Polarized Training - Study Analysis – Part 1
Polarized training for cyclists has been lighting up the coaching and training news recently with talk about the benefits of the training along with debates to whether the training is effective long term for all levels of talent. Much support for the training method has come from studies done on its effectiveness in increasing cycling strength and VO2 in well trained cyclists. The other support comes from cyclists who use this style of training and do well with it. The support from the studies and real world examples are both justified, polarized training works. It targets energy systems and muscle fibers that are the powerhouse of cycling but like all training methods it has its limitations, such as the fatigue rate of the muscle fibers targeted. The best training for endurance athletes uses all methods of training from polarized to sweet spot training, targeting a riders weakness and training the right systems at the right times to maximize yearly gains.
With all the support for polarized training and it being preached as a singular training method, we decided to dive into the studies behind the training method, analyzing everything from the subjects used, their past training, testing methods, results and more.
Polarized Training Study Review #1
Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training – Stoggl,T, Sperlich, B. 2014 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2014.00033/full)
Let’s start with the good things about this study, the participants. They used a mix of athletes from cycling to runners and XC skiers, all who regularly logged 10-20 hours a week in training and had 8-20 years’ experience. 41 people finished this study completing 95% of the plan.
Testing was also good, using five parameters requiring four of them to check off to end the test, such as VO2 plateaus, near threshold heart rate values, and blood lactate readings.
The full study was only nine weeks long. Initial strength gains of any kind are neuromuscular, and with repeated stress those gains turn into stronger muscle fibers, and a permanent muscle gain, a process that can take four to six weeks. Being nine weeks, these participants showed gains but the big question is what happens if this training continues for another 9 weeks, or 43 weeks? This study and most studies are snippets of time and show a good example, but serious training for any endurance athlete happens over an entire year, if not years. So, while a nine-week study is good, it should not be assumed that the results from nine weeks of training will apply to an entire season.
This study used three blocks of training consisting of two-week work intervals with a week of rest. To support the study, two-week work ratios is enough to stress the body and elicit gains and is a common practice with age group athletes, but a two-week work ratio is not the norm across the board. Younger elite and some age group cyclists can log three plus weeks of work before a recovery period is needed. Any elite endurance athlete knows that at times a higher volume is needed, over many weeks, in order to elicit max gains. So, while a study with two week work ratios is good, its not the same in real world training.
One of the biggest limitations of this study was that the group of cyclists and runners only trained with a high volume, low intensity method prior to the study. This means that all the participants trained without any intensity or structured intensity prior to the study. Whenever you have a person who has done little to no intensity training and you subject them to intensity training, they are going to make gains in strength, and fitness. Essentially the results for this group of athletes who participated in the high intensity group, and the polarized group is exactly what would be expected.
When analyzing the study protocol and training method used, of the four groups, the polarized group method makes the most sense. With group A, the high volume low intensity group (HVT), they are only working two days of intensity over a three-week period and the results reflect that. Even throughout the base season in training, the majority of trained cyclists need to work harder than that to elicit aerobic gains. When you look at group B, the threshold group (THR), you see a combo of threshold days and fartlek days. Fartlek is basically working all intensities. Threshold values for this study is based off of lactate levels of 3-5 mmol, which are most times far below actual threshold power values and are more in line with Tempo/FTP ranges. Group B trained with some intensity and lots of sweet spot/FTP training and the results depict it, these are not intensities that will lead to max VO2 gains or max power outputs.
Group A – HVT, B-THR, C-POL, D-HIIT
Stoggl,T, Sperlich, B. 2014
The polarized group (POL) has the most structured plan with an intense day spaced by two easier, higher volume days of riding. So an intense day every three days and even one during the recover week to keep the motor going. This type of training, if focused on the right duration's of intensity, such as 5, 10-20 minute efforts will lead to gains to muscle fibers that are the powerhouse of cycling but also have a higher rate of fatigue. Any higher intensity day at the threshold used in this study or greater stresses type two X and A muscle fibers. These fibers adapt aerobically but also have a higher rate of fatigue compared to your type one muscle fibers.
With regards to the high intensity group, the more often you can work on a higher power output, the more gains you will make. This is why the high intensity group (HIIT) doesn't perform as well due to the lack of recovery between hard workouts. But if this was a 6–12-month study looking to see who could put out the most power in zone 2 and 3 for the longest duration, then group B would take the cake. The authors of the study even reference this in the study:
“One reason due to why athletes may choose a high amount of HVT (High Volume Training) may be due to that HVT leads to improved fat and glucose utilization (Romijn et al., 1993), which is beneficial for long lasting endurance events. Therefore, it might be reasonable to implement HVT in the training programs of elite endurance athletes for improving oxidative flux, which is important for converting energy aerobically and recovery after and during HIIT sessions with large anaerobic portions. When HVT becomes the major component of a training program and HIIT sessions are neglected, no further improvement in VO2peak and performance in already well-trained athletes occur (Costill et al., 1988; Laursen and Jenkins, 2002); in line with the findings of the present study. Further improvements of well-trained athletes require adding high intensity training sessions to HVT, as demonstrated in POL. However, due to that the participants of this study mainly used HVT prior to this experiment, the HVT model might not have provided an adequate stimulus for further adaptations.”
The more elite you are the more you need higher intensity year round but at times that high intensity needs to be mixed with higher volume training aerobically in zones two and three. The lower your fitness and strength, the more time you need building aerobically through the winter and early season.
This study is ultimately a good one because it shows the results of what structured training with properly timed intensity can do. Polarized training is important, at times during build periods and especially leading into an event but its not the only type of training that is important. Building aerobically at times, like the authors mentioned, is important for building the systems that allows you to recover faster, enabling you to work more intensity.
Mike Schultz, CSCS
Stoggl,T, Sperlich, B. Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training. Vol 5, Article 33, 1. 2014