Polarized training is one specific type of training intensity distribution; a way of organizing and distributing intensity within a training plan.
Good training plans productively balance training stress with recovery over time, using a technique called periodization. Plans can be periodized in different ways, dividing the overall structure of stress and recovery into annual, monthly, weekly, or block-by-block cycles, for instance. Training intensity distributions such as Polarized training are a way of organizing training stress within a periodized structure.
Polarized training is most commonly defined in research as 80% low intensity and
20% high intensity. Therefore in a Polarized training plan, most workouts are low intensity, a few workouts are very hard, and almost none fall in-between.
Polarized Training was first introduced as a concept by Dr. Stephen Seiler, based on his observations of training habits among elite rowers.
Pace, heart rate, perceived exertion, and power are all ways to measure the intensity of training stress. Most research into Polarized training uses a simple 3-zone model applicable across endurance sports.
The 3-Zone Intensity Model
Zone 1 (low intensity) ranges from 50% of an athlete’s VO2 max to Lactate Threshold 1 (LT1), the point at which blood lactate levels begin to increase.
Zone 2 (moderate) ranges from Lactate Threshold 1 (LT1) to Lactate Threshold 2 (LT2), the point at which blood lactate levels begin to rise dramatically. LT2 is sometimes defined as a blood lactate concentration of 4.0 mmol/L, but this can vary widely from athlete-to-athlete.
Zone 3 (high-intensity) encompasses any time spent above LT2. In practice, this includes most riding above FTP
Dr. Stephen Seiler has also defined the 3 zones by percentage of FTP for cyclists, with Zone 1 ranging from 50%-79% of FTP, Zone 2 80% – 99%, and Zone 3 at 100% or above. But even in the research literature, definitions for each zone can vary, and it’s important to keep in mind that how lactate or ventilatory thresholds correlate with percentages of VO2max power or FTP will vary from individual to individual.
Research on Polarized Training
Polarized training is a growing area of research in endurance sports. Many studies have found that it can result in certain performance improvements equal to or greater than some other training intensity distributions, especially over the short term. Other studies suggest Pyramidal training is equal or superior to Polarized for improving certain performance metrics.
Currently, research on Polarized training spans a range of endurance sports, with commonly cited studies focused on skiers, runners, or rowers.
Though limited when it comes to cycling, the evidence does suggest Polarized training can be effective, but it’s not clear whether it is best for all athletes in all circumstances. For example, studies suggest that Polarized training may impact athletes differently depending on training status. In other words, whether the athlete is relatively new to training or is already highly trained may make a difference. The research is also unclear on whether a Polarized training intensity distribution applied over the whole course of a training plan would be more or less effective than combining blocks of Polarized training with blocks of other training intensity distributions.
“Polarized Training Intensity Distribution has been proven to be an effective strategy for some elite athletes during certain phases of the season,” concluded a 2015 review of available literature. But after acknowledging the limitations of the existing research, the review’s authors stopped short of declaring polarized training the best option, stating “consequently, an ‘optimal’ Training Intensity Distribution cannot be identified, and further prospective randomized investigations conducted over extended time-periods will have to be designed to address this question.”
While the jury is still out on whether one training intensity distribution is always better than another, a strong body of evidence in both scientific literature and in real-life application suggests a mixed approach to training can be highly effective. This is why periodization is so important to the success of a training plan – by strategically varying your training intensity distribution throughout the season, you can increase your odds of successfully reaching your goals.
Who is Polarized Training For?
Polarized training is a good option for athletes who want to experiment with an alternative way of distributing intensity in their training plan. While the scientific literature isn’t crystal clear on the specific athletes for whom Polarized would work best, there is strong evidence to support consistency and motivation as major factors for training success.
In the end, the best training plan is the one that will best help you stay consistent and motivated, so if you are excited to try Polarized training, it may be a good option for you.