Polarized cycle training is becoming more common among athletes and cycling enthusiasts. While it might be the hot term of the moment, there’s more to polarized cycling than it’s being a rising fitness trend. It’s a certain structure of training that uses both high and low-intensity training in different ways than other training regimens have before.
We’ll go over everything you need to know about this type of cycle training, and what the benefits, as well as what any drawbacks are. Then, you’ll have all the information you need to decide if it’s the right plan for you.
WHAT IS THE POLARIZED CYCLE TRAINING PLAN?
The Basic Differences
There are plenty of training programs out there, especially if you’re participating in a cycling training program. Polarized cycle training does have common elements with many of these different programs, but there are key areas where it differs.
Many training programs like HIIT use more middle-intensity levels. With polarized training, the difficult sessions are much more intense, and the easy sessions are much, much easier. In short, the two sessions are more like opposites.
Casual cyclists and gym-goers typically keep a consistent routine. In that, we mean that they tend to keep a moderate to high pace; it’s often just enough to ‘feel the burn’ (although it’s also sometimes referred to as ‘the sweet spot’). Polarized training is far different from this method. Polarized cycling is more or less designed to avoid this ‘threshold’ pace whenever possible.
Lower intensity training sessions will make up the bulk of your cycle training if you follow a polarized cycle training plan. Most of these plans will designate 70 to 80 percent of the training regimen to easier, lower intensity training.
When you commit to these training plans, you need to avoid accidentally stepping up your pace. This is difficult for many riders at first, especially since so many are used to training at their threshold, a moderate to high-intensity pace.
Even when most cyclists think they’re correctly training in their low-intensity sessions, they’re often still exerting too much effort. Think about it like this, for your functional threshold power (or, FTP) to be on point in your low-intensity sessions, you shouldn’t exceed between 50 percent.
With polarized training, you won’t be doing quite as much high-intensity cycle training, but it’s going to be difficult. You can expect the high-intensity portions to take up about 20 to 30 percent of your training. While you’ll plan on these sessions being sprinkled throughout the week, they won’t last nearly as long as your low-intensity sessions. Until you reach an advanced or expert level in polarized training, your high-intensity sessions should be followed by low-intensity or rest days.
High-intensity training sessions are really all about building. From the maximum intensity you exert in bursts within the session, to the length of the sessions, to how many days per week are designated for high-intensity workouts, it’s all a process of building.
POLARIZED TRAINING BLOCKS
As we touched on earlier, you’ll be splitting your training into segments, or ‘blocks,’ with higher intensity sessions taking up less, but more specific, portions of your time. How you schedule them as part of your training, however, will depend on your development as a cyclist and athlete.
For example, a newer cyclist just beginning polarized training would do well to aim for two ‘hard’ or high-intensity days each week. Each ‘hard’ day should be spaced between with either ‘easy’ days or rest days.
While you’ll only ever plan up to three high-intensity days into your training, whether you’re somewhere in the middle, or an old pro, how you schedule the days determines how well your plan fits your skill level. Of course, if you’re somewhere in the middle, you’ll still want to plan low-intensity days in between tougher days.
On the other hand, an expert polarized training cyclist will plan their high-intensity days much differently. An expert plan will use the three full days of high-intensity training; however, most trainers will also opt not only to increase the intensity but also to schedule at least two days in a row to increase the strain needed to accomplish the intervals.
DETERMINING INTERVAL LENGTH
How long you train for is as important as how you schedule (and stick to) your intensity sessions. Looking at the frequency of high-intensity days, you may have found yourself somewhat confused. Yes, there are up to three of those days, but you’ll be training for a much shorter period of time. In contrast, the low-intensity days will be easier, but much longer.
In high-intensity sessions, you’ll also be working at increasing your intensity in intervals within that session itself. However, the day’s training should take no more than two hours, and no less than one. On ‘hard’ days, you really want to be able to push yourself as much as you can.
When you’re increasing your intensity in these shorter spurts, you’ll start with shorter periods of time. Often when you first begin, these bursts will be as short as 30 seconds. Be patient as you work up your time, you don’t want to lose intensity just because you’re trying to move up to a longer period of time.
Eventually, you’ll be able to reach multiple minutes of maximum intensity at any time. After some time training, many cyclists can reach several minutes, and some hard training experts may move up to intervals of up to eight minutes of maximum intensity.
On your easy, low-intensity days, you need to get your exercise, but don’t push it too much. Too many trainers make the mistake of nearing a ‘medium’ level of training, and as a result, can’t really push themselves as they need to on ‘hard’ days. These low-intensity sessions will be roughly double the length of time you’re taking for your high-intensity sessions. In short, they should be no more than four hours, and typically no less than two hours in length.
