Polarized Training for Cyclists in 2018

There’s been some buzz around polarized training in cycling after the Velonews podcast, Fast Talk, hosted 2 interviews with Dr. Stephen Seiler, Professor of Sport Science in Norway. A handful of Collaborative Coaching Group’s athletes listened to the Fast Talk podcasts and had some questions about them. These podcasts have been out for a while, but after finally giving them the solid listen that they deserve, I wanted to post some comments about it and open a conversation up. I really enjoyed the content, and if anything, it made me really happy with my training regimen; the importance of “the long ride” in an endurance sport like cycling lives on, and anyone that follows me on Strava knows that I love a long ride!

Polarized training for athletes in 2019?

While there are many positives and key points that they highlight, I don’t see an entire polarized regimen working for most of my athletes that have limited hours to train and aren’t getting paid to ride their bike. While it comes across as a very simply plan to follow, the follow through would be hard for many cyclists because many aren’t riding solely for competitive results. Social and personal achievement is attached to our riding throughout the week and weekend, and the polarized plan makes it hard to find small wins along the way. These wins, on basic workouts, are important for most cyclists, and they keep many of us ticking along. Strip these away, and I could see the training being less enjoyable for many. I always stress to my athletes, even the ones at the highest level: if this isn’t fun, we are doing something wrong.

I decided that while many won’t have the 3 hours to dedicate to listening to these podcasts, rewinding to fully digest it all, taking notes on your numbers, etc etc, I summarized a bunch of the main points and things that I found interesting. If you want to give the full episodes a listen, they are episodes 51: Polarizing your training with Dr. Stephen Seiler, and Episode 54: Applying the polarized training model with Dr. Seiler. Links below.

Four Things I Like About Polarized Training

1) The training regimen has a massive emphasis on cyclists improving their aerobic capacity.
2) The podcasts dive into the importance of not just your max watts, but the repeatability of efforts.
3) The training highlights the downside of group rides, and how it doesn’t move your training forward.
4) It is an incredibly simple plan to follow if you have your zones set properly

Four Things I Dislike About Polarized Training

1) No race specificity.
2) There seems to only be a small window of intensity-based intervals that you can perform, which could lead to stagnation in your training.
3) Many cyclists will struggle to follow this if they aren’t riding 20 hours a week because it isn’t “sexy”. At the end of the day, all training programs need to be practical.
4) Many athletes won’t follow this protocol because of the type of riding that amateurs riders encounter in their community

The group ride issue is the biggest problem for most cyclists that dislike riding alone and are more focused on the social side of the sport. This is not a bad thing: adults being active and having fun is a great thing! It’s just usually not helpful in raising your power numbers and preparing you for competitions (whether trying to drop a friend on said group ride, or winning a competitive race).

Now, just as any as training instruction goes, keep this in mind: there are a million ways to train, and you have to find what works for YOU. This all sounds amazing when you listen to it, but then listen to “Is FTP dead?”, episode 33, and there are other people who are also very qualified coaches that do NOT agree with polarized training. I give my thoughts on all of this as we move through it, and at the end of the next post, I’ll take a look at my own data and a few athletes….what’s the chance that we’re already training in a polarized model?

Calculating Your Polarized Zones in Cycling

Polarized Training only has 3 zones, whereas many of us are used to 5, 6 or 9. How in the world could there only be 3 zones? They are defined below.

Zone 1: easy base training, below aerobic threshold
Zone 2: no man’s land or sweet spot
zone 3: high intensity

Seiler finds that elite athletes are training 80% in z1, very little in zone 2, and 15-20% of zone 3. To be clear, these percentages are for calculating training sessions. When you break it up into pure time, which seems easier to track and conceptualize, it’s 90% in zone 1, very little in zone 2, and 10% in zone 3. You can even lean more to 95/5. You really don’t need all that much intensity when you are looking from 30,000 feet.

