Why Polarized training is NOT for you!

By Hunter Allen

There is much discussion about “Polarized” training and traditional training across all the training zones, which includes a large amount in the Tempo (76-91% of FTP) and Sweetspot (88-93% of FTP) zones.    If you are below 35 years old and a Pro or a category one racer, you can stop reading here.  Or if you are a Masters rider from 35-45 years old and you legitimately have a shot at winning masters nationals this year, you can stop reading here.  Polarized training might be for you.    HOWEVER, for the rest of us…..POLARIZED training is NOT for you. 

First off, what is polarized training?  Polarized training is a way of distributing your training in two polar opposite intensities.   You are either riding very slowly at endurance pace for long periods of time OR you are riding very intensely at your FTP, VO2 or Anaerobic Capacity zones.  There is no “in-between” riding.  You go easy and slow or you go like a manic and kill every interval.   This distribution is generally 70-80% at lower intensity and 20-30% at high intensity.  This concept was introduced and promoted by Dr. Stephen Seiler, who is a well-known exercise physiologist.  There IS a lot of good research that proves that this approach to training does work and works well.

Ride Easy mostly. Then go really hard. The distribution of the “Polarized” training method.

Secondly, what’s the opposing training method?   I will call this the “traditional” method of distributing intensity more evenly across all the intensities which include a big part of the training in the “in-between” intensities. This “in-between” is a “no-go zone” for the polarized training advocates.  The tradition method of training includes riding at endurance pace, tempo pace and the higher intensities as well, but takes a more equalized approach to training.  This distribution would look like the traditional bell curve, 10% Recovery, 25% Endurance, 35% Tempo, 15% FTP,  10% VO2,  5% Anaerobic and Neuromuscular power.  Which means that the majority of your training is done in the tempo zone, which equates to 76-91% of your FTP.   The “sweetspot” intensity is 88-93% of FTP and blends the upper end of Tempo and the lower end of FTP, crossing both zones.  In the traditional method, you will want to spend a good portion of your training at “sweet spot” as well.  There IS a lot of good research that this approach to training works and works well.

So….why do you want to avoid the “polarized” training method?  Because. It’s. Not. Fun.

Yup, that’s it.  It’s not much fun.  Not because it doesn’t work or isn’t well thought out.  It’s just not fun.  Let’s face it, you do this because it’s fun.  If it wasn’t fun, you’d do something else like golf or bowling or backgammon.   With the polarized method, you drone along for hours (do you have 3-4 hours a day to train???) at a low intensity, and let’s say that equates to riding at 14-16mph for 3-4 hours.  It’s boring.  And if you are stuck inside???? Who wants to sit on their trainer and spin their legs for 3-4 hours.  Plus, for most of us, we would just lose fitness as it’s not intense enough to create any meaningful training stress.    When you are not being bored out of your mind, you are going to do intervals as hard as you can.  All the rest of the time.  ALL.THE.REST.OF.THE.TIME.   So, you are suffering like a dog, legs are burning, heart rate is maxed, you are breathing at your limit and negotiating with yourself every 15 seconds to just convince yourself to finish the interval.  “Come on, dammit, you can do this. One more minute. Come on…” and you have to do that for hours.   So, unless you met the requirements in the first paragraph, then seriously, polarized training is not for you.  For us working stiffs, it’s just too hard, not fun and sucks all the fun out of cycling after about a week of trying to do it.

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What to do instead?   Do the traditional method of training.   Spend more time at tempo and sweet spot, which will also create enough training stress to keep you fit on your limited budget of 10-12 hours a week of training and those intensities are “do-able”.  Yes, you must focus and stay in the “present” to keep the pressure on the pedals, but you will not be suffering like a shaggy dog in the swamps of Louisiana in August.   You still will do some high intensity work of course because you need that, but we’ll limit it so that it doesn’t make your training life a hell of suffering.   You’ll do some longer endurance rides on the weekend when you get out in good weather, but it will have peppered in some sweet spot, some tempo, some FTP, some sprints and more and you’ll come home tired and satisfied.   With the traditional method, you’ll still enjoy training, with a good variety of workouts and plenty of work at your “sweet spot” to keep your FTP up and continue pushing it forward. 

The Biggest Bang for your “Training Buck”. The highest training effect to improve your FTP, it’s “do-able” and you can do it for a relatively long time.

When you use the traditional method, you maintain your fitness at a higher level throughout the year as well.  This is important and desirable.  Most riders over 35 do not have time to lose fitness as it takes too long to gain that fitness back, so it’s better to maintain a higher level of fitness all the time and then punch it up to a peak when you want one.  When you are 60 years young and your CTL drops from 80 down to 50, it’s a long fight for months to get it back to 80!   Keeping your fitness at 90% of your absolute best is a great way to enjoy cycling, always be in the group with your friends and then with just 8 weeks of focus, you can bump up that last 10% to a peak.


Most importantly, with the traditional method of distributing the intensity, you’ll have fun.   Since you’ll be having fun, you’ll stick with it longer and you’ll reach an even higher peak than doing the “polarized” method for 2-3months and quitting.

