Polarized Training for Cyclists in 2019

This is part 2 of the polarized training for cyclists series. For the first post, check it out here.

As mentioned in the previous post, the topics covered in this article will be:

  • 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?
  • I have 6 hours to train: what do I do?!
  • Are we going hard enough? Or, are we actually going too hard that we can’t absorb the training? (This is really interesting!)
  • Which is more important: my max watts or my repeatability?
  • Aerobic Vs. Anaerobic Contributions to Cycling

Does Polarized Training in Cycling Inhibit FTP Gains?

For polarized training, when you measure time in zone, the time is actually 90% in zone 1, and 10% in zone 3. This is really wild when you look at your numbers, and one of the guests on the podcast mentioned seeing numbers more like 95% in Zone 1 and 5% in Zone 3! I wasn’t surprised to hear that. 10% of your riding at or above 90% of your VO2Max power is a LOT! To add to that, if you’re doing quality intervals of duration, those are really taxing on the body, making it hard to come back for more.

So here is another issue that I have with polarized training. We’re basing so much on VO2Max power, but we only want to be riding there 10% of the time; or can only physically handle that physical stress and load. I’m okay with that amount, because it’s a lot, but you can boost your VO2Max ceiling by raising your FTP;  you can raise your FTP by riding at Sweet Spot and 100-105% of your current FTP; but polarized training does not have a way to utilize these FTP boosting properties (and indirectly, pushing out your VO2Max). These efforts are also very race specific to late race attacks as well as getting in the hard break, especially if you are a cat 2-5 and racing with stronger riders. The attacks that are always pulled back are from the athletes that can attack and create a gap from the peloton (30-60 second attacks at 200% FTP) but they lack the ability to fall into 100% FTP for 3-5 minutes afterwards which creates the lasting separation. I don’t foresee an athlete riding a 30 minute break at the end of the race by simply hitting intervals above 90% VO2Max. Many people’s 85% is right at FTP, so to be hammering over that is hard…you’ll be doing 6m intervals at most. Never doing a 10 minute interval sounds crazy; supra threshold is a thing to be practiced in cycling; no?

Biologic Durability and Repeatability in Cycling

The next topic is on biologic durability, or biologic resilience, which is created with a lot of the low intensity volume that allows athletes to hit those hard workouts over and over again at full strength. You can recover faster and this low endurance training really builds durability in their system, affecting the hormonal system, muscular system, and cardiovascular system. There is no shortcut to building this. This all goes back to making sure you are fully recovered from hard efforts, and I 100% agree with all of this.

Low intensity riding, or what is traditionally referred to as endurance pace (50-75% FTP), should be a mainstay in your cycling diet. This has gone by the wayside for so many athletes, especially for the group ride addicts. Those rides are littered with a massive amount of coasting and intense surges. They never work their aerobic system effectively. One of the best, and easiest workouts, is what I call the 10% workout. This is a workout for some, and a mantra for my more advanced athletes. Go out for an endurance ride and try to have your traditional Zone 1 (<50% FTP) time be less than 10% of your total ride time. So if you go for a 3 hour ride (180 minutes), have no more than 18 minutes of Zone 1 time. This sounds easy, but it is not! You’ll rack up close to 6-8 minutes simply getting out of the city. Once you are out on the open roads however, PEDAL YOUR BIKE. I will follow up this post with one on what a really good endurance ride looks like, and you may be surprised! This low intensity riding has been key in my growth as a cyclist in terms of being able to ride long, hold higher average watts over durations over 2 hours, increase my FTP 20% over the years, and build this biologic durability that they speak of.

If you have biologic durability, you can do some blocks of supercompensation, but most athletes need to max it out at 2 hard sessions a week. I remember getting 2 hard workouts early on, and then the weekend was just endurance cruising. Supercompensation was simply hitting the climbs at VO2Max until I couldn’t anymore; so that was the third high intensity session. But that was IT! And I was religious with my zone 2; I never even went into tempo (76-90% FTP). I have changed my ways and do some extra time around 80% now simply because of time constraints and a joy for riding; I definitely don’t ride for optimal performance at all times. It has to be fun, and to me, getting tired and burning as many kilojoules as possible is just that: FUN. Plus, I like eating food. Follow me on Strava if you feel so inclined to see the mega adventures.

What Should the Time Crunched Cyclist Do?

Base miles work! How do we get around that if you don’t have time to pedal at a polarized easy intensity for 90-95% of the time? Well, let’s get specific with the hours.