AN EXAMPLE OF A POLARIZED TRAINING BLOCK:
While the concepts are pretty basic, polarized training can seem like a lot to wrap your head around at first. To give you a better picture of how it all fits together, let’s look at a sample week and cycle training plan. In this example, we’ll assume we’re talking about a moderately experienced cyclist, with three high-intensity days per week:
Monday- high-intensity training, one hour
Tuesday- rest day, no training
Wednesday- high-intensity training, two hours
Thursday- low-intensity training, three hours
Friday- rest day, no training
Saturday- high-intensity training, one hour
Sunday- low-intensity training, three hours
PROS AND CONS OF POLARIZED CYCLE TRAINING
MAXIMIZE YOUR BODY'S EFFICIENCY
Athletes train differently, and for different reasons. However, many professionals use polarized training routines because it offers more benefits.
For instance, your body is better adapted to performing when it’s required to work with less oxygen (i.e. in extremely intense workouts when you have less oxygen to spare). The low-intensity sessions should be a really low strain, and the goal is to get them to feel more like light aerobic exercise.
As you up the intensity on your ‘hard’ days, your body learns to quickly adapt to all levels of activity.
IT PROVIDES PERSPECTIVE ON TRAINING
One of the best things about polarized cycle training is that it changes how we look at our workouts. Workouts can be grueling, monotonous, and don’t often change the way we see improving our body’s endurance. Because this type of training works with opposite ends of the spectrum, we can learn to appreciate how our muscle groups function together at each end.
Not only that, we gain a true feel for what it is to have to keep ourselves at a low intensity and preserve our energy for the upcoming difficult sessions.
We learn to keep a steady pace and avoid rushing. At the same time, we’re learning that extreme physical activity has its own value, and belongs in its own (yet less frequent) time and place.
IT'S A REFRESHING CHANGE OF PACE
Many non-professional cyclists tend to do the majority of their workouts on their ‘threshold.’ That means they’re trying to spend the maximum amount of time possible at the higher end of their ability. This then continues, expending energy without much benefit.
Not only that, but threshold training at a medium-high intensity also creates a situation where your body gets fatigued more quickly, and you experience a higher level of fatigue overall. Polarized intensity training prevents this, and reduces fatigue overall.
IT CAN BE USED STRATEGICALLY
Polarized training is very useful, although not all cyclists can incorporate into their everyday training. With that said, it does make an extremely useful training regimen if you use it seasonally.
How so? Many cyclists enjoy races and marathons, and polarized cycle training is ideal for the occasion.
It gets your body into peak performance for the high-intensity performance that races demand. While you may not be planning high and low-intensity days during the winter, in the spring they’ll be your secret tool to getting ready for an upcoming race in a flash. This is another area where the benefit of reduced fatigue comes in handy since you can up your endurance in time for a race if you use polarized training beforehand.
Many professional athletes do use polarized training, and of course, it works wonders for them. Naturally, since their athletic performance is their career (and their training is a part of their job), taking out large blocks of time to train is no issue for them.
For regular fitness enthusiasts that have a nine to five job, and a full schedule besides, the time required for polarized training can be one of the largest disadvantages. If you’re the kind of person that can only dedicate 40 minutes to an hour a day at the most to your workouts, it might be difficult for you to find the time for this training.
YOU HAVE TO FIND YOUR PACE
To successfully train with a program like this, you can’t really assume you’re hitting the right place. As we mentioned before, that’s one of the problems many athletes have. It may feel like you’re doing the low-intensity portion correctly. But if you’re guessing, you’re not getting the full benefits of the training.
Once you understand your functional threshold power, and how to measure it, it does get easier. With that said, the beginning can come with a bit of a learning curve. One way to simplify this is to use your maximum heart rate as a stand-in for your FTP. Then, you can calculate 65 percent of that. The figure you get should be your max on low-intensity days. While it’s simpler, it’s still more work than you may be used to when you’re ‘winging’ it.
There are endless training programs, and more variations being introduced all the time. There might not be a perfect fit for every cyclist. But we do want to get you to think about the different benefits you can gain from polarized training. If you can commit to it on a weekly basis, you’ll reap fantastic benefits for your health, endurance, and overall cycling ability.
Even if you’re a more casual cycling type, polarized training can bring a great change of pace and a great change of perspective too. When you train your body to work at both ends of the spectrum with very low and high-intensity activity, you reduce fatigue and teach your body to work more efficiently.