Polarized Training has become quite popular over the past 5 years or so, but after talking about training modality this with many athletes and upon reading and listening to discussions, I believe it is often widely misunderstood. So what exactly is it and why the confusion?
The concept of polarized training was “invented” over 20 years again by sports researcher Dr. Stephen Seiler. Dr. Seiler looked at training data of successful professional endurance athletes and saw a commonality. To over simplify it, they trained either really hard or really easy. Both of these terms are relative terms, of course. And they training really easy about four times as much as really hard. He found that it fell into a breakdown of about 80% low intensity and 20% high intensity.
I believe a major source of the confusion comes from this notion that 80% of the training is “hard”, and 20% of the training is “easy”. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Apparently it’s not. What I’ve learned is many athletes interpret this as, at the end of the week, 20% of the TIME they spent training should be hard, and 80% of the TIME should be easy. For example, in a ten hour training week, two hours would be high intensity and 8 hours would be low intensity. With this incorrect interpretation, if an athlete did five workouts in a week, each two hours long, that athlete could do 24 minutes of high intensity work during EACH workout. When it’s detailed like that, it’s clear to see that would be a recipe for burnout, injury, and/or overtraining.
This is not what Dr. Seiler observed nor intended with this model. A true polarized system is based on 20% of the WORKOUTS are hard, and 80% of the WORKOUTS are easy. So over the course of ten training days, two would be hard, and eight would be easy.
I’ve seen this is challenging for many athletes, as it takes tremendous discipline to only go hard two out of every ten training sessions. Or perhaps one could say that many find it very difficult to go easy on eight of those ten workouts without sneaking in a little “effort” here or a QOM/KOM attempt there. The differentiator is making those intense workouts REALLY quality sessions. Along with that, the lower intensity workouts need to be true low intensity. Dr. Seiler defines the low intensity workouts to be at intensity below your ventilatory threshold 1.
For detailed information in an amazing slide deck by Dr. Seiler check out:
Another bit of confusion comes from the concept of “hard” days. What’s hard? If one were to only take a snapshot of the polarized model, hard days would be those eye bleeding Zone 3 (in the three zone model, or Zones 5+ in a five or more zone model) efforts. You know…those efforts that are maximal and often called VO2 Max Efforts or Anaerobic Capacity Efforts.
However, if you listen to Dr. Seiler, you’ll hear him talk about even sub-threshold (FTP) efforts as hard days. But he’ll also talk about efforts such as 100 seconds on, 50 seconds off at max. Hard is really relative to the training period that the athlete is in as well as their overall goal and the duration of the effort. Three of his workouts are 4x4, 4x8, and 4x16 (four reps of x minutes) each at maximum intensity for that duration. Obviously the 4x16 intervals would need to be performed at a lower intensity than the 4x4 intervals. Check out the deck link above for an interesting study Dr. Seiler did using those intervals.
As a coach, I find it very effective to apply different modalities depending on the athlete, training period, goals, available training time, and more. Even when using a periodized approach, however, it often shakes out that there will be one or two “hard” workouts a week with the remaining workouts being lower intensity to really build that aerobic engine. This is particularly true for athletes who race frequently or have that weekly group ride throw down.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a great article in Pez Cycling that also includes a link to a podcast with Dr. Stephen Seiler:
Looking to learn more about other training modalities? Here’s an informative and enjoyable listen that breaks down common training modalities, including the Polarized approach:
Have you tried a polarized approach? Any thoughts or questions on training modalities? I’d love to hear from you with a comment or question below.
Until next time, make your easy days easy, make your hard days hard, and make your off days OFF.
Coach B.L. is the head coach at BJL Coaching and an avid racer and cycling enthusiast himself.