We know that once upon a time the way to achieve optimal performance was by going hard all the time. Doing long hard intervals day in day out – honest hard work. But over the past few years, we’ve seen a transition towards the polarised approach to training. In this article, we are going to explain what polarised training is. What the science says and how we saved one of our new clients from a bottomless pit of threshold training that led to poor performance and health issues.
Traditionally, endurance athletes followed the so-called “threshold model“, in which the majority of the training is done at pretty high intensities. Basically – going as hard as we can for the whole ride. This means riding around or just bellow the second lactate threshold (or critical power). This approach is based on the idea that moderately hard yet tolerable intensity will produce the greatest stress and lead to biggest training adaptations. On the other hand evidence and practical knowledge of numerous coaches tell us that “the polarised model” in which large amounts of training time are spent at lower intensities with only a small amount of high intensity yields far better training adaptations.
To better understand what different approaches to training are, we first need to understand how we categorise them. When we talk about threshold or polarised approach, we are talking about training intensity distribution. So how hard/intense the training sessions are. We have several options here. We can use a simple RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale or % of HRmax (maximal heart rate) etc. Be we prefer to use physiological markers that gives us better insights into different intensity domains. For the purpose of this article we are going to use the lactate concentrations in the bloodstream. 2 markers can be defined. The first and the second lactate threshold. The first one demarcates the moderate and heavy intensity exercise domains, whereas the second one demarcates the heavy and severe exercise domains. This means that three distinct intensity zones can be determined. Most coaches prescribe training using a 5-6 zones so that it is easier for athletes to understand at what intensity she/he should be riding, but fundamentally the zones are determined using the two mentioned thresholds. But this is a topic for another article. Back to the three basic training zones.
So now that we have basic categories of training intensities and we can describe the threshold and polarised training approach in a much more friendly manner. Below we can see how much time is spent in different intensity zones within different training approaches. I added HIT approach which is gaining a bit more popularity in a time-crunched group of athletes who are shifting from the threshold approach. But we won’t give it much attention in this article.
Majority of the training time is spent within heavy exercise intensity domain with only a bit of severe exercise domain training. Most commonly known training in the threshold approach is SweetSpot training.
Training here is divided into a lot of moderate intensity training with some severe intensity domain training while avoiding the time in the heavy exercise intensity domain. In practice we see the following distribution in 3 training zones: 85-5-10%.
HIT approach consist predominately of shorter high intensity intervals that are done in majority of training sessions with just a few moderate intensity training sessions.
In the charts above, we could se a distinct difference in training intensity distribution among different training approaches. Looking at the polarised approach we can see a clear polarisation of training between low to moderate and severe intensities. Here the majority of training is done in the so-called endurance zone. We aim to around 80-90% of all training time to be low-moderate intensity (NOT NECESSARILY EASY!). The rest of the training is done at very high intensities. Usually around 10%. And a bit of time still falls into the heavy exercise intensity domain.
We know that a lot of research on the topic of polarised training was done by prof. Stephen Seiler, an American living in Norway and working at the University of Agder. The ideas of polarised training emerged before him, but he was the first to really dig into it and more somehow popularised it. All that because of the “what the
hell is going on” moment he had. What happened? Well, he was running out on the trails one day and meet the sister of one of the top Norwegian skiers who was also running. And when they came up the hill where both could easily run to the top, she slowed down, fast walk up the hill, then continued running.
What was happening?
Well, he figured out she was doing endurance run and she was maintaining the low intensity. Even over a short uphill section. We know we would hammer it, but she did not. She continued training at the prescribed pace, not even thinking of going faster. That was later coined into the term “intensity discipline” and it is a something the best endurance athletes are very good in.
That moment was when prof. Seiler started to looking in to endurance athletes. And with that popularity of polarised training began.
Looking at the intensity distribution of 12 Olympic/World champions from XC skiing shows that the majority of training duration is done at fairly low intensities followed by almost no training at moderate intensities and some training at high intensities.
So we see that “responders” are the ones that did more work at lower intensities with comparison to “non-responders” who did more work in heavy intensity domain. Nice indication on how important low intensity is.
And some more.
Here we see a nice polarisation of training in the years 2017 & 2018 (second and third last). Those years also brought the best results in competition with ~20 gold medals. Next year (2019) the athlete increased the duration in the heavy exercise intensity domain (zone 2) and decreased duration in the severe intensity domain, but thid did not contribute to better results. Quite the contrary. Athlete’s performance declined.
Well, we don’t want to go into saying that some heavy intensity domain training is not beneficial. There are some studies that show better outcomes with more emphasis on higher intensities. Especially in triathlon. More on that in another article.
Here I would like to put out my own view. Coming primarily from cycling and seeing a lot of polarised and threshold approaches I think we can balance both pretty well.
When focusing on the bigger picture and athletes’ long term progression in terms of one season/one Olympic cycle or even more importantly 10-20 year career, I think that we need to be more focused on the polarisation of the training process. So on the macro level, we try to focus on that distinct polarisation. And that does not mean we need to hit exactly 80%/20%. That is just a number. We need to take in to account that each athlete is different. One might be ok with 80/20 one might be around 85-5-10 or even 90-5-5. This is were coaching gets fun. It’s not one approach that fits everybody. It is about trial and error. Just don’t get stuck with the numbers.
