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) and high intensity endurance training (above anaerobic threshold). 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 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.
In 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:
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?
As a coach who specializes in programming for the open and finding a way to maximize performance while minimizing injury risk, I think we can take several things away from this.
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.
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 then 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.
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.
1) Using More Intervals During Met-con to Mimic High Intensity Interval Work (Our goal is to work beyond anaerobic threshold)
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)
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):
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.
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.
Polarized training, we’re all doing it,
How to Assess Ankle Mobility and Considerations for Training
Why You Should Use Crawls and Copenhagen Planks in Your Training
5 Reasons Your Elbows Drop During Heavy Cleans and Front Squats
How Stress Causes Injury
How Prior Injury and Individual Difference Affect Risk of Injury
How Your Sporting Background and Training Age Affects Risk of Injury
How to Hurt Yourself By Spiking Training Volume
How Common are Injuries in Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman, Crossfit and Recreational Fitness?