• Mark Turnbull

An overview of polarised training for cyclists

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

If you’ve looked into polarised training, you would almost certainly of heard of Dr. Stephen Seiler, Professor of Sport Science in Norway. His research into polarisation really grew from seeing what the top Norwegian endurance athletes actually did, then systematically prescribing the methodology to other sports. Seiler found that, across sports such as Nordic skiing, rowing, and other endurance sports, >80% of training volume was spent at endurance efforts, at a relatively easy workload that had lactate levels of 2 mmol or below (Seiler 2010) this would typically be Z2 and below on the Coggan power chart. While not as slow as a recovery ride, this is what we might associate with the classic LSD (Long Steady Endurance) training effort. This is much more volume at a much lower effort than what most of us recreational cyclists do, typically Z3/4. The remaining 20% of training volume was spent largely above threshold effort Z4, at workloads of 95% HRmax or 90% VO2max. Almost no training volume is spent at threshold or even sweet spot levels.

Pros of Polarised Training

  • Large emphasis on improving cyclists their aerobic capacity.

  • The cyclist develops their ability to repeat maximal efforts.

  • Cuts out the sweet spot black hole from prolonged riding in Z3/4 and how it result it fatigue without moving your training forward at the same rate as 80/20.

  • It’s a simple methodology if you regularly test your zones and stick to these parameters during training.

Cons of Polarised Training

  • Timing your race/event specific peaks.

  • Riders often report quick gains followed by stagnation in their training.

  • The practicality of using an 80/20 plan if your training time is limited or you have little cycling background. More suited to riders with at least 10 hours of available training time.

  • The Strava chasing modern cyclists will struggle with an 80/20 protocol.

Many of us are used to 5, 6 or 7 training zones ranging from recovery - neuromuscular , polarised training only has 3 zones.

  • Zone 1: Easy base training, below aerobic threshold

  • Zone 2: Almost non existent tempo or sweet spot

  • Zone 3: High intensity

Seiler finds that elite athletes are training 80% in zone 1, very little in zone 2, and 15-20% of zone 3. To be clear, these percentages are for calculating training sessions intensity.

When you break it up into actual time, it’s 90% in zone 1, very little in zone 2, and 10% in zone 3. You can even lean more to 95/5. Before we make this simple protocol too complicated let’s determine YOUR three zones. My current (indoor) CP60 is 352, so what would my zones be?

The boundary between zone 1 and 2 is: 0.77 multiplied by your 60 minute max average watts. For me, that would be 271W. The boundary between zone 2 and 3: your 60 minute average max. So for me, 352W. The upper end of zone 3 is your 6 min power. 443W

They also use percentages of power at VO2Max, and use the following calculation: the boundary between zone 1 and 2 is 65% VO2Max power, and the boundary between zone 2 and 3 is 85-90% of VO2Max power.

According to WKO4, 430W is my power at VO2max, so:

430 * .65 = 280W, the upper limit for the green zone, zone 1.

430 * .9 = 387W, the upper limit for the yellow zone, zone 2.

So between the two different methods, the numbers are pretty close. In applying this to training, the border between zone 1 and 2 is more important because that is often where people cruise at. However, the second method seems more accurate for “going hard”.

For those using heart rate, your levels can be created below. It is recommend doing the polarised Z1 rides by heart rate because of heart rate or cardiac drift, which can happen after 3 hours. Once you are well into an endurance ride, what was zone 1 hour and watts and become harder on your system so the watts stay the same, but your heart rate actually drifts into zone 2. This is totally individual, but endurance background and basic genetics play a large part, as does your fueling strategy.

For Zone 1, 70% HR peak is your aim for low intensity rides, with the border being a max of 75%.

For Zone 2 upper border, it is 85-87%, or 92% for someone fit.

My max heart rate (when fit) is 185. Therefore my Zone 1 70% - 130 bpm, with a border of 75% - 139 bpm, Zone 2 upper border (off season) 157 - 161 bpm, 170 bpm as my fitness progresses.

You can find Dr. Stephen Seiler main presentation on polarised training here. The research suggests that 4 x 8 minute training for cycling was the best way to improve FTP.

Reviewing the study from Dr. Stephen Seiler, the 3 main groups of riders perform 4 x 4m, 4 x 8m, and 4 x 16m intervals sessions, aiming to hit the highest average wattages possible. The results show that the riders who performed 4 x 8m intervals had the largest change at VO2peak (l/min), power at VO2peak (W), and Power at 4mM blood lactate concentration (W).

So now you will be aware of the polarised nature of this training regime. Note that everything at Zone 4 and above is Use It or Lose It, and even a seasoned athlete only can maintain the results for a limited amount of time. Though the Zone 2 riding can be done repeatedly and you just continue to build huge aerobic development.

To summarise, it’s a question of planning your training around key events and work backwards to where you are at this starting point. If you start training at 100% FTP or above and aren’t using that training for a forthcoming event you will make gains but then not be able to use them in a race and have to back off to recover.

Training FTP is crucial for the racing cyclist, learning to suffer has both physiological and mental benefits. As these 80/20 blocks take between 1-2 months to see the full physical adaptations. I would (with the right client) incorporate it into a peaking phase 2-3 times a year maximum.

When base building and preparing for the upcoming race season, it only leaves eight months to work with. This is when you are racing and resting for the next events on your plan, making it almost impossible to avoid some threshold at least during racing.

So once the client has sufficient base it’s better off working on their aerobic efficiencies and system with Zone 2 and 3, start introducing some burst efforts, and then having a couple of 4 x 8m intervals per week in the month leading up to an ‘A’ race.

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