Polarized training … đŸ¤”

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I have been pleased with my indoor training regimen this winter. I got stronger, more flexible, and improved my VO2 Max. But training in the gym is not the same as cycling outside. Now that Spring has finally arrived, and the weather is improving, I’m switching things up. I’m going to get outside whenever possible, switch to a Polarized Training programme, and body-weight strengthening exercises so that I can train anywhere, even when a gym is not available.

Like at the cottage 😂

What is Polarized Training?

Training at an easy pace for 80% of the sessions, and essentially flat out for 20% of them is known as polarized training. It is how elite athletes train.

I’m not new to this technique. Just never knew it had a name. The key is to go slow most of the time, but work hard 1-2 times each week.

What is slow, and what is hard? 🤔

I don’t have a power meter on my bikes but I do wear a heart rate monitor integrated with my cycling computer, the VDO M6 pictured above. This particular display (there are several) highlights the percentage of ride time spent in each of 4 pre-defined heart rate zones, expressed as a % of MHR. The default zones, and the ones I use, are:

  • Zone 1 – 60-70%
  • Zone 2 – 70-80%
  • Zone 3 – 80-90%
  • Zone 4 – 90-100%

For the ride pictured above, I spent 12% in Zone 1, 59% in Zone 2, 34% in Zone 3, and 1% in Zone 4. This was a relatively hard 4 hour ride. With Polarized Training, I want to see weekly averages that look like this:

  • Zone 1 – 80%
  • Zone 2 – ∅
  • Zone 3 – 10%
  • Zone 4 – 10%

Once or twice a week, I will find a hill and do high-effort repeated climbs getting my heart rate up to 80-100% of my MHR.

Without the hard days you will only make minor gains, if any.
4 x 8 minute intervals ridden at 90% of VO2 max appear to generate the most gains. These hard days need to be done once or twice per week.

For me, that would be 4 climbs up a 3 km climb with an average grade of 5-6%.

The other days of the week, I will ride in Zone 1. That is easier said than done. That’s slower than I normally ride, and is best done alone. It means not challenging the hills, and staying off the wheel ahead.

I’ll try this for a month.

Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists.

The key benefit of this training method is that despite putting in a lot of time and accumulating high mileage, there is sufficient time to recover.

It is not possible to do all of this training at a high pace.
The majority of the time, around 75-85%, is spent in zone 1. The remainder of the time is in the other zones, with emphasis on high intensity. It appears that this low intensity training provides many of the adaptions required for endurance performance without over stressing the athlete.

If you are not convinced, I suggest you read Pieter Van Pietersen’s article entitled “Polarized training for cyclists“.

The New Road

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The new road is really not new at all. It’s old. Full of pot holes and cracks like an old, weathered face, the result of many long, cold winters. But part of it has been resurfaced. A facelift.

The new road heads east to a large lake best known for fishing – muskellunge, pike, bass, and perch. And it heads to the only real hill in the immediate area. A short hill – 500-750 meters at most. And relatively steep. Maybe a 10% grade. It’s perfect for fast, repeat climbs.

I head out to the new road during the week. It is remote, rural and has no traffic. I may pass a local farmer in his truck or tractor. Otherwise, it’s just me except for grazing cattle. The road cuts across part of the lake leading to the hill, providing scenic views along the way. This morning I headed to the new road with Chas. It was supposed to be a recovery ride following yesterday’s long, fast ride with Lou.

Chas: “You think I’m slow.”

It started slow, but I was feeling good. Full of energy. And again, there was no wind. Perhaps it was the new surface. I don’t know. It is perfectly smooth, inviting, and impossible to resist. By the time I reached the hill, I was warmed up and attacked it with all my might. By the time I reached the top, my heart was pounding in my chest and I was gasping for breath.

Chas: “You see. I’m fast. And, I can climb.”

This was not a recovery ride.

Lou: “We could have done the ride faster. Climbed that hill without getting your heart rate up so high. Chas is heavy. You have to work harder with him. Take me next time”

I don’t do recovery. I ride hard. Or rest. That’s the new road for me. I may do a longer warmup. I may work harder some days. I rest when I feel like I need it. But I don’t schedule rest days. I let my body tell me when it needs it. I may have an elevated heart rate in the morning. I may simply not feel like cycling. That’s when I rest. That may be once a week. Maybe every two. Sometimes longer.

Chas: “That’s why you have Lou and I. You ride differently with each of us. You go faster with Lou (or at least you think you do), and you ride longer distances with me. I’m more comfortable. Like a comfy chair. Lou is your middle age sports car, and I’m your best friend that doesn’t care if we ride slow or fast.”

Lou: “I like that. A Porsche. No. A Lamborghini. That’s me.”

I vary my rides. Vary the terrain. Cycle in all weather conditions. Hot. Cold. Wet. Wind. It doesn’t matter. Riding every day keeps it interesting. Challenging.

There’s no time for recovery. That’s what sleep and proper nutrition are for. I’ve learned in recent years how important they are, and that if managed carefully they dramatically reduce recovery time enabling athletes to trainer harder, and more frequently.

I’m no athlete but I would rather cycle than not. You see, I am like the new road. Parts of me are old, and can’t be refitted. And parts have been resurfaced. My technique has improved – in the wind, climbing, descending, shifting, and on the drops – and I pay more attention to nutrition. I eat to recover and fuel my rides.

Chas: “I’m like the new road too. My body is old but I have new parts. I’ve been resurfaced.”

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