Have you ever felt that training makes you more fatigued than fit? Or found yourself catching a cold or picking up an injury too often? Well, it might be that you’re training too hard. Or have quite an intense life. Either way, polarized training model is a great way to bring more structure and balance to both sport and life as a whole.
I frequently get a message that sounds like this – ‘I‘m struggling to get faster. I tried everything – more volume, different intervals, hill repeats, very long runs, strength training – but nothing seems to work. Can you help?’.
Unfortunately, this is a situation many amateur and self-coached athletes find themselves in. No, these athletes are not doomed or destined to remain power walkers only. And yes, there is still hope to change things for the better. In this post I’ll share how polarized training can help to overcome such plateau.
#1 Train in zones
First things first. If you’re not doing it yet, train in zones.
The quality of the output is the quality of inputs. If an athlete wants to improve performance, he/she has to put in quality sessions that trigger specific physiological processes and adaptations in the body.
Each training zone corresponds to a certain intensity level. Planning and using them in training is the best way to control the adaptations that are triggered during the session and add structure to the whole training process.
It’s also a great way to learn more about your body and understand how every intensity feels. This comes in very handy when pacing a race.
#2 Use the 80/20 training rule
A very simple (yet effective) way to structure training plan and start with polarized training is to use a so-called 80/20 training rule.
According to this rule no more than 20% of the total training time should be spent in high intensity zones 4 – 5. Remaining 80% (or more) – in low intensity zones 1 – 2.
This can take various forms. 1 or 2 short and very intense sessions per week followed by active recovery sessions or a small dose of high intensity at every session.
Depending on the phase of the season the share of high intensity will vary. For instance, in the beginning of the season low intensity might take up as much as 95% of the total volume. Whereas closer to the goal race in peak phase it can drop to 70%.
Which is why it’s important to consider longer timespan (i.e. a month or two) and follow the 80/20 training rule on a high level.
#3 Increase overall volume
One of the factors that consistently predict high performance is the amount of workload an athlete does. Which is true for any area of life, actually.
For amateur athletes one of the most efficient ways to significantly improve fitness and results is to increase the overall training time.
Luckily, polarized training provides a good framework for that, as it ensures most of the volume is at low intensity. This, in turn, develops a solid aerobic base and prevents burnout that could be caused by more intense sessions.
Athletes who are new to low intensity training might have hard time overcoming the idea that they are not pushing themselves enough. However, volume will do its magic and it’s the consistency that builds overall strength, endurance and resilience across the body.
#4 Break up the time at lactate threshold
Besides moderate intensity efforts there is one other type of training that is similarly taxing on the body. That is lactate threshold training.
Efforts done at lactate threshold provide much more fitness benefit than those at moderate intensity. However, the way they are usually done (20-30 minute tempo efforts) requires a lot of recovery afterwards.
#5 Add VO2max training
Now on to the real value of the polarized training model – VO2max sessions. These are called so because they focus on maximum oxygen capacity efforts and are specifically designed to get athletes uncomfortable in a short amount of time.
VO2max intervals are typically short (up to 2min) and rest between each interval is even shorter (often 50% of the interval). The intensity of the session is very high and helps to develop power, improve efficiency and improve body’s resistance to fatigue.
#6 Don’t forget about easy days and recovery weeks
Over-reaching and over-training is very hard to spot in the very beginning. There is this euphoria of having a lot of energy and excitement to push yourself on every training. Unfortunately, this excitement can prevent an athlete from spotting the first signs of fatigue.
The key to proportionally increasing the intensity and workload is to include recovery days and weeks where the intensity and volume is lower.