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​Polarized Cycling Training: Does Slowing Down Lead to Riding Faster?

December 27, 2023

In everyday training, cyclists often employ polarized training plans, alternating between pushing hard and engaging in relaxed, slow-paced rides. Substantial scientific evidence suggests that this structured approach is more effective than training at random.

So, what exactly is polarized training, and is it suitable for every rider? How can one incorporate it into their cycling regimen? In this article, we've interviewed four professional coaches to delve into this concept.

Understanding Polarized Cycling Training

As the name suggests, polarized training divides your cycling workouts into two extremes: low intensity and high intensity. "It's either riding in the easy Zones 1 or 2 or going all out. No in-between 'sweet spot' or threshold training," says Mike Carson, Chief Sports Scientist at Wahoo.

The concept of polarized training emerged in the early 21st century. Initially, Dr. Stephen Seiler found that many elite endurance athletes primarily trained at low intensities. Elite endurance athletes have followed this training pattern at least since the 1970s.

The ratio of high to low-intensity training in polarized training is generally 20% high intensity to 80% low intensity. This "2:8" concept was introduced by Matt Fitzgerald, co-founder of endurance sport coaching, who suggests it applies to most endurance sports.

For instance, in training sessions for cross-country skiing or rowing, about 80% of the sessions involve low-intensity training, roughly equating to 90% of the total training duration. This also holds true for cycling training, where about one session in every three focuses on higher intensity efforts.

Zones in Polarized Training

Polarized training typically divides into three zones, a model preferred by sports scientists over the more common six-zone training model. This three-zone model considers physiological changes with increasing exercise intensity.

"In simpler terms, these three zones represent easy, moderate, and hard or severe," explains Jacob Tipper, a coach at Jacob Tipper Performance Coaching.

He elaborates that Zone 1 involves training duration below lactate threshold 1 (LT1), Zone 2 falls between lactate threshold 1 and lactate threshold 2, and Zone 3 involves training duration above lactate threshold 2, also defined as output above functional threshold power (FTP).

Jacob Tipper suggests that in practical polarized training, about 80% of a rider's training time should be below lactate threshold 1 or what's commonly referred to as Zones 1 and 2. During this time, riders engage in relaxed, aerobic-based riding, often socializing or enjoying music.

"The remaining 20% should be high-intensity efforts, like climbing or five-minute all-out sprints. There's not much of a transition between high and low training intensities," says Jacob Tipper.

Benefits of Polarized Training

Based on Seiler's research, Matt Fitzgerald wrote a book called "80/20 Running." He believes the polarized or "2:8" training concept significantly benefits endurance athletes across all levels.

"If you have the volume and time to train, you should try the '2:8' approach," says Fitzgerald.

Numerous studies indicate the benefits of polarized training for many endurance athletes. In a study involving 48 well-trained endurance athletes in 2014, the use of polarized training showed greater improvements in key metrics compared to other common training methods.

Fitzgerald argues that the primary efficacy of polarized training lies in its low-intensity component. Riding in Zone 2 enhances blood circulation, increases mitochondria and capillary density in muscles, and improves the heart's blood-pumping capacity, all of which enhance your endurance.

"Moreover, low-intensity training provides a solid foundation for high-intensity training," says Fitzgerald. Staying in Zone 2 offers a relatively lower cost in terms of fatigue, allowing ample strength for high-quality interval sessions.

Many amateur cyclists fall into the trap of misallocating their efforts across different training intensities. "Some amateur riders spend too much time riding in the 'gray zone.' It's not about doing too much threshold training but rather pushing too hard in Zone 2, which leads to detrimental effects," Carson explains.

Because as your power output increases, you shift from fat burning to using carbohydrates as fuel, rapidly depleting your energy and leaving you fatigued when real efforts are needed later. "The extra fatigue from overdoing it contradicts the idea of fitness benefits," Carson adds.

Fitzgerald believes that redistributing training intensity while maintaining the total training volume can lead to better health. For example, breaking a three-hour moderate intensity ride into two hours of low-intensity and one hour of high-intensity riding.

However, the temptation to match your pace with fellow riders during slow rides can challenge your commitment to this approach, making overcoming this temptation a "key" aspect of polarized training.

"Breaking habits is tough, and at times, it's hard to stay rational," Fitzgerald notes.

Polarized Training for Riders with Limited Training Time

For many amateur athletes dealing with limited training time, the "2:8" approach is often recommended. For someone training three to five hours per week, polarized training is a preferred mode.

Matt Clinton, a coach at Clinterval Coaching, suggests that these riders alternate between high-intensity interval training and recovery rides due to their limited time. He designs training plans for these riders in a pyramid structure, such as riding for two hours on the first two days and one hour on the third day. The first two days involve low-intensity Zone 2 or Zone 3 riding, while the third day engages them near maximal oxygen consumption.

