Have you been doing polarized cycling training wrong? Here’s a better way for fitness gains

Over the past decade, it became widely accepted that polarized training is the best formula  for endurance cyclists. According to this model, training is divided between intensities at polar opposite ends of the spectrum: very easy and very hard, in a roughly 80/20 split. 

Recently, however, polarized training has become the subject of heated debate among sports scientists who disagree over what constitutes the optimum intensity distribution. Some researchers have begun arguing against conventional polarisation, instead favouring  schedules that incorporate more middle-intensity riding. The debate raises the question of whether we need to rethink – or at least think more carefully about – how we define and implement polarized training.

What is polarized training in cycling?

In polarized training as conventionally conceived, the majority (75-80%) of training is conducted at a low intensity that feels easy. The remaining time is spent at a high intensity, while middle intensity training, often referred to as Zone 3, tempo, sweetspot or threshold  (an effort level that could be described as ‘comfortably hard’) is largely shunned. 

A polarized approach to intensity distribution sounds simple enough: keep your training mostly easy while including a sprinkling of high-intensity sessions. However, defining what we mean by polarized training can actually be quite tricky. This question of definitions was the crux of the recent debate, which highlighted the importance of making sure we’re clear on the terms we’re using.  

In this feature, we’ll tackle the subtleties of polarized training, the common pitfalls encountered, and how to get the most out of this popular training approach.

Why is polarized training effective?

Before delving into the intricacies of a polarized approach, it’s worth spending a moment considering why it might be a good strategy. First and foremost, a polarized approach – which soon we’ll define more precisely – is used by many successful professional endurance  athletes, but also appears to be an effective training strategy for time-crunched amateurs. Studies have found that nine weeks of polarized training can improve VO2max by as much as 12%. 

It appears that polarized training works well, and we know that many training adaptations occur as a function of training volume rather than intensity. Long bouts of low-intensity riding  promote efficient fat oxidation, a critical element of endurance performance. By keeping intensity low most of the time, except for key high-intensity sessions, it’s possible to keep the overall training stress low yet still elicit strong adaptive responses. This also helps avoid overtraining, and ensures sufficient freshness for the key hard sessions. 

How high and how low to go?

Image shows rider cycling in the sun.

(Image credit: Future)

There is a whole host of ways to delineate the low, medium and high-intensity training zones. If you want to get very precise, you can visit a laboratory to have these zones determined by measuring lactate and gas exchange. However, this isn’t necessary for everyone, and you can establish usable zones by using the following generic guidelines:

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