The arguments for (and against) polarized training
The first rule of science fight club is that you have to agree on what you are fighting for. A recently published debate on the merits of polarized training in endurance athletes, in Medicine and science in sport and exercise, fails this test. That’s actually a good thing, because not disagreeing suggests that there might be some general training principles that almost anyone in the field can follow.
The concept of polarized formation emerged about 20 years ago, primarily due to an American-born researcher in Norway named Stephen Seiller. It started as an observation about how elite endurance athletes in the modern era tend to spend their training hours: a huge amount of low intensity, a small amount of high intensity, and very bit in the middle. This missing middle is why it’s called biased: most training is done at low or high intensity levels.
Underlying this observation is the idea that training can be divided into three distinct zones. The easiest zone is up to your lactate threshold, during which you can probably speak in full sentences. The most difficult area is anything above your critical speed, during which you can probably only gasp a word or two at a time. The middle zone, between lactate threshold and critical speed, is often referred to as tempo or threshold training and can allow you to speak in short sentences. (For more on the definition of lactate threshold and critical velocity, see this explanation.)
Over time, the definition of polarized formation has evolved and blurred. Matt Fitzgerald wrote a 2014 book based on Seiler’s research titled 80/20 Running, in which the two upper zones are grouped together: the objective is to keep approximately 80% of your training easy and 20% difficult. Other studies of elite athletes have found a slightly different distribution called a pyramid: easy training is still the base, but there’s a bit more of the middle zone than the top zone. If a typical polarized cast is 70% easy, 10% medium, 20% hard, the pyramid equivalent would be 70% easy, 20% medium, and 10% hard.
This confusing terminology is the context in which Medicine and science in sport and exerciseThe debate takes place. Seiler teams up with a bunch of other big names in the endurance research business (Carl Foster, Arthur Casado, Jonathan Esteve-Lanaoand Thomas Haugen) to support the proposition that polarized training is optimal for endurance athletes. Take the opposite are the equally qualified team of Mark Burnley, Shawn Bardenand Andre Jones.
The case of polarization
Key to Team Polarized’s argument is the large number of observational studies of elite athletes in cross-country skiing, rowing, cycling, running, speed skating, and swimming that show distributions of polarized or pyramidal training. You will notice that it says “polarized or pyramidal”, not just “polarized”. It turns out that the distinction between these two distros is blurrier than you might think.
For example, a few years ago a study that monitored the training of elite runners found that they followed a nearly perfect polarized distribution if you analyze training zones by running speed, but a pyramidal distribution if you base the zones on heart rate. An earlier study found that classifying training according to the overall goal of each workout led to a polarized distribution, while breaking it down into actual minutes spent in each heart rate zone produced a pyramidal distribution. So depending on how you analyze training, polarized and pyramidal can sometimes describe exactly the same thing.
There have also been half a dozen intervention studies in which athletes are randomly assigned to different training distributions for a week. For example, a 2007 study by Esteve-Lanao compared five months of 80/12/8 training against 67/25/8 for well-trained runners. The first group improved by 4.2%, the second by 2.9%.
Foster and his co-authors spend time wondering why polarized training might be superior to other approaches. Broadly speaking, the goal of training is to accumulate as many adaptive stimuli as possible (i.e. get in shape) without triggering unwanted side effects like overtraining or injury. They argue that there are two main cellular pathways to stimulate mitochondria in your cells: one mediated by calcium signaling that primarily responds to strong volumes formation, and the other mediated by an enzyme called AMPK which primarily responds to intensity.
Polarized training, pictured, is a way to build up lots of volume to maximize your calcium-induced gains with the least amount of stress, while including just enough intense training to maximize calcium-induced gains. AMPK. The Threshold area, on the other hand, is stuck in the middle, not perfectly suited to either path, and too stressful for you to rack up high volumes.
The case against polarization
Burnley and his co-authors don’t think elite athletes’ training diaries can prove that any particular training method is optimal. They are right, of course. It’s easy to find examples of beliefs shared by champion athletes of one era – that drinking water during a marathon makes you slower, for example – then rejected by the next generation. They also aren’t convinced that biased training has any special ability to trigger calcium and AMPK signaling, an idea they dismiss as “rank speculation.”
But their biggest objection is that most observational studies of elite athletes actually show pyramidal rather than polarized distributions, at least “when training intensity is appropriately classified and quantified.” The same goes for some of the interventional studies, like the 2007 Esteve-Lanao study mentioned above, in which both groups do versions of pyramid training. How could a biased drive be optimal when all the supposed evidence is pyramidal?
This is where the debate goes off the rails. For the pro-polarization team, the pyramid is just a variation on the general theme of polarization, as long as both adhere to the larger 80/20 principle of keeping most of the training in the zone. the easiest. When Seiler advocates polarized training, he’s talking about whole workouts: “I classify a session as hard or easy.” he said The runner’s world in 2019. “If I do interval training, even if the effort and the heart rate will fluctuate, it’s hard. If you run four times a week, it doesn’t matter how long, if a run is hard, it’s a 75/25 split.
For the anti-polarization team, on the other hand, it makes no sense to talk about polarization in the context of an 80/20 split into two zones. Biasing means avoiding the intermediate threshold zone – an impossible and nonsensical concept if there are only two zones.
I suspect that everyone, including the authors of these views, would agree that arguments about terminology are less interesting than arguments about the concepts underlying terminology. There is a huge body of training data from elite endurance athletes that reveals recurring patterns. Whether you analyze this data in a way that qualifies it as polarized or pyramidal, the real question is whether this approach is truly optimal.
This question is of particular interest right now, as there are notable examples of current athletes who believe that threshold training – the no-go zone, in a strict definition of polarized training – is in fact the most important to their training.
Jakob Ingebritsen, who won the Olympic 1,500m race last summer at the age of 20, is the main proponent of what has come to be called “the Norwegian model of lactate threshold training”. Marius Bakken, a former Olympic runner from Norway, recently wrote a detailed report how this model has evolved over the past two decades. Among the key planks: double threshold workouts (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) twice a week. Bakken even experimented with adding a midday session to get three threshold workouts in a single day, with the goal of accumulating as much time in that middle zone as possible. Olympic triathlon champion Kristian Blummenfelt reportedly used a similar approach.
Even more recently, Swedish speed skater and double Olympic champion Nils van der Poel has just published a manifest describing the training leading up to his 5,000 and 10,000 meter races in Beijing. It’s an amazing and idiosyncratic document for all sorts of reasons (he only trained five days a week…but occasionally took on challenges like a 100-mile race!). But what’s interesting is that he had a ten-week “threshold season” in which he racked up 1.5-2 hours of threshold training. everyday (not counting his weekends off). He then moved on to a “specific season” where he tried to make all his skating at the pace of the race. Forget the polarized versus pyramid debate – this guy is reading a completely different book… and setting world records in the process.
My own conclusions from this debate fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think there is much evidence that threshold training is “bad” or should be avoided altogether. Whatever evidence there is is likely an artifact of how training is classified. I think all of the research on polarized formation argues strongly for the relative the importance of accumulating a lot of low intensity workouts. In this sense, adding threshold training could be problematic if it comes at the expense of overall training volume – a trap that overenthusiastic recreational runners often fall into. pushing their easy runs harder than they intend. But after watching Ingebritsen, Blummenfelt and van der Poel tear down their rivals in style, there’s no way I’m going to stick around and say a particular training approach is the only real way. .
For more sweat science, join me on Twitter and Facebookregister at E-mailand check out my book Enduring: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.