What about the threshold? On the micro-level maybe as a part of a specific training block, we might be OK with prescribing some of the threshold work (Heavy domain). If not for physiological benefits maybe because of psychological ones so that the athlete gets to experience how it is to suffer for 45 minutes on a climb that he will be racing or maybe to get an idea of what it means to be racing for 2. 5 hours. We know that sports performance is not just about the legs.
I am not saying that is the best approach, far from it. We all have a bit different approaches to training. But I do believe that in the long term more polarised approach can be more beneficial. Few reasons for that we will get to know in the next section. I’ll show you how polarised approach helped an athlete from performing poorly and having lots of health issues.
polarised training save me
As a lot of studies on polarisation of training were conducted on elite athletes, most come with the idea:
I don’t have that much time to train. That is why going somewhat hard all the time a can put my body under more stress and allows me to do a lot more work in a shorter time. That will make me much stronger and faster.Literally every amateur/recreational rider that read one book about cycling
Not all would agree with that statement. The same statement was in the mind of a young cyclist and his coach before they came to me with a problem. What was the problem? There were several problems but in the eyes of that cyclist and his coach (well his coach said he was not doing enough) was the performance. But the first thing I noticed was the health issues that occurred on a monthly basis. Colds, sore throat, and other stuff. We all know it. It happens to all maybe once-twice a year. With this athlete that was happening every few weeks.
This cyclist has been training for approximately 5 years, 4 years under strict threshold approach. So here are some of his training data.
In this one year period he did around 550 hours of training. Now let’s have a look at how the intensity was distributed based on zones described above.
This was a weekly distribution and here is a monthly distribution:
So we can clearly see how the intensity distribution changed form the 30th week on. That is when we switched from the threshold to a more polarised approach. We see that the athlete did around 45-50% of all training at the heavy intensity exercise domain with only 2-3% in the severe exercise intensity domain and the rest in the moderate intensity domain. So around 20 hours per month of grinding on the bike. Pushing it. Can you imagine that?
So what we did is we cut that heavy intensity to around 10% of total training time and with that increase volume at lower intensities. And not just that. The average power of low intensity training was lowered by around 15%. So that low intensity was really low intensity. And with that, we increased those hard training sessions to around 5-7% of total training time.
Those somewhat hard training session have a tendency to cause a lot fatigue and put our bodies under a lot of stress. And if we do not recover enough it can be a problem. And with this athlete doing A LOT of hard session over and over again over weeks, months and even years it just wasn’t working. He wasn’t able to recover and adapt. We know that the goal of the training is to maximise adaptation not to maximise stress.
With insufficient recovery time and with hard sessions day in day out athlete started getting sick. Just a common cold. A few days without the bike. Then the next mistake happened. To get the lost time back they increased the duration of few session and ramped up the intensity a bit. And then he got sick again in three-four weeks. And again a few days off the bike and repeat. Again let’s get that lost time squeezed in. Four weeks later he was sick again. He even experienced problems with sleeping. And that was happening for about 2 years.
There is a saying ” Healthy athlete is a good athlete”. Being healthy allows you to train, be consistent. Furthermore, he reported he was not able to do a really hard session, hence we see only 1-2% of time doing high intensity training. This came with constant fatigue and being under fuelled all the time. The same happened in races. One race was OK, while the next one was a disaster. And so on came the 2 year battle with the bottomless pit of threshold training.
The first part was getting the athlete to ditch rides predominantly performed in the heavy intensity domain. Secondly, we lowered the intensity of low intensity sessions. Those were too intense for low intensity. About 15% reduction was enough. And high intensity. Well, we just did a bit of it. In the first few weeks just about 2% of total training time since he did two short races in between. That was enough of high intensity training. After a week we saw a substantial increase in his well being. He reported feeling much more relaxed, that he had much better sleep. Even on the bike, he said he does not feel shattered after each ride.
After a few weeks, we noticed the most important thing in my opinion. He was still training. He didn’t get sick. He was quite surprised as he was expecting to get sick. And with that his training really became consistent. Easy days were easy and hard ones were epic. But the effect of changing his training approach was quickly seen on the numbers as well. He kept crushing his old PBs. That was a sign it’s time to do some physiological testing. So we did the first test 8 weeks and the second around 18 weeks after starting with a more polarised approach. We also had a test from 2 months before the athlete came to us which was a great benchmark on how his performance changed.
Tests did confirm that we took the right approach with this athlete. Not only his performance markers improved, but he also had much better performance on the road. What was the most important thing for us was that the athlete was feeling really good. Strong, without too many bad days as he did before and he was healthy. Now over a year, later this athlete missed only 4-5 session because of a small crash on a downhill road. He hasn’t been sick in over a year.
That are the reasons polarised approach was more superior in his case. It gave him time to recover and adapt to work done. It allowed him to stay healthy and to train consistently. It was and is far more sustainable than the threshold approach. And what the athlete values the most today is his health. Performance is just a reward for doing good work.
In the end, I would like to give advice to all of you struggling. It’s not about what is the best approach in theory. In practice, there will be a lot of grey areas. It will be trial and error. What will matter the most, in the end, is what you can handle and not what you should behandling.