How To Use "Polarized" Training in Cycling
In this post, I’ll explain polarised/polarized training for cycling and show some practical ways that I execute a polarised training model in my own training and with athletes I work with.
I’ll go into why I think it’s the best way to train and how it can help you to accelerate your fitness development as a cyclist.
WHAT DOES "POLARISED" MEAN?
Polarising something is to be at one extreme or another, generally avoiding a medium, middle-ground area. In cycling, this applies to training zones. Polarised training is spending most if not almost all of your training time at either a low intensity or a high intensity.
Check out this video on YouTube which also introduces polarised training in cycling and mountain biking:
It's a concept that was first brought to light by Stephen Seiler and has since been studied further by many other sports scientists.
In this case, anything below your lactate threshold is classed as low intensity and anything above is high intensity, putting the middle at around Zone 4. In a week’s worth of training, this might manifest in an intensity distribution of 85% of training time in Zones 1-3, 5% in Zone 4 and 10% in Zones 5-6.
WHY POLARISED TRAINING FOR CYCLING?
Polarised training goes completely against the training organisation of many athletes. A lot of cyclists will aim to spend large amounts of time at the anaerobic threshold, staying there for as long as they can. Interesting observations have come to light in recent times though.
Access to top athletes has become easier for sports scientists, which has resulted in more observational and intervention studies of top performers. What has been found across many different endurance sports is that world and olympic level athletes are not using the threshold approach in their training.
Instead, they are spending large amounts of training time at low intensities and considerable time at high intensities. In other words, they minimise threshold training. What’s more, when improvements in fitness and performance are made from one year to the next, it’s almost always through an increase in training time at lower intensities and not a higher overall intensity.
I’ll add some papers at the end of this post for you to read.
WHY NOT TRAIN LOTS AT THRESHOLD?
The main reason to not train so much at threshold seems to come down to the stress-adaption ratio, i.e. how much stress does a certain type of workout place on an athlete compared to the fitness that can be gained.
Threshold places a great deal of stress on an athlete. In other words, it’s hard, both mentally and physically. But, for all of this anguish, the adaptive response and potential for fitness is not as high as it perhaps should be. Of course, how much threshold training you should perform varies on the time of year or "period" of training and what specific discipline you're preparing for.
HOW TO DO POLARISED CYCLING TRAINING
The main way to shift to a more polarised training model is to avoid excessive amounts of time at lactate threshold. Of course, training zones are not black and white, and do blur into each other. Straying into the zone every now and again is no problem, but spending concentrated training time there might be.
Instead, try to take that threshold time (which can be a lot in a week-long period) and distribute it between Zones 2 and 3, and well as time training at around 90-100% of VO2Max power or heart rate zones.
Benefits for your aerobic system, fat metabolism and heart muscle will come from time in Zone 2, but this relies on long periods of time spent within it, so put most of this gained time into the low end zones.
What’s more, because this type of training isn’t producing any lingering lactic acid in the muscle, it fosters greater training consistency. Training a lot at lower intensities on a regular basis will also help to bring about positive changes to your body’s lactic acid clearing abilities. This is one of the main reasons you’d perform threshold training anyway.
Putting the last bit of spare time into more VO2Max work will see you more effectively taxing the aerobic system at it’s maximum, prompting greater changes in fitness from a shorter amount of work. For a lot of cycling disciplines, this type of training is more reflective of the demands of racing too, which intervals never lasting much more than 5-8 minutes at a time (less if at 100% VO2Max).
Using training analysis software like TrainingPeaks for time-in-zone measurement is one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re training in an optimal polarised fashion, whether using a heart rate monitor or a power meter. Strava also has this option for Premium users.
Here’s an example of a week of training that I completed, which shows clearly how I polarised the intensity distribution. You can use this as an example of something to aim for in your own training.
If you’re looking to improve your training in line with what some of the best endurance athletes in the world are doing, polarising your training more might be the answer. It presents a more sustainable, effective and time-efficient means of training distribution compared to the threshold model, and could really help you reach your cycling goals sooner. Of course, individuality should always be kept in mind, and you’ll need to experiment with what works for you and your circumstances.