significant amounts of time at medium intensity (tempo or sweet-spot, between AeT and AnT) and 10% of your rides should include high-intensity intervals.
For many amateurs, this is the best intensity distribution during the pre-competition phase, typically the last 4 to 6 weeks before tapering and peaking for the competition. It is particularly important to sharpen your bike-handling skills (e.g. fast-paced riding in a peloton) and to improve your mental strength (by suffering through long efforts at 90-95% of your FTP, for example).
How do we know Polarised Training works?
There is a significant and growing body of empirical research that shows it works. Apart from Dr. Stephen Seiler’s original studies of Norwegian professional endurance athletes, one particularly interesting study made a direct comparison of threshold and polarised training using a cross-over design with amateur athletes3. The participants trained for 6.5 hours per week while they were on the polarised plan, and for 7.5 hours per week while on the threshold plan. The results were that the polarised training model resulted in greater improvements in peak power output (+8% vs. +3%) and in lactate threshold (+9% vs. +2%) than the threshold model, in spite of a lower overall training volume.
Many other studies have reached similar conclusions4,5,6,7,8,9.
Anecdotally, I myself have been getting my best ever results since adopting the polarised approach, including new personal records on reference climbs and several podium places in my age group.
It’s alright for the professionals. I don’t have time for this.
This is simply not true. Refer to the paper referenced just above: amateur athletes following a polarised training plan for just 6.5 hours per week improved their performance at threshold by significantly more than when they followed a threshold training plan for 7.5 hours per week3.
How easy is too easy?
Leaving aside the specific case of recovery rides, which should be in Zone 1, your aerobic training rides in a polarised programme should be at mid-upper Zone 2 pace. The goal is to be just below your aerobic threshold (referred to as AeT, VT1, or LT1, the first lactate threshold). This is the exercise intensity at which your blood lactate level starts to rise above the base level (often taken as 2 mmol/L, but the precise level varies from one individual to another).
The only way to be sure of your AeT is to do a lab test. However, these are expensive and inconvenient, so the fall-back position is to target a percentage of your FTP or maximum heart rate. For most people, the AeT will be in the range 70-75% of their FTP (or 70-75% of their HRmax).
The actual number is not that critical. To confirm you are in the right ball-park, find a suitable flat circuit (or use a turbo trainer) and see if you can ride for at least one hour at your target intensity with less than 5% cardiac drift (also known as aerobic decoupling, when your heart rate continues to rise in spite of maintaining a constant effort).
Long, slow rides are too boring. I can’t train like this!
We hear you. Many people enjoy their current training methods too much to want to give them up. There’s something very satisfying about beasting yourself every time you get on a bike, and the “no pain, no gain” mantra resonates powerfully. Also, it’s not always easy to find others willing to ride with you at the right pace, and you will probably have to give up the traditional Sunday hard club ride for much of the year (you can bring it back in the last few weeks as part of your pre-race build-up).
The answer is a question: what’s more important to you? Feeling good and having fun in the moment, or following a disciplined approach that will, over time, make you a stronger rider? Both are perfectly valid choices.
If you do decide to polarise your training, read here for what to do on long slow rides. Each ride should have a purpose and there’s absolutely no reason why they should be boring.
When I compete I am often in Zone 3 or Zone 4. How can Polarised Training prepare me for this?
Elite and pro athletes across multiple disciplines face exactly the same issue, so what do they do? Pro cyclists race far more frequently and over a longer season than amateurs, so they remain sharp this way.
The answer for amateurs is not to try to stay strictly polarised the whole year round, but to break your training into periodic blocks. Here’s a simplified example for someone with a target event in July:
Base (Nov-March): Polarised 80/20.
Build (April-May): Polarised 80/20.
Pre-Comp (June): Pyramidal 70/20/10
Competition (July): Taper and Peak
The closer you get to your target event, the more specific your training needs to be. So be strict about it in the off season and preparation phases, then include more and more specific work such Z3 and sweet-spot efforts, surges or simulated breakaways as you approach the event. If possible, include one or more practice events, as similar as possible to your main target.
