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Polarized Training: More but Easier Easy and Less But Harder Hard May Be the Way

roadskater's picture

In recent weeks I've been following some podcasts and reading some studies about training as I get ready to get back to eating and training better once the sun hits me after the time shift. Last year, I had lost a lot of weight and had trained pretty well, but at A2A start line I felt weak. Carolina Century I felt much better and stronger, but I tried managing problems from the road and that didn't work.

When I think back on the best years at A2A and CC, it was after eebee and I had been to lots of long slow rides (charity rides and Silver Comet skates of 50 to 60 miles), and we had some higher heart rate work that was shorter in time. Lately, though, I had gotten into a habit of working out at around my highest average one hour heart rate. With so little time I'm able or willing to train in each week (feels like a lot!), I tend to undervalue anything where I'm not working out hard, but on the other hand, I've not typically been doing any real intensity work (maybe some one lap efforts at Country Park would count, especially if I did that 4 times, but this all gets complicated fast).

Anyway, it was with great interest that I heard about polarized training recently on the VeloNews podcast (overview page is at https://soundcloud.com/velonews):


The very basic idea is that most of us who are not world class athletes, not even professional athletes, are probably going at our training in a way that puts more stress on us that isn't helpful, but we may also not be doing enough of the high intensity workouts that are successfully stressful. As some have put it, our submaximal efforts may be robbing quality from any high intensity workouts (anaerobic repeats) we may be doing. It turns out that workouts averaging 120 average heart rate (as a rough number that's not specific to an individual) may give us most or all of the benefits of those averaging 145 ahr, but without the same stress on the body. In fact, it's looking like 80-90% of our time in workouts should be in the lower zones, with only 10% of the time spent in the higher zones. See the podcast for details, but this is the basic idea.

I still have a lot of learning to understand what polarization studies have to say about how we should set up our workouts, and how this compares with typical "threshold training" (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ for scientific studies).

For more info, see more of the podcasts in the VeloNews Fast Talk series, especially those with Stephen Seiler, plus other posts listed here:






Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training. - PubMed - NCBI

Does polarized training improve performance in recreational runners? - PubMed - NCBI

Specific Intensity for Peaking: Is Race Pace the Best Option? - PubMed - NCBI

Rethinking the role of fat oxidation: substrate utilisation during high-intensity interval training in well-trained and recreationally trained runn... - PubMed - NCBI

The road to gold: training and peaking characteristics in the year prior to a gold medal endurance performance. - PubMed - NCBI

Current Scientific Evidence for a Polarized Cardiovascular E... : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research


JonathanS's picture

This works!

Took me forever, sorry roadskater, but finally getting around to posting my reply. 

The interview, and what they are proposing really works. At least it did for me.

After listening to the above interviews, I put it into practice for the summer and fall of 2019. I ended up with my fastest A2A time ever (7:11), and I was a decade older than before!

I spent almost all of my training, probably more than 90% at a HR of 145 or less. What I found was during that time, instead of focusing on how to push harder and go faster like I had in previous years of training, it became a game of efficiency.

So with a HR cap of 145, how do I maintain my average speed? Which then made me focus on my form, on slowing my cadence and getting a good roll out of every push. Which is probably what made such a big difference in a race like the A2A.

If you need a different training pattern for endurance events, I would highly recommend this. Especially in a sport like skating that is so form dependent, it gives lots of time and practice in perfecting form.

roadskater's picture

Congratulations on hard work and discipline

I am really happy to hear that you learned about the VeloNews podcast and polarized training research here. The FastTalk podcasts are often interesting, and sometimes detailed and backed by research enough to consider modifying your workouts based on the concepts.

Here are some questions but there is no obligation if you are a bit too busy to answer:

  1. Did you change the terrain where you did most of your workouts? Specifically, did it require that you train more on less hilly routes? (My regular training location is not compatible with keeping my heartrate this low, I think. I am going to investigate this more this year. When I had lower back tightness, I did locate some flatter routes to use...just not very long ones near where I live.)
  2. Did you follow a weekly routine? What were your "standard" workouts like (time duration), and how many a week or so?
  3. For the high intensity part of training, did you do sets of intervals, or just single shorter sessions of constant skating? How long were those sessions, how often, and at what average heartrate, if you want to share. (I think this is the part that nonprofessional athletes leave out most commonly, the high intensity intervals, opting instead for training at the anaerobic threshold, or whatever you choose to call the average over-an-hour sustainable heartrate.)
  4. What will you do more of this year, and what will you do less, or differently? Thanks for the response and conversation with you and yours at and after A2A! It was great to share the adventures of the day and the year that came before!
  5. What percentage of TIME do you think you spent on the very low end, and what percentage on the very high end, over the season? You indicated 90%, and I took that to mean time, but it may have meant 90% of your distance, or 9 of every 10 workouts.

The polarized training idea is important, I think, and for now at least, I've added a "Polarized Training" sidebar item to Roadskater.net. FastTalk 94 replies to some interesting questions...


JonathanS's picture

Not so organized

To answer your questions:

1. I did not change my terrain. I live on the edge of the Ozarks, so moderatly hilly here. I tried to obey the intention of the training schedule rather than the letter of the training schedule. So there are several hills where my HR would get into the 160's or low 170's. But as long as my average HR stayed at the 79-80% max range, then I counted it close enough. Which would require taking flat areas, and even some more gradual hills slower to make up for the high HR moments. 

2. There was no regular schedule. For multiple reasons. My work schedule is 7 days on and 7 days off, 12 hour shifts. So during work weeks, I was lucky to be able to squeeze in 1 or 2 workouts, 1 hr duration. These sometimes became my faster skates as I was racing against losing daylight, although certainly not high enough intensity by the polarized training model. On my off weeks, weather permitting, I would try to do 2-4 skates, 2-4 hours in duration. 

3. I am afraid that last year I pretty much left out the high intensity workouts. I simply kept it all low and slow, unless you count the brief hill climbs during a workout. My plan for this year, there is a hill near the house, approx 1 mile in length, pretty steady in elevation, hopefully try and do this for 30 minutes as many times as I can. Ride down is the rest break, making it into 30 minutes of interval training. I guess for every 4-5 hours of slow skate if I did one day of the hill interval, this would be about 10% of intense training. I've tried it once before, on the climb up my HR would be 170, so thats about 95% of my max. We will see if I can make this happen more this year.

4/5. Yeah, so I guess more interval training would be what I will do more of. Try and actually get the 90/10 ratio. Last year, I was probably 95% or more of the low heart rate training.  Although I can already tell you from my skating so far, I'm a little nervous on the long distance stuff. So far, some where between 30 and 40 miles I've been hitting a wall this spring. So we will see if I stick with the high intensity part. I guess they are so brief, I could squeeze them in after work pretty well. I guess as far as how I calculated all this, I think of it in terms of time spent. If I focus too much on the distance, then I get caught up in mph, and this makes it harder for me to keep my avg HR down. 

6. I was so good to catch up with you at A2A! Hopefully, pandemic permitting, I'll get to see you again this year. 

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