Putting your all into training with few race results to prove it? Perhaps it’s time to slow down and get faster! That may sound completely irrational, but polarised training has become a ground-breaking revelation for athletes in desperate need of real results.
Jonah Young is an intern biokineticist and physiologist of the South African Rowing team. He has witnessed first-hand the benefits of polarised training, not only through the athletes in his field, but as an endurance athlete himself. He shares some valuable advice:
You may have heard of the Blackhole Training phenomenon, or Junk Miles. Both pretty daunting sounding terms that are often flaunted in the endurance training world. But do we really know what they mean and why they should be avoided?
From a physiological point of view, both terms refer to monotonously training at an intensity that lies between one’s lactate threshold and one’s lactate turnpoint.
In practical terms this intensity lies between a low intensity steady state training (can still maintain a conversation), and higher end training such as high intensity interval training.
What is threshold training?
Think about that moment in a race when your legs start to feel heavy and you lose that sense of power in your stride.
This is the point on the intensity spectrum called the lactate threshold. It occurs when the lactate production starts to exceed the body’s ability to clear lactate.
It results in an exponential increase in blood lactate levels, causing an acidic environment (lowered pH) and energy depletion.
You then hit a second ‘breakpoint’, your lactate turnpoint. This causes an even greater rise in the blood lactate concentration, and fatigue sets in.
Training between these two points on the intensity spectrum looks like this:
The danger of threshold training
Threshold training takes place ‘S’ zone you see in the diagram above. You’re training at or just above race pace, and just below going all out.
It was really popular at a stage, and thought to be the best way to increase the starting point of lactate threshold and ultimately delay fatigue.
It can be an attractive zone to train in as it’s just tough enough to feel as though you’ve accomplished something.
But even though it’s challenging enough to leave you fatigued, it’s not of a high enough intensity to lead to real gains. It also requires a significant recovery time and may compromise the workouts that count.
Training in this zone not only generates a significant amount of sympathetic stress (stress on the nervous system), but is also responsible for notable fuel depletion – requiring a lengthy time of recovery without the physiological adaptation to match (Neal 2011).
So how do we navigate around this training zone?
Insert the Polarised training approach. Stephen Seiler coined the term and has done a substantial amount of research looking into the way elite level endurance athletes organise their training in terms of intensity.
He found that often ~80% of training is done at low intensities (below the lactate threshold). The remaining ~20% occurred at really high intensities (upwards of 90% of VO2max). And surprisingly little took place in the threshold zone (Seiler 2010).
It should be noted, however, that elite athletes train anywhere from 10 to 25 hours a week. With this training volume, the polarised model allows for sufficient stress / adaptive signaling. It also minimises sympathetic stress, and subsequently reduces the chance of overtraining (Seiler 2010).
There is good news, however, for the recreational athlete without elite level time!
A recent study, of which Seiler was a part of, demonstrated that this model is effective in improving endurance performance in recreational runners. Those training 3-5 hours/week benefit more from polarised training than between-thresholds training! (Seiler et al. 2014).
So what does polarised training mean practically?
If you are training five hours/week: Four hours will be dedicated to low intensity steady state training, and the remaining hour to high intensity training such as intervals.
Warning: Avoid going too hard during the low intensity sessions and not hard enough during the upper end high intensity sessions.
It’s beneficial to quantify and ensure that you are in the right zones during these sessions. This is where your handy heart rate monitor comes in.
Heart rate monitoring
This is the most prevalent means of quantification of intensity for a given session. It does require you to be aware of your heart rate max (HRmax) value.
There are ways to estimate HRmax, however these are not always accurate. The best way to acquire HRmax is through incremental exercise testing (there are a host of protocols on the internet).
If this is not possible, I advocate using the following equation: HRmax = 207 – (0.7 x your age)
Once this is achieved, use the five zone model:
Using this model, ~80% of your training would be spent in zone 1 and 2.
Examples of these types of sessions would be running a 10km at a very comfortable pace (able to just maintain a conversation), or going for a two hour easy ride on the bike.
The remaining ~20% of sessions should be spent in zones 4 or 5.
Examples of these types of sessions would be 4 x 4 minutes of max efforts with 2-4 minutes of active recovery between efforts.
If you’re looking for that breakthrough and desperate for real results, than you’re probably pushing too hard, too often. Taking the slower approach to getting faster may result in a decrease in mileage, but the aerobic benefit will far outweigh that loss!
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