Polarized training. It is nothing new. Generally, I research and review and research and test . . . then research some more before I jump into something new or trending. Rushing from one fad to another can affect one’s training drastically and have no lasting effects on improving one’s ability on the bike. Many articles have been written on polarized training in various sports, but cycling professionals, coaches, sports kinesiologists, physiologists, and others have proven data to show the benefits to such training in relation to the bicycle. I kept hearing the term in articles and podcasts and dug in.
Like most disciplines, there are no gray areas. With polarized training, the work is hard when it is hard. To be clear, hard is having a metallic taste in your mouth, when your eyes water from pain, when your hands shake and black spots dance across your vision. Hard is voluntarily taking yourself into a place of hurt and not coming out until your self-imposed session is fully completed, which is usually between one to two hours at most. Then there is easy. The kind of easy that brings real doubt that anything is being accomplished. Easy to the point where heart rate is nearly at resting. Slow. S-L-O-W. The basic idea is an 80/20 plan with three distinct zones (there are many places to find how to calculate these zones in HR or power). Twenty percent of your training is riveting pain with extremely difficult intervals and/or pseudo races with riders who are just simply better than you (Zone 3). The other eighty percent of your training is LOW and easy and within a three to six hour window (Zone 1). The easy and hard can be monitored by heart rate and/or power and must be kept in specific zones. In essence, this means that in a seven day week it boils down to two difficult days, three/four easy and one/two off days. I personally stick with 2/3/2 (not in that order) with my two off days not being back to back. As the old saying goes, growth is accomplished outside of the gym not in it.
There are four things polarized training will target:
- increasing aerobic capacity . . . Bob Roll recently said that if a cyclist entered a grand tour without a high cadence and depended solely on glycogen and muscle strength he would last maybe a week. Aerobic capacity is important.
- having the ability to repeat hard efforts multiple times . . . hitting a huge watt number one time is no good (unless you are paid a bunch of money to be a sprinter on a professional team, which 99.9% of us are not)
- having a simple plan to follow . . . set your zones and do the work
- proving that group rides are not to improve a cyclist if he only sits in 75% of the time and sprints for the county line sign, unless Strava and average speed is your goal . . . get singled out on a climb that continues to go up for quite a while and your training will quickly tell on you.
Speaking of Strava, many of us follow professional cyclists for the fun of it. We gawk over their numbers in the classics and grand tours, but pay attention to the inbetween. The days when they are training alone or riding with one or two teammates. One of my favorite riders to watch on Strava is Silvan Dillier, the Swedish champion. Many of his rides are for six hours at 16.5 mph! Yes, there are one or two or maybe three days in the week when there is soul crushing climbing or interval training, but the riders are only allowed to go that incredibly deep because of the low-zone days. It was here I began to notice a trend with other professionals who post their rides. Time. In. Saddle. The majority of the time riders are spinning. The beauty of the process is when these riders finally unless the hounds in a race. The body has adapted. It has had time to recover. It is stronger with a higher aerobic capacity–a deadly combination for opponents.
Many of you might have noticed that Zone 2 was not brought back up, even though polarized training works in a three-zone model. Zone two is defined, so you will know the gray area. I recently rode with an incredibly talented cyclist who said that most people who love cycling and want to improve make the easy days too hard and the hard days too easy. Essentially, those riders live in zone two most of their weeks and months on the bike. Many of us cannot raise our hand and say that we have recently gone eye-bulging, full gas for eight minutes and then repeated it 4-6 times. The days when you have scheduled yourself to be zone three it needs to be cripplingly hard. Just as hard as your hard days are, the others need to be that easy. Boringly easy. Try riding to exhaustion in zone one. It is difficult. No, not at first, but keep your eyes on the numbers and keep it within zone and hold it for hours on end, not even allowing hills to pull you out of zone.
I am only a secondrate cyclist who does everything in his power to be better. I get older each day and a professional team will never call me, but I want to be the best that I can be. Where is my limit? What can I accomplish? If I am only waiting for windy days to jump on a tailwind and get a KOM on Strava, what have I done? Soon enough, there will be a stronger man or wind to take it away. For me, I must at least say that I put in the effort to be singularly good.