So in order to follow a polarized model, you need to cut out the sweet spot and tempo riding. They really don’t get into a concrete definition of how to determine YOUR three zones until the second podcast, but I’ll list them below.

The boundary between zone 1 and 2 is: 0.77 multiplied by your 60 minute max average watts. For me, that would be 287W.
The boundary between zone 2 and 3: your 60 minute average max. So for me, 374W.
The upper end of zone 3 is your 6min power. 482W

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, 467W is my power at VO2max, so:

467 * .65 = 303W, the upper limit for the green zone, zone 1.
467 * .9 = 420W, 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”.

One of the hosts says that he also sees 2.5 hour average power being a good border for zone 1/2, and I don’t find that to be true simply since so many guys are going harder for longer. My 2.5 hour power is 324-351 depending on where I am in the season, so it’s too high. A few years back though, this would have been more valid. A 30 minute test sounded really long, and like many other cyclists, I was only doing 20 minute intervals. I’ve lengthened everything out and will do 240 minute intervals to really bring up that long distance wattage. Has it helped me? Immensely.

For those using heart rate, your levels can be created below. They recommend doing the polarized zone 1 rides by heart rate because of heart rate drift, which can happen after 3 hours. Once you move along in the 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.

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.

Those numbers seem pretty accurate to me and definitely usable.

Calculate your numbers right now if you have access to your VO2Max power and let me know, are they similar?

One Major Issue I Have With Polarization

I’ve worked RACE SPECIFIC durations that were less than 6 minutes, improved, and done better in a race because of this training. These intervals would not fall into the polarized model, as they would be at power outputs above the top end of zone 3 (482W). Case in point was the Fort McClellan PRT Road Race that had the main climb being a 5 minute crusher, insanely steep. I smashed 5 minute intervals until my eyes popped out, improved on that duration and ended up 10th behind former Sky lead out man, Greg Henderson. Eric Marcotte rolled up to me as we hit the climb for the last time, in a severely shattered group and said, “Big boy getting over these hills today, huh?” I just laughed and cried, knowing that the biggest attacks were coming; and I’d get dropped.

Post-Ride Fatigue With Polarized Zone 1 Rides

If you take this approach, they really stress how the fatigue is so different from the fatigue that you are used to. You’ll feel EMPTY when you finish, and you could just start eating…fill it up again. You haven’t created a big sympathetic response, whereas when you do a hard interval session, you feel wrecked and don’t want to eat right away. There’s a big difference, and I remember my early zone 2 rides that were truly only z2, and I’d devour food! I completely agree with this and know that the benefits of long, consistent, endurance rides are phenomenal for creating a massive endurance engine. I feel my biggest strides were made from the 75% FTP rides; not the 100% rides.

Going to exhaustion at a slow pace is something that I love doing. I’d call a slow pace 75-85% of FTP. According to the podcasters, this taps into fiber populations that include the slow twitch and activates ALL of them, including 2As and 2Bs that aren’t used to doing endurance activities. Once you totally crush them, it’s a whole new tired. Seiler states that he thinks the best Pro Tour athletes are the ones with the biggest polarized zone 1. I don’t know if that is true, but I’d love to believe it so I can keep doing tank emptying, long endurance rides.

Issue with Online Training Plans for New Cyclists in 2018

All of these training plans online and lots of new data seem to point to ways to cut corners and get physiological bumps in fitness. Seiler points out that this could simply be the nature of the lab. It’s very hard to get someone to come into a lab and ask them to “get years and years of long, slow, endurance rides under your belt and we will study you”. However, if you have people come in for gut-wrenching, all out thrash fest, you can get a quick bump and now you’ve got an “effective workout plan”. This is very American, with the saying, “No pain, no gain!” We want to make workouts more efficient: more intensity, less time, and back to normal life.