Hunter Allen is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks WKO+ Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group. Along with coaching, directing power training camps, he consults with athletes and coaches around the world to help make them even better. Check out www.PeaksCoachingGroup.com  Hunter also has online training programs available at TRAINING PLANS Archives – Shop Peaks Coaching Group You can follow him on his Instagram page as well. Peaks Coaching Group (@peakscoachinggroup) • Instagram photos and videos

9 thoughts on “Why Polarized training is NOT for you!

  1. I have a few additional questions because I was thinking the same while talking polarized training with a good friend … even though we agreed that it’s a solid method but … who would ever train like this, anyhow.

    1. Seems like polarized training is not scalable to lower training volumes, long rides to benefit must be closer to 4 hours long, which can be challenging to include in 10 hours per week training volume, true?

    2. What is going on within our muscles in the no-go zone 3 that’s so bad other than creating to much stress for it’s benefits?

    3. With polarized training does it change how strength training should be approached as well, thoughts on this?

    Thanks

    • Thanks Sandro!

      1- You “could” do it with very little training volume, but I am not sure it would be effective toward improvement. If you only had 5 hours a week to train and in 4 of those 5 hours, all you did was FTP, VO2 max, AC and NP intervals, then the remaining hour, you rode at Active recovery pace, you would technically be doing polarized training. But, again, that doesn’t seem like much fun to me. A life of pain and suffering in your cycling? Not for me. I also do not believe it would be effective enough for you to improve once you became adapted to that training load.

      2-Nothing. It’s just training stress. The argument by Polarized advocates is that riding at Level/Zone 3 isn’t enough training stress to improve and ineffective. I would agree with that, if you only rode there 1 hour a week. But, riding there 35% of your training time is needed and will improve your cardiovascular and muscular systems.

      3-Strength training and Polarized training is probably incompatible for most people. The weight training is going to put big stress on the muscles, which is hard to recover from, even if you are 20 years old. And then when you get on the bike, your legs will be burning very quickly. So, it’s unlikely that you’ll actually be able to do the high intensity needed in Polarized training. There is a reason, we normally only do weight training in the off-season, when we aren’t doing hard intervals!

      Hope this helps.
      Hunter

  2. Great article, Hunter. Appreciate your insight and it makes sense…In true polarized training does that 20% at FTP or above include the rest periods between intervals in a session? In other words, if you are doing 6 x 4:00 with 4:00 rest does it equate to 24:00 or 44:00 as part of the 20%?

    Many thanks!

    • Hi Scott- The 20% is ONLY the “work” period. So in this case, just the 24 minutes. The rest period is part of the 80%.
      Thanks for your kind comment and glad you enjoyed the article!
      Hunter

  3. You do not understand polarized training – at all. I’m in my 70s, doing it the right way, which is not as you characterize here, and I’m constantly pushing up my PDC (per WKO5) to all time highs, at all durations from sprints to 3+ hour rides. For example: the “easy” days do not end up being at 14 – 16 mph, doing it correctly mine are around 20 and they’re loads of fun. A younger, stronger rider would no doubt be riding several mph faster than that.

    You do not understand polarized training – at all (just in case you missed it the first time).

    • Sorry Ken, but I understand Polarized Training very well. I have spent the last 30 years studying, teaching and implementing training methods. Including the Polarized model. I have taught over 200 seminars to over 5000 coaches now around the world in 15 countries on how to be a coach, training methods and models, etc.

      It is absolutely NOT riding at 20mph (if that’s tempo for you, maybe it’s just active recovery?) Or riding in your tempo zone at all. So, look at your power distribution profile from the last 30 days of workouts. If it does not mimic the graphic in the article, then you are not doing Polarized training. It’s at Polar opposites, hence the name. There is NO middle ground. No Riding between 70-90% of FTP. None. My personal FTP is 298watts and I weigh 180 lbs. Riding at 20mph where I live, puts me right at 80% of FTP, with is smack-dab IN the “No-man’s land” according to the Polarized training acolytes. A horrible no-no! Like I stated in my article. Polarized training works. Traditional training works. Riding at 12-14mph for 15 hours a week and then doing 5 hours at over 100% of FTP is NOT what I call fun in the world of cycling. Yet, it’s what works well for young, Elite Cat 1/Pro’s or highly, highly motivated riders under 35 that are trying to be national champion and have 20 hours a week to train. Even at age 71, you’d need to do at least 12 hours a week, where 9 is riding insanely slow, and 3 is riding at FTP, VO2, AC or NP. Not Suffering and then suffering. That is the answer in the Polarized model. What I have found though is that this type of training causes burn-out of nearly every cyclist I have ever coached. It’s just mentally very hard to suffer all the time. (And if you are NOT suffering all the time that you are doing your intervals, then you are not doing polarized training.) A much more sustainable and enjoyable way to train is to spread the distribution of intensity, as I stated in my article. We can coach you for a month with REAL polarized training and let’s see what you can do and how much you love it…. 😉

  4. A lot of validity to your essay Hunter and it will resonate with many cyclists. Stay well and enjoy life.
    Bill

  5. great analysis . since i have just hit 70 i appreciate the clarity about keeping training enjoyable..though my nature is to want to suffer..

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