Polarized Training for Cycling
Polarized training is a hot topic when it comes to cycling and training, and with much polarization between its supporters and critics. Training hard with zone 5 threshold efforts and making gains is nothing new, its been done time after time from amateur to elite racers since the beginning of cycling. Polarized training works when used at the right time and with the right volume. It’s all about the volume of intensity a cyclist can handle within a given training period or season, along with the type of strength gains that are made when working this method of training. Building power aerobically with sweet spot training during the base season, using the pyramid method, is more important for certain groups of cyclists, such as amateur athletes and those focused on ultra-distance.
What is Polarized Training?
Polarized training, when designed properly using correct heart rate and power training zones, can be described as a combination of intense interval training with easier zone one and two spinning. With polarized training you spend most of the time spinning easy in the lower zone one range, very little time working moderate paces and the rest of the time working hard threshold and upper 4-6 zone efforts. Your gains will largely depend on how much time you spend working within each zone. Zone one spinning is very easy, recovery like. There are training adaptations made when in the zone one range, but it takes a lot of volume in this zone to make these adaptations. With polarized training, the gains will come when working the upper zone intervals.
Polarized training can also have a micro and macro view. A micro view would be a daily workout, consisting of hard intervals and easy spinning. A Macro view, a weekly/monthly/yearly schedule, would consist of interval days, intermixed with easy spin days in zone one and two.
Training adaptations from polarized training
Polarized training incorporates intervals in the zone 4, 5, 6 plus power ranges, which target type two A and X fibers mainly. These fibers are your powerhouse for a 10–20-minute cycling time trial, or even a 5-10 min burst of power. When it comes to race day, the stronger these fibers are the more potential you will have. The downside of these fibers is that they have a higher rate of fatigue compared to type one fibers. In an event, these fibers are related to your matches. Once you burn these matches, or in other words, reach higher levels of fatigue, you will slow down, relying on type one fibers and the top end of your current aerobic power. You can read all about muscle fibers in my article here.
Polarized training spends the most time in zones one and two. There are training adaptations made in zone 1, such as capillary density and fat utilization, but with the low power outputs at this range it is most beneficial as recovery. Zone two is associated with similar gains just with slightly more power output, and thus more benefit to the aerobic system, lung muscles and more. Zone two training is still not the top end of aerobic power. So while zone two leads to good aerobic gains, it does not train for top speed aerobically.
Polarized Training for Elites
For elite professional racers, such as your world tour road cyclists and mountain bikers, polarized training plays more of a role year-round compared to amateur cyclists. National and world elites have years of logging ten to twenty thousand miles on a bike and have spent a lot of time building power aerobically, either knowingly or not. Plus, the genetic component which can’t be measured. So, for these riders there is a need to train aerobically with sweet spot training, mid zone training through the base and build periods, but there is also a need maintain 90% of threshold and sprint power in zones 4-5 plus. Combining days with intense intervals along with a large volume of riding in zones 2-3 builds higher amounts of training stress within a training block that can only be handled by elites or those who have built a strong aerobic base through a high volume of training over the years. When peaking for an event the main approach is still a polarized approach to elicit those top end gains within peak power for 30 second sprints to 10-minute threshold efforts.
Polarized training for Amateur Cyclists
For the recreational, time crunched athlete, polarized training plays a key role in helping to peak for an event, but less of a role year-round for a few main reasons. An amateur or age group athlete doesn’t have the time to train with high volume often and doesn’t have the consistent track record of high-volume training from year to year as a professional. This makes it important to focus on improving power aerobically during the base and build seasons, targeting type one muscle fibers, leading to long term aerobic gains and increased recovery potential. Some intensity and polarized workouts are still needed during the base and build periods just at a smaller dose compared to an elite.
Building an aerobic base, aerobic power within type one fibers with increased mitochondrial density are all things that help you recover faster from a hard effort. The stronger your aerobic base, the more often and harder efforts you can work with faster recovery. The stronger your base, the more you will get out of polarized training.
Mike Schultz, CSCS