Polarize Your Training

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This blog post could also be entitled “How to go from 124th to 77th at an Haute Route time trial by only changing the way you train.”

I recently wrote about the importance of periodization. Periodization can be defined as the systematic planning of athletic training over a given period of time. It involves a progressive increase in workload and specificity of training over a set period of time. It is a way of achieving peak performance at the right time of the season.

The aim of periodization is to introduce new training stimulus and more specific type training as one progresses through the training plan from the start of the season to the athlete’s main goal of the year. Periodization involves individuality of training. It is specific to ones circumstances such as time available to train, where the athlete lives, what type of terrain is available and obviously what the ultimate yearly goal is.

Keep in mind that “where the athlete lives” doesn’t mean training or not training. That is never the choice. Whether you train or not is not dictated by weather but where you stand in your yearly plan. I live in Montreal where it seems to have been winter for the last five months without a break but I never stopped training. I have a friend who lives in Australia where it is summer and he is also training. The difference between him and I is the type of training we are currently doing, not whether we are training or not. While he can go on four hour group rides I am indoors doing 90 minutes hard Computertrainer classes with a big focus on intensity. That is periodization.

An even better example of what I mean is the difference between my good friend Dave Burke’s training and mine. Dave has the same coach as me, he has the exact same event as me as his key yearly goal and he lives in Tucson, Arizona where he could be riding a ton. He was instead recently vacationing in New Zealand. I know I have recently spent more time than him on the bike. Why? For two reasons. First because Dave’s 2013 season ended later than mine and also because he is retired and has way more time than me to train. He is in a different phase of his yearly training program than me  but we will both be ready for the 2014 Haute Route in August. That is periodization.

So what is the best way to maximize the positive effects of periodization? What about polarizing your training? Just as important as periodization, if not more. Everyone has heard of the most well known concepts that endurance athletes incorporate in their training programs. Athletes participating in endurance sports such as running, cycling, and cross-country skiing typically integrate conditioning concepts into their training program to maximize athletic performance. The first conditioning concept is prolonged high-volume low-intensity exercise (HVT). The second is training at or near the lactate threshold (THR) and the third is low-volume high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Newly released scientific studies published recently have demonstrated that combining these three aforementioned concepts in your training program is actually the most effective way to maximize adaptations and performance. It is known as polarized training (POL). The results from one of the most complete studies I have found on the subject are just plain amazing.

Click here to read the study. Here’s a summary of the conclusions. The image is not easy to read but give it a try. To facilitate reading, I also include below a summary of the conclusions.

fphys-05-00033-i0002

Forty-eight healthy competitive endurance athletes were selected to participate in the study. The athletes selected were training at least ten hours per week prior to participating in the study. The athletes were split into four groups and were randomly assigned a nine week training program based on either POL, HIIT, THR or HVT. The four groups were not statistically different with regard to age, height, body mass or VO2peak. Forty-one participants completed the nine week study.

Polarized training (POL) demonstrated the greatest improvement in four key variables of endurance performance in well-trained athletes: VO2peak, time to exhaustion, peak velocity/power and Velocity/power at 4 mmol•L-1 blood lactate.

POL HIIT THR HVT
VO2peak 11.7% 5.6% No statistical differences observed No statistical differences observed
Time to exhaustion 17.4% 8.8% No statistical differences observed No statistical differences observed
Peak velocity/power 5.1% 4.4% No statistical differences observed No statistical differences observed
Velocity/power at 4 mmol•L-1 blood lactate 8.1% 5.6% No statistical differences observed No statistical differences observed

Since the athletes in the study were already training long hours, the fact that the study didn’t observe any significant improvement in fitness in the HVT group seems logical. More of the same doesn’t create additional adaptation hence the lack of increase in fitness. I’m  to sure why THR didn’t have an impact but I’m sure further studies will tell us.

When I started training with a coach about seven years ago, I would use HIIT, HVT and THR as part of my training but I would use them sequentially. We would begin the season with some good volume training to build a good base of fitness (HVT) and we would then incorporate intensity through threshold intervals (THR) as I got stronger. We would reserve HIIT for a handful of weeks right before my desired peak form of the season.

My training approach has evolved over the years, thanks partly to a new coach and to new studies such as the one being summarized on this post. I must admit that in prior years I would rarely find the motivation to do VO2peak training. It hurts a lot and there is NOTHING fun about it. As a result, I was never a consistent adept of HIIT.

That’s until more recently. Thanks to a harsh 2013/2014 winter I have had to train indoors a lot and I have attended a lot of group classes to make it more interesting. Most of these group classes contained a lot of HIIT. The man’s ego being what it is, I was able to find the motivation to hurt myself pretty good (and often) during these intense indoor classes as everyone else was watching at what wattage I was setting my Computrainer and what kind of watts per kilo I was pushing.

My coach and I have discussed POL at length over the last few months and I have read a ton of studies on the topic. We have both concluded that this year’s training should be much more focused on POL and include long rides on the week end, with regular HIIT and THR intervals during the week as part of sixty to ninety minute sessions.

After reading the study, I went back to my historical power files and I analyzed my best normalized power ten time segments ranging from 30 seconds to three hours. I compared the date for the current training season (2014) to the same period last year (2013). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised with the results which all show significant improvements in power which are consistent with those in the study.

On the right track.

On the right track.

Here’s an interesting way to put it all into perspective. Last year I did the Haute Alps Time Trial up the famed Cime de la Bonnette in 1:36:29 hrs and finished 124th. Everything else being equal, if my power up that climb was six percent higher than I would have finished in roughly 1:30:51 hrs and I would have finished 77th, a jump of 47 position. Not insignificant. I love polarized training.

So start mixing it up. Do long easy rides on week-ends, do intervals at lactate threshold and don’t forget the odd super intense, super hurtful high intensity training sessions.