Polarised Training

Having just finished reading 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald as well as a recent post by Joe Friel on his blog, I thought it would be worthwhile posting a summary on polarised training.  I would certainly recommend reading 80/20 Running as it is an intriguing yet easy read and has some nice training plans relevant to different distances.  Joe Friel’s books and blog are always a great reference for the novice to elite athlete.

Polarised Training.  What is it?

Polarised training refers to an exercise plan involving predominantly very low intensity exercise interspersed with a small amount of very high intensity training.  Advocates of such programs like Matt Fitzgerald recommend, on average, 80% of training performed at low intensity and 20% at a higher intensity.

Why would you want to train in this way?

Because it makes you fit!  Research has shown that polarised training is an extremely effective form of training in enhancing your VO2 max (your maximum oxygen consumption during exercise and common measure of level of fitness).  It is superior to regular moderate intensity exercise (which is how most people train) and high volume low intensity training.

How is intensity defined?

Athletes and coaches use various different tools to determine intensity including pace (running), heart rate, power output (cycling) and perceived effort.  If you are interested in the specifics of these measures I direct you to the above-mentioned resources.

But I want to start it NOW?

Whoa cool it!!  Most people embarking on fitness programs are fairly impatient.  “Too much too soon” is the most common cause of injury seen at our clinic and is far more relevant than most biomechanics factors.  Before considering any form of intensity, I would recommend working on some form of fitness base incorporating consistent easy exercise.  This is especially important for activities such as running involving repetitive loading to the lower limbs.  For semi-weightbearing activities such as cycling, intensity can be added earlier.  For those who have been exercising consistently for many months (or preferably years) and have a reasonable level of base fitness and have not suffered from injury over that period, some intensity can be added into their program.

How to get started…

If you want to start polarised training, and don’t want to use training tools such as heart rate and power, then you will need to rely on perceived effort and pace/speed.   A GPS training App is a handy addition and can easily be downloaded for your phone (e.g., cyclometer, strava).  When performing your easy training, you should be able to hold a conversation with a training partner.  Often the effort feels “too easy.”  Once finishing an easy session, you should feel that you could continue to exercise for longer.  By performing most of your training at low intensity, when it comes time to do your high intensity sessions, you really have the energy to put a lot into it.  Hard sessions are very difficult and involve extremely heavy breathing, lots of perspiration, burning muscles and high heart rates.  As these sessions are stressful on the body, an emphasis on quality rather than quantity is important.  If you feel like you cannot give a scheduled hard session everything then it may be better to replace it with another easy session.  Easy exercise helps athletes to recover from the hard sessions whilst also improving components of cardiovascular fitness.

Is polarised training everything?

No.  Specificity is.  Your training needs to be specific to whatever event/ race you are training for.  For example, if you are are training for an ultra marathon, low intensity volume will be more important than intensity when compared to shorter events such as a 10 km race.

Furthermore, the concept of periodisation is relevant.  This term refers to planning training over a period of time with an emphasis on building fitness by manipulating volume intensity for a specific race/ event goal.