I see this in a lot of new athletes that get into cycling and start to find their local group ride and training race. I was sucked into this as well when I first started riding. I’d do the Tuesday night training race, go hard again on Wednesday, and then look for a group ride Saturday, and do a long ride Sunday. That is way too much intensity, especially for a young buck new to the sport.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time for turn and burn, but it should NOT be every workout. Or even every other workout!

Seeing Results for Untrained Cyclists

Back to the lab, working at 75% HR MAX is boring for the scientist and the participant. Interval training at intensity is more exciting! Also, you can see crazy results on untrained people pretty quickly.

This is very true: if you noticed one of my posts, I told athletes to skip their weekly group ride once a week, and I’d give them four MAX AEROBIC workouts, knowing they’d get faster because most athletes don’t work that system enough. They go on group ride after group ride where it’s just smash and sit in; that gets you almost nowhere in an endurance sport. You’re never pedaling consistently, which is one thing I drill into my athletes. Do an endurance ride with only 10% or less in Zone 1 and you will get faster. No doubt. Although I’m no longer a fan for many reasons, starting my cycling career in Rochester, NY had me riding fixed gear centuries and I’m sure that helped my cycling economy!!! You can’t stop pedaling.

Another great point is made: studies of trained athletes can be trickled down to the untrained athlete. Meaning, if you have the time to follow a pro athlete’s program, and put in 15-20+ hours on the bike, that will most likely be effective. However, studies of untrained athletes cannot be scaled up to the trained athlete. Don’t read an article on untrained athletes and assume that those same results will work on you if you’re already training 5-8 hours a week. The recent intensity focus has been delivered to the untrained and people are trying to really scale it up to themselves.

Grant Holicky from Apex Coaching was interviewed and he talks about how too much time is spent my most athletes in the polarized zone 2. Most people make the easy too hard, and the hard not hard enough. “Training is about working the edges of the system.” I totally agree with this. This goes back to the group rides: most people are wasting TONS of energy and time just ripping up short Strava segments and not focusing on longer duration, endurance based, intervals. How many times have you gone hard for 8 minutes? And done it 4-6 times? Probably not many of us are doing that enough.

Tempo, the silent killer

Endurance and tempo give the same physiological response, but one just makes you more tired. This is why I consistently call tempo the silent killer. You won’t crack after 3 weeks of tempo, but when May hits and you start riding tempo all of the time (it’s called fast fun for a reason), by June you might start feeling a little stale. All of that tempo has made your HARD efforts not hard enough. You won’t feel totally wrecked from too much tempo, but I guarantee it hurts your overall performance if not used correctly.

Bottom line: Make your hard efforts super hard! But then RECOVER FROM IT. You need to actually ABSORB the training stimulus. Don’t go wreck yourself again.

In the next blog post, I’m going to look at the following topics:

  • Does polarization reduce your ability to push your FTP ceiling up?
  • Biologic Durability and Repeatability
  • How does the time crunched athletes apply this model? Is it possible to use, or is this just for the professional riders?
  • Are we going hard enough? Or, are we actually going too hard that we can’t absorb the training? (This is really interesting!)
  • I have 6 hours to train: what do I do?!
  • Which is more important: my max watts or my repeatability?
  • Aerobic Vs. Anaerobic Contributions to Cycling

Thanks for stopping by and reading! I’d love to hear your comments on all of this! If I misquoted anything from the podcast or got it wrong, I’m all ears! Stay stoked on your training!

Do you want to get stronger on the bike? Do you want to come out next spring and drop your friends that are currently faster than you? I can make that happen for you, as I’ve done for a hundred others. Contact me today.

Brendan Housler is one of three coaches for Collaborative Coaching, based in Tennessee. We coach athletes of all levels, so whether you are hitting your first gran fondo next year, just trying to finally drop your neighbor on the weekend ride, or winning a national championship, contact him today to learn more about how you can get faster! Check out his links below:

Strava mega rides
Personal Blog, aka Sasqwatts
Racing Palmarès
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