Why Your Hard Met-cons Are Too Easy and Your Easy Met-cons are Too Hard – Introducing Polarized Training

By djpope

January 4, 2020

athlete, coach, endurance, injury prevention, performance, polarized training, Programming, training

Updated January 2020:

First of all, I stole this title right from a Triathlon Magazine and wanted to give credit where it was due.  The title was too perfect not to use.  Second of all I think this idea I’m about to write about is super intriguing and a variable that can be managed in your training to both improve performance and in my opinion, even reduce injury risk.

The concept is known as polarized training.  Polarized training is a form of endurance training that utilizes a combination of lower intensity endurance training (aerobic threshold – low intensity) and high intensity endurance training (above anaerobic threshold – high intensity).  Polarized training does not utilize training between aerobic and anaerobic training.  It just utilizes the two extremes.

It’s not a new thing and has been researched for years.  It’s also commonly known as 80:20 training because these programs generally contain ~20% of the total work as low intensity and ~80% of the total work as high intensity.

It’s intriguing and something I’ve been utilizing with my own training program.  In this article I wanted to cover a research paper utilizing polarized training and give some ideas of how we can incorporate this type of training into our own programming.

wall ballsIn the study I’m referencing, endurance athletes were first tested for markers of endurance performance.  They were then placed into different training groups for 9 weeks.  The study utilized high level endurance athletes from the worlds of cycling, running, triathlon and nordic skiing.  These athletes had on average 8 years of competitive endurance experience.  They were tested again after the 9 weeks.  The different training groups were:

  • High Volume Low Intensity Training Group – This group trained mainly at or below aerobic threshold (Low intensity)
  • Anaerobic Threshold Group – This group trained mainly at anaerobic threshold (Medium Intensity)
  • High Intensity Group – This group trained mainly above anaerobic threshold (High Intensity)
  • Polarized Group – This group trained with a combination of aerobic threshold exercise and work above anaerobic threshold (High and Low Intensity)

After 9 weeks of training Vo2 Max, time to exhaustion, peak velocity / peak power (cycling) was re-measured.  The polarized group outperformed the other groups in all of these measures.  This may mean that a training program that uses a combination of low intensity work and high intensity work can improve endurance training outcomes above other methods of training.

So what can we learn from endurance studies like this?

1) Not Going All Out on Every Met-con:

I tend to see most athletes going in day after day putting the pedal to the metal with every met-con workout they perform.  Sure, higher intensity training has it’s place but keep in mind that this study showed that the polarized program outperformed the high intensity program.  This means that a combination of high intensity and low intensity won out over a lot of high intensity.  

Besides, if your conditioning consists of mainly AMRAPs or rounds for time, you are generally working somewhere between your aerobic and anaerobic threshold during met-con.  This equates to the moderate intensity during endurance training.  Although the work seems intense, it isn’t intense enough to cross anaerobic threshold repeatedly throughout the session as was used in the polarized training group.

2) More Lower Intensity Training in Met-con:

I very infrequently see athletes performing low intensity training sessions.  In this study in the polarized group the low intensity work was performed mostly below aerobic threshold.  (Aerobic Threshold = 180 – age or Roughly 70-80% of your Max Heart Rate [220 – age]).  

Using more of this training in conjunction with high intensity intervals was more beneficial than all other types of training.  Another valuable aspect of this form of training is that it doesn’t beat the body up as much as other higher intensity training, as long as the duration is not excessive.  In this way we can continue making improvements without the added stress that comes with more intensity.

3) More Higher Intensity Met-con

The polarized group utilized high intensity training intervals.  These intervals are performed above anaerobic threshold (The heart rate range where the amount of lactate produced by exercise in the body exceeds the ability to clear it).  This usually occurs at about a 7 out of 10 scale for exertion.  For example, I can maintain a heart rate of 170-175 beats per minute for a 15-20 minute met-con but if I go above that heart rate number I’ll have to decrease the intensity because I’ve exceeded my anaerobic threshold.  This is consistent with my anaerobic threshold.

I generally see met-con that consists of AMRAPs and rounds for time.  These workouts are generally performed just under or at anaerobic threshold simply due to the notion that once you cross over anaerobic threshold you’ll be forced to slow down due to fatigue.   This means we should probably inject more training in interval format that gets us training above anaerobic threshold.

