Polarized Training And Stephen Seiler
Toolbox: Sweet spot training is almost a mantra within cycling, whose proponents love the ability to do a lot of work closely under threshold, raising threshold power in a time effective manner. An alternative approach is polarized training, and the world leader in studying this approach is the Texan-turned Norwegian scientist Stephen Seiler.
Those of you familiar with my Toolbox articles know that I generally take the approach of picking an interesting scientific paper with relevance to cycling, then analyzing it and applying it to lessons we can take away to our own training.
For this article, I’m doing something slightly different. Rather than a scientific article, I’m going to highlight a really excellent podcast published this month by the GAINcast podcast. That is because the podcast was an extended interview with Dr. Stephen Seiler, and it was one of the most articulate and clearly argued discussions on training philosophy I have come across in a long time.
Moving to Norway
Seiler’s is an interesting story. Growing up in Texas, he played typical American sports and track and field. Eventually, he followed love to Norway more than 20 years ago, and is currently at the University of Agder in Norway.
With the Olympics just finishing, I don’t think anyone needs reminding that the Norwegians dominated Pyeonchang, especially in Nordic skiing and biathlon. So in this new environment of endurance sports, Seiler did what all good scientists do. He observed what was happening and started asking questions.
As a result, Seiler’s philosophy of polarized training was not something cooked up in the lab. Rather, his research into it really grew from seeing what the top Norwegian endurance athletes actually did, then systematically describing it.
He gave an interesting anecdote about one of these light bulb moments. Running in the trails one day, he came across the sister of one of the top Norwegian skiers also running. But when she got to a hill that he knew they could both easily run up, he saw her slow right down, fast walk up the hill, then continued running at the top.
“What was going on?” Seiler wondered. What he came to realize was that she was on a long endurance run, and she was maintaining intensity discipline to avoid going too hard.
This and other observations led Seiler to start systematically analyzing the training distribution of elite Norwegian athletes. What he found was that, across sports such as Nordic skiing, rowing, and other endurance sports, >80% of training volume was spent at endurance efforts, at a relatively easy workload that had lactate levels of 2 mmol or below (Seiler 2010). While not a recovery coffee ride pace, this is what we might associate with the classic “Long Steady Endurance” training effort. This is much more volume at a much lower effort than what most of us recreational cyclists do.
The remaining ~20% of training volume was spent largely above threshold effort, at workloads of 95% HRmax or 90% VO2max. Almost no training volume was spent at threshold or even sweet spot levels.
We’ve probably heard this cliché before but it seems that, when the pros go easy, they go very easy. But when they go hard, they go very hard.
Polarized Training for Non-Pros
It’s about this time that most recreational cyclists throw up their hands and say that sure, pros have all the time in the world to train their endurance, do polarized training, and go for 5 hour rides. But we’re busy people trying to shoehorn in bike time, so we HAVE to make our limited time count by hammering every time we’re on the bike, right?
What Seiler would argue is that we really need to do away with the “No pain, no gain” philosophy. What he has seen with masters athletes is that, while riding hard all the time does raise your fitness up quickly, it also rapidly plateaus your fitness and doesn’t allow for progression.
What Seiler instead advocates is that, even if somebody has only 4 days to train and think they need to ride hard everyday, he would rather see them collapse that schedule into 3 days of riding, stretching one of those days out to a longer endurance ride. In testing such athletes, he notes that the “threshold trainers” were “already at 2.5 mmol lactate just clipping into the pedals.” In contrast, the polarized masters had much higher workloads at their lactate threshold, with their lactate profiles much more similar to that of elite athletes.
Here are some other nice ideas highlighted in the podcast.
Intervals are not just about higher power. Tim Cusick highlighted this idea in his discussion of intervals, but Seiler reinforces this. The top endurance athletes aren’t hitting every interval workout aiming for higher power/workload/speeds. They progress their intensity by doing more intervals, accumulating more time at high workloads.
No pain no gain, NOT! Don’t get Seiler wrong. The interval sessions of the Norwegians are legendary, to the point where they sometimes have to psych themselves up for days in preparation. But they also are not necessarily the “go as hard as you can for 1 min” type of intervals. Rather, their intervals tend to be still controlled in their workload, again at about 90% of their VO2max. How does it get hard then? See above about increasing the number of intervals.
The importance of core training. Seiler only coaches one athlete directly now, and that’s his own daughter in running. With a background in dance and a recent newbie to running, Seiler notes how her years and years of functional core strength training has allowed her to develop in leaps and bounds. He attributes it to her high levels of stability throughout her hips, enabling a very stable posture and solid biomechanics.
Core work has almost become a cliché in cycling and other endurance sports, but it really is hard to overemphasize its importance. There are numerous resources online and in print, but find a good routine and develop the habit. My personal favourite is the book Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage.
Strength training? It’s all individual In Seiler’s experience with elite endurance athletes, the benefit of strength training is really down to individual responses and needs. He tells the story of one extremely elite athlete who simply could not respond to strength training, consistently spending days sore and becoming worse overall with strength training.
However, it is likely that most of us would still benefit from some strength training, both to correct structural weaknesses and also to offset the general loss of muscle with age. The best way to go is to work with a certified strength and conditioning specialist, and to make sure that you do relevant exercises with superb technique.
Endurance training is NOT lazy training
When Seiler says endurance training, he most definitely is not talking about just mindless easy pedaling. He likes the quote that top athletes “do the ordinary extraordinarily well.” This means focusing on specific things such as breathing rhythm, pedaling technique and cadence, maintaining aero posture, climbing technique, etc. Make every workout have a focus.
The entire podcast is excellent and I really encourage you to give it a listen. There are so many great ideas arising from the show that you can and should consider adapting to your own training.
Ride strong and have fun!
Seiler S (2010) What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes? Int J Sports Physiol Perform 5:276-291
Stephen Cheung is a Professor at Brock University, and has published over 100 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s new book “Cycling Science” with Dr. Mikel Zabala from the Movistar Pro Cycling Team has just hit the bookshelves this summer, following up Cutting-Edge Cycling written with Hunter Allen.
Stephen can be reached for comments at [email protected] .