What's Cool In Road Cycling
Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert - France - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Lawson CRADDOCK (USA / Team EF Education First - Drapac P/B Cannondale) - Brice FEILLU (France / Team Pro Cycling Breizh - Fortuneo - Oscaro) pictured during 70th Critérium du Dauphiné (2.UWT) - stage-1 - from Valence to Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert 179 KM - photo Miwa iijima/Cor Vos © 2018

Toolbox: Polarized Training Simplified

There are numerous debates over different training philosophies, mainly the “big three” of sweet spot, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and polarized training (80/20). The challenge of these debates is that they tend to be exclusive, meaning someone chooses the “side” they like and defend it. In my experience, however, each training method plays a valuable role in training over time and in specific situations. We can use them all.

Why and how? Let’s start by summarizing each of the three methods.

Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert - France - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Lawson CRADDOCK (USA / Team EF Education First - Drapac P/B Cannondale) - Brice FEILLU (France / Team Pro Cycling Breizh - Fortuneo - Oscaro) pictured during 70th Critérium du Dauphiné (2.UWT) - stage-1 - from Valence to Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert 179 KM - photo Miwa iijima/Cor Vos © 2018
EF Education Firt-Drapac’s Lawson Craddock – Coasting and full on in stage 1 of the Dauphiné’18

Sweet spot training is the development of high volumes of training in tempo zone with a solid focus on high tempo zone work, which is often called sweet spot (Overton, Coggan). This system forms a pyramid of intensity when viewed in a workout distribution chart; it looks something like this:

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) consists of short, maximal-intensity intervals conducted with frequency ranging from 3-5 times a week. When viewed in a workout distribution chart, it looks something like this:

Polarized training divides the sessions between high-intensity and lower-intensity work and avoids training in the tempo zone. Roughly 70-80% of workouts are at lower intensity (easy), and roughly 20-30% of the workouts are at higher intensity (hard). When viewed in a workout distribution chart, it looks something like this:

Time & Place for Everything
Over years of experimenting with these systems, I have found each one an effective tool that can be used to design training programs and achieve peak performance. In the simplest terms, HIIT training is a situational solution that works for time-crunched athletes, and I tend to focus more on the sweet spot and polarized formats in my planning. Sweet spot is my go-to system for base training, and when it comes to performance training (pushing toward peak), my focus tends to switch to polarized training.

So let’s talk about using polarized training to create peak performance. One of my rules for this system is to use it for eight weeks at the most. A lot of research points out that this type of training builds aerobic capacity, but it is my observation that most of the positive results come within four to eight weeks and are best when built on a solid foundation of aerobic fitness (which is the role of sweet spot training). Extending polarized training beyond eight weeks often leads to a performance plateau or decline and can be very mentally taxing on the athlete.

Designing the polarized block
My first step is to determine the athlete’s athletic maturity based on his/her years of training and volume levels. I use a simple system of high, medium, and low to design the volume and rhythm of the training block. For low-maturity athletes, I plan two hard days per week separated by rest days; for medium-maturity athletes, I plan three hard days per week separated by rest days; and for high-maturity athletes, I plan three hard days per week and block at least two back to back in order to create the higher stress required for adaptation of the mature athlete. Below are views of the typical week by maturity.

Potential schedule for low maturity rider, featuring two intense days weekly.

Potential 3-intense days schedule for a rider with medium maturity.

Potential schedule for a high maturity rider, with three intense days and two of them back-to-back to create additional load.

Designing the polarized workouts
Once I’ve selected the schedule overview, I design the workouts. I use base training to focus on the athlete’s weaknesses to ensure they don’t become limiters in racing, but once we flip to performance training, I focus on the demands of the athlete’s target events.

After determining the focus, I design the hard days (intervals). I typically assign intervals ranging from 30 seconds to 8 minutes, depending on the event demands, but the intensity is always high. The goal of each session is the maximum amount of intensity duration the athlete can handle and still adapt. The trick is the intensity-duration relationship of the interval. This should always be targeted as 90% or above of max capability and the goal is to increase total time in above 90%, not necessarily push it to 99%. These workouts are shorter and tend to range from 1-2 hours, depending on the athlete.

I design the easier days next. These are longer workouts, ranging from 2-4 hours (or more), completed at a lower intensity. This is where things can get tricky as we begin to define lower intensity. I typically use either 50-60% of functional threshold power (FTP) or 65% of max heart rate as the absolute max intensity. The goal of the easier days is to maintain aerobic fitness while avoiding the intensity fatigue that will prevent you from being fresh enough to go hard on the hard days.

Intensity Discipline
The phrase “intensity discipline” was coined by Dr. Stephen Seiler when he introduced polarized training. In my observation, this is the single biggest challenge of using polarized training to achieve success. I can’t tell you the number of athletes I interact with who claim to be using polarized training as a format but in reality are not. Why? Many athletes go too hard on the easy days and aren’t fresh enough to really go hard on the hard days. I bet everyone reading this article has read this numerous times, and I bet more than half of you still do it wrong anyway. I call this the “knowing-to-doing gap” in cycling training: an athlete learns from studies, articles, and educational programs and builds the “knowing” but still lacks the intensity discipline to accomplish the “doing” part correctly.

If you want polarized training to work, you must go easier on the easy days, and this is hard for cyclists. Take a look at the power and heart rate targets I suggested above. When was the last time you you went out for a ride at 50-60% of your FTP as part of your training (not active recovery)? You need this kind of intensity discipline, or your results will be limited.

Tracking Polarized Training
For most road cyclists, I focus on tracking FTP and time at VO2max to ensure results during this block. I track these metrics both at the workout level and as progress over time.

For a workout review, time at VO2max is important and is my go-to tracking, with the exception of the pure time trialist. Take a look at the summary below of a hard-day workout.

You’ll noticed that this athlete spent about 18 minutes above 85% of VO2max in this interval workout. Note the drop-off in time above 90%; this tells me the athlete has some fatigue or is in late-cycle training.

For the whole-athlete view, I again tend to focus on time spent in VO2max zones, breaking it down into three areas: low (below 65% of power at VO2max), medium (between 66-84%), and high (greater then 85%) intensity. Even though polarized training is about the distribution of workout days (80/20), I still want the time at VO2max to follow the right distribution.

Take a look at the chart below; you’ll see that as the base training timeframe closes and race season revs up, this athlete has transitioned from a sweet-spot approach to a more polarized approach. Remember, polarized training is about the distribution of high-intensity workouts to low-intensity workouts, which results in a low percentage of time at such high intensity; 2-4% is typically enough, assuming the athlete trains about 12 hours per week.

Polarized training is not the only way to bring on peak form, but it’s an excellent option and can really help prepare you for your big event. Building a block or two of it into your training is also a great way to push a quick peak in the summer. Just remember to maintain your intensity discipline. I recommend Dr. Stephen Cheung’s article on polarized training for additional information and learning.

About Tim
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is also Head Coach at Velocious Cycling Adventures. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] . To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.

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