So how can we start using these principles in our training?

1) Using More Intervals During Met-con to Mimic High Intensity Interval Work (Our goal is to work beyond anaerobic threshold)

  • 1 to 1 work to rest AMRAPs: Rest for the same amount of time it took to complete a series of exercises.  This ensures a 1:1 work to rest ratio and the intensity of work remains high because you have time to decrease heart rate during rest periods.
  • Every Minute on the Minute and Every 90 Seconds Work:  This style of met-con will promote getting the heart rate up beyond anaerobic threshold but also allow rest time to reduce heart rate and keep the intensity high throughout the workout.
  • Maximal Aerobic Power Met-con: This idea I learned from James Fitzgerald at OPEX.  Perform rounds of work at a high intensity with rest allowing heart rate to drop between sets:
    • 3 minute AMRAP of: 10 Box Jumps, 10 Calorie Row, 10 Swings (Heart rate above anaerobic threshold >175 beats per minute)
    • 2 minute recovery airdyne (Heart rate back down under aerobic threshold <145 beats per minute)
    • Repeat for 4 rounds – This interval circuit allows us to train above aerobic threshold for the duration of the workout when we need to because of the recovery in between rounds.  This is also very similar to the style of training seen in the research paper.

2) Perform More Low Intensity Conditioning (Our goal is to work at or below aerobic threshold [180 – age], you should feel fresh after one of these met-cons and not wiped out)

  • AMRAPs with a heart rate goal:  Program a workout with the goal being to maintain a given heart rate throughout the workout.  i.e.:
    • 20 minute AMRAP of: 10 Box Jumps, 10 Calorie Row, 10 Swings
    • Perform work below aerobic threshold >145 beats per minute.  If your heart rate exceeds 145 then slow down
  • Skill AMRAPs: Program an AMRAP with exercises that will slow down the workout due to the complexity of the movements and the goal being perfect technique and not time to completion. i.e.:
    • 10 minute AMRAP: Ring Kips, Handstand Weight Shifting, Hollow Body Rocks
    • Maintain a slow enough pace to maintain perfect technique

3) Reduce Pure AMRAPs, Chippers and Rounds for Time Work (These workouts are generally performed somewhere between aerobic and anaerobic threshold training and not consistent with the polarized training approach):

  • AMRAPs, chippers and rounds for time met-cons are generally performed somewhere between aerobic and anaerobic threshold.  This style of training underperformed when compared to a polarized approach.
  • As we progress through the training year we’re going to have to perform more of these just due to the nature of specificity.  These are the workouts we’re trying to improve upon and they will need to be practiced eventually.  Just keep in mind that throughout the training year, polarized programming may improve fitness beyond traditional conditioning.  A yearly periodization approach may place longer slower endurance work in the early off-season, a polarized approach in the mid and late off-season and then a ramp up phase utilizing more workouts in an AMRAP and rounds for time format to prepare for the competitive season.

Caveats About The Polarized Approach

Now before we go ahead and change all of our training completely, there are several big caveats to jumping feet first into an endurance protocol like this.

  • This study was looking at strictly endurance athletes, not athletes who also have to display maximum strength at times in their workouts.  Would a polarized approach maximize performance for these individuals?
  • The athletes in this study utilized running, cycling, nordic skiing and triathlon training, not a mixed modality approach.  Would these results carry over to a mixed modality endurance perspective?
  • A polarized approach may help improve endurance above other programs, but does it negatively affect strength gains over other forms of training?
  • A polarized approach improved markers of endurance training but would this carry over to performance in workouts lasting on average 5-20 minutes?
  • The article reviewed athletes who had on average 8 years of competitive endurance racing.  Is this training approach best for newer athletes?
  • Would a polarized program over the course of a training year yield more benefit then a training year which included a variety of training programs periodized toward the competitive season?

Either way, I’ve been using this approach as part of my training program with success.  I’d recommend trying this approach for atleast part of the year to see if it helps with your progress.

If you’d like to see how I incorporate polarized training into my own Performance Training Program then click this link.

Polarized training, we’re all doing it,

Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS, CF-L1