What sort of “hard” training should I do?
There’s a lot of mystique attached to interval training. Some coaches make a business out of convincing their clients that only the perfectly designed intervals will achieve the desired results. As a matter of fact, there’s very little research conclusively proving that any particular pattern or intensity is better than any other, because training at any combination of intensity and duration can potentially affect your performance at different intensities.
The best intervals for you are the ones that will create the greatest adaptation relevant to your event: there’s no general answer to this, and the specific answer for you will change from week to week. Here are some guidelines:
HIT during the Base phase
- Choose your interval sessions primarily to work on your weaknesses
- Develop leg strength (high-torque, low-cadence, complemented by off-the-bike exercises)
HIT during the Build phase
- Continue working on weaknesses, include sessions targeted at your strengths
- Develop strength endurance
HIT during the Pre-competition phase
- Choose your interval sessions primarily to work on your strengths
- Include long intervals in Z3 and Z4
- Sharpen event-specific skills and capabilities
HIT during the Taper and Peak phase
- Reduce the volume by at least 50%, stay sharp but avoid creating fatigue
- Choose your interval sessions to most resemble the event demands
I’m new to cycling. Should I be following a polarised plan?
Probably not. Not strictly, anyway. It won’t do any harm but it won’t really help either. The best advice when you start out cycling comes from Eddy Merckx: “Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.” Build the miles, build experience and build your bike-handling skills. If you are competition-minded, try out different events and see what you like. Join a club and ask for advice, go to a training camp, hang out at a cycling café. Above all, have fun. Cycling is a multi-faceted sport and there’s no point in adopting a specific training plan until you know what you are training for.
- Seiler, Stephen & Tønnessen, Espen. (2009). Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training. SPORTSCIENCE · sportsci.org. 13. 32-53.
- Seiler, Stephen. (2010). What is Best Practice for Training Intensity and Duration Distribution in Endurance Athletes? International journal of sports physiology and performance. 5. 276-91. 10.1123/ijspp.5.3.276.
- Neal, Craig & Hunter, Angus & Brennan, Lorraine & O’Sullivan, Aifric & Hamilton, David & De Vito, Giuseppe & Galloway, Stuart. (2012). Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985). 114. 10.1152/japplphysiol.00652.2012.
- Stöggl, Thomas & Sperlich, Billy. (2014). Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training. Frontiers in physiology. 5. 33. 10.3389/fphys.2014.00033.
- Sitko, Sebastian & López, Isaac. (2019). Polarized training in endurance sports: A systematic review. Journal of Negative and No Positive Results. 4. 10.19230/jonnpr.2963.
- Muñoz, Iker & Seiler, Stephen & Bautista, Javier & España, Javier & Larumbe, Eneko & Esteve, Jonathan. (2013). Does Polarized Training Improve Performance in Recreational Runners? International journal of sports physiology and performance. 9. 10.1123/IJSPP.2012-0350.
- Pla, Robin & Meur, Yann & Aubry, Anaël & Toussaint, Jean-Francois & Hellard, Phililppe. (2018). Effects of a 6-Week Period of Polarized or Threshold Training on Performance and Fatigue in Elite Swimmers. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 14. 1-22. 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0179.
- Carnes, Andrew & Mahoney, Sara. (2018). Polarized vs. High Intensity Multimodal Training in Recreational Runners. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 14. 1-28. 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0040.
- Rosenblat, Michael & Perrotta, Andrew & Vicenzino, Bill. (2018). Polarized vs. Threshold Training Intensity Distribution on Endurance Sport Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 33. 1. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002618.
- Hydren, Jay R.; Cohen, Bruce S. (2015). Current Scientific Evidence for a Polarized Cardiovascular Endurance Training Model, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: December 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 12 – p 3523-3530