Drawbacks of Polarized Training

Despite its popularity, polarized cycling training isn't suitable for everyone. "Some athletes aren't suited for it. I have a student who, no matter how polarized the training, doesn't perform as expected," says Carson.

Jacob Tipper notes that some of his athletes have excelled post-polarized training because they respond well to such stimuli. Both Carson and Tipper stress the importance of experimenting with different training methods.

Critics of polarized training suggest it's more of a scientific principle than a training modality and doesn't need to be overly glorified.

"I'm not aware of any top cyclists or elite endurance athletes who strictly adhere to polarized training, entirely avoiding moderate intensity training," says Tipper. For instance, even one of the best cyclists today, such as Mathieu van der Poel, doesn't strictly follow polarized training.

Another drawback is that polarized training lacks a lot of enjoyment. Your speed might feel out of place when riding casually with others, and it might add to your mental burden. If practiced throughout the year, it could potentially drain your enthusiasm and motivation.

"Training isn't just about physical improvements; maintaining high spirits and mental focus are equally crucial. Anticipate feeling bored, restless, and inattentive when cycling doesn't meet your emotional needs," Tipper points out.

Polarized vs. Pyramid Training

Pyramid training, named for its structure mirroring a pyramid, involves varying intensities: a base of low-intensity rides, slightly higher-intensity rides in the middle, and the highest intensity at the top.

This structure closely resembles polarized training. Pyramid training also follows a three-zone model, where 70% to 80% is

 spent in Zone 1, which involves easy riding. However, the remaining 20% to 30% differs from polarized training: moderate intensity falls between lactate threshold 1 and lactate threshold 2, while high intensity beyond lactate threshold 2 comprises around 10%.

Clinton mentions that compared to polarized cycling training, pyramid-style training involves more tempo and threshold training. For endurance athletes like cyclists, the merits of polarized versus pyramid training remain debated.

In 2022, a group of exercise physiologists supported more polarized training for endurance athletes. They cited extensive observational and intervention studies, recommending that athletes spend at least 70% of training time or sessions below lactate threshold.

Soon after, scientists supporting pyramid training opposed this stance, suggesting that these peers' definition of polarized training wasn't precise and that it's rare among elite athletes, who usually follow a pyramid-style training.

However, objectively speaking, the debate between these two training methods doesn't have to be so binary. "The consensus among most is that the majority of your time should be spent below lactate threshold 1," Tipper says. He recommends adding two harder sessions per week for most riders, whether moderate or higher intensity.

If you find yourself in a good physical state, Tipper suggests testing by adding two to three more high-intensity sessions weekly. "It's not a mutually exclusive situation between these two training methods. You can cycle through a pyramid-style phase and then transition into polarized training mode," Fitzgerald suggests.

Implementing Periodization in Polarized Training

Carson, Fitzgerald, Clinton, and Tipper unanimously agree that adhering to periodization principles is crucial when following polarized training, shaping an entire year's training plan. Periodization helps specify goals and makes training plans more concrete.

Moreover, it eases the pressure during off-season training, avoiding mental and physical fatigue. "You'd want to strangle your coach if you continued high-intensity training in the cold winter months," jokes Clinton.

During winter rides, there's typically a focus on foundational training with minimal high-intensity workouts, following a common pyramid-style training method. "Easy winter rides preserve muscle memory, burn fat in Zones 1 and 2, boost aerobic capabilities, and reduce muscle wastage. On the contrary, high-intensity rides stress your muscles, leaving you sore the next day," he notes.

When cyclists attempt shorter-distance training like climbing, Clinton advises switching to a polarized training mode.

However, Fitzgerald suggests that riders engaged in longer-duration low-intensity rides, such as endurance cyclists, might lean more toward a pyramid-style approach as events near. "They might engage in some hardest high-intensity training toward the end of foundational training and engage in very specific, moderate-intensity training during peak training periods," he explains.

Is Polarized Training Right for You?

If you're currently training without structure and are eager to tap into untapped improvement potential, polarized training could benefit you. Trying to spend most of your time riding slower could reduce your fatigue. If time permits, increasing your training volume can enhance aerobic capacities.

For those who've been in a state of high-intensity training throughout the year and want to ease off, polarized training can bring a fresh perspective and aid in high-quality interval training. Additionally, it can improve your maximal oxygen uptake.

However, polarized training isn't suitable throughout the year; it's best utilized at certain times within a year and tailored to specific goals.

For most common training scenarios, pyramid-style training might be a better choice. It adheres to a step-by-step change from easy to difficult, retaining the pure joy of riding.

Alternatives to Polarized Training

Primary alternatives to polarized training include high-volume training, high-intensity training, threshold training, and pyramid training. High-volume training stacks a lot of foundational training with long cycling distances. Threshold training involves training at functional threshold levels in multiple intervals, while high-intensity training engages in short bursts of high-intensity rides.

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