Polarized training has been popular among elite athletes for several decades, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the model began making its way into the training plans of more recreational runners and triathletes. Many experts hail polarized training as the most effective way to improve performance, but what is it, and how can you use it in your own training? Keep reading to learn everything you know about the popular training method.
What is polarized training?
The polarized approach breaks training intensity into three zones:
Zone 1: easy intensity, typically 70 to 75 per cent of your maximum heart rate. You should feel like you could swim, bike or run at this pace for hours.
Zone 2: moderate intensity, sometimes known as threshold training, typically 80 to 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate.
Zone 3: very hard intensity, over 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate.
Under the polarized training model, athletes very rarely do any of their training in zone 2, if ever. Instead, they spend about 80 per cent of their time in zone 1 and 20 per cent or slightly less in zone 3. Proponents of this model argue that zone 2 is not hard enough to effectively trigger the neuromuscular adaptations required for improved performance, but not easy enough to promote recovery or build endurance. When an athlete spends most of their training in zone 2, they end up being too tired mentally and physically so that when it’s time to do a hard, zone 3 workout, they never feel fresh enough to do the workout properly.
One of the biggest mistakes new runners make when training without guidance is going too hard too often. Apps like Strava can sometimes make this worse because they can make everyday training runs feel like a competition. In the short-term, consistent, hard training sessions can make you feel like you’re making progress, but it eventually leads to plateaus or even decreases in performance because of overtraining.
Implementing polarized training into your routine
Training in zones can help you avoid over-training and burnout because it gives you clear parameters between what is hard and what is easy. This may be the most significant benefit to following this type of training model. Properly following the polarized training model requires specificity, however, because all of your runs and workouts have to be done at the correct intensity with the right duration and recovery period. This means that your hard days have to be hard. You should not feel like you can maintain that pace for a long time, and you should not feel like you could turn around and do it again tomorrow.
Following the 80/20 approach, if you’re an athlete running 40 kilometres per week, that means 32 of those kilometres will be completed at an easy, zone 1 effort, and only eight of them will be high-intensity training. This may sound inadequate, but there is some solid evidence showing that it’s effective at maximizing results. Keep in mind that performance gains are made during recovery, not during the actual workout, so maximizing recovery while doing a small amount of high-intensity, very effective workouts will allow your muscles and cardiovascular system to adapt to that stimulus and see improvement.
Is the polarized training method right for everyone?
For many runners and triathletes, this training paradigm is extremely effective and gets them great results. Of course, there is no one way to train, and for every coach and exercise physiologist who promotes the polarized training method, there are those who prefer other models of training. A lot of the research we have about polarized training was done on elite athletes, so less is known about how it applies to recreational runners who have a different training history and who run far less mileage week to week. In fact, one 2019 study suggested that the polarized training method was not significantly better for recreational athletes compared to other models that included zone 2 training.
More research is needed, but it’s important to remember that what works well for one runner or triathlete may not work for another, and what works for you when you’re a newer runner may not be as effective for you later on. Always listen to your body, and if you don’t feel you’re recovering well or achieving the results you want, look at your training, sleep, recovery and nutrition to find opportunities for improvement.