You Have 7-8 Hours to Train

Back to the Canadians on the podcast: let’s look at an athlete has 7-8 hours to train. I would say this should be split up into two weekend rides for 2 hours (one being 3 hours if your total training time is 8 hours), then three 1 hour rides during the week. The example they use is an athlete that is going to a stage race with 5k feet climbing a day, where they would prescribe 2 x 45m of tempo (to define, that is 75-90% of FTP), which they claim still in bottom part of 90% of world of polarization. This is my problem with that…90% FTP is not in the bottom 80% of polarization. So they’re proving the effectiveness of the middle ground, the zone 3 tempo ride. Do enough tempo and they can absorb it; you can’t just do high intensity intervals and really easy miles if you want to attack a 5,000 foot climbing day. This ECHOS the fact that the polarized model is for professional cyclists that can log a LOT of easy miles below tempo to build that biologic durability. If you are doing 8h a week, 2 hard workouts a week is still your max. The hard has to be HARD. The rest will be endurance, tempo, and sweet spot. Here’s a video I posted about how to use sweet spot training to boost your cycling performance.

If you have 6 hours to train, based on polarization, go with the following:

1 ride should be 2-2.5 hours, stretch yourself horizontally. Have two rides of 1 hour in duration at intensity and one ride of moderate intensity.

Warning: The following is NOT Polarized Training, but what I’d recommend, since it’s worked for so many athletes.

If you can, do one ride for 3 hours (I realize this may be hard to escape for that long, but maybe you can make this a Saturday AM ride. Leave at 5:30am and return before the family breakfast is over. A lot of this comes down to: how bad do you want to be good? Or great!?). Then do a 2 hour and 1 hour ride with intensity that week. We should define intensity: it’s not on the gas off the gas for 1 hour with your buddies. Do some specific VO2Max intervals; work on PMAX; work on intensive and extensive anaerobic intervals; work on Max Aerobic intervals. Then for the other four days of the week, fill the time with calisthenics or things you can do while you are doing things with the family, or whatever the other major time requirement is. Put your kid on your back and do some damn push ups!

At the end of the day, polarization wants the athlete to get more minutes at 91% heart rate instead of going crazy for 4 x 4 minutes. I don’t agree with this for all of the aforementioned reasons, especially race specificity. But I do agree with their bottom line: don’t let everyday become middle of the road hard! Be careful of the group ride that pushes you when you don’t need to be pushed. Many times (almost always!) those efforts aren’t event specific.

Are We Training Hard Enough in Cycling?

Next up he talked with some Canadian guys, Andrew Randall and Steve Neal, and the point that stands out the most is that you can train with intensity only if you actually absorb it. Are you actually improving from it?

First you absorb it, then you improve. If the ultimate goal is to improve, you can use testing to see if it’s working. While 4 times a week intensity might work for 2-4 weeks, usually Randall and Neal see athletes losing motivation to continue or they just get worse. The real problem here of trying to do intensity 4 times a week goes back to Grant’s point: the hard won’t be hard enough! It might feel hard, and it might hurt, but you aren’t giving your body the physiological stress to actually get faster. This is so incredibly true and I’ve witnessed it in myself and countless other athletes. This is why power meters are so helpful for cyclists. There are days when Zone 2 might seem hard, and there are many reasons to push through and knock out that last endurance ride at the prescribed wattage before a rest week. There are other days when endurance may seem SO EASY, and this is where many cyclists falter; they just ride harder. Don’t do this. Save that energy so that you can make the hard workout, a few days later, REALLY FREAKING HARD. Many athletes sabotage their race performance because they let their nerves, instead of their brain, do the thinking before a big event. In trying to stay sharp, they get tired, and probably go in a 95% of their best.

Nothing but intensity is a recipe for cracking down the road. I would say 1-2 times of intensity a week is the best bet. Quantity, duration, and how intense you are going completely varies athlete to athlete. And yes, a group ride most likely takes up one of those rides, and that’s why you need to be very cautious using these rides, as most group rides get hard for very short bursts of time, and then everyone coasts. This type of go hard, coast, go hard, coast, may only improve your 30 second effort. But then if you’re in a race or weekend ride when someone really drills it, you’ve trained your body to need that rest. If it doesn’t come, guess what, you’re dropped. So, instead, work different durations on these group rides and stretch out some of those efforts to 3-5 minutes. Then you can enjoy the group ride but still get some quality intensity.

Are We Training Too Intensely?

Seiler mentioned that David Bishop in Australia says that conditions associated with very high blood lactate may have some inhibitory effects on adaptive signaling, which works well with Seiler talking about not getting TOO intense. 90-92% HR max is good, but 95% HR max is too much. I like this, because I hate going hard, but I don’t agree with it. My 1-2 minute power has gotten better since I moved to Tennessee because Patrick Walle made me do it. It was my weakness, and it’s really boosted my ability to break away from packs and then hit my bread and butter FTP throttling. If you can turn a criterium into a time trial, it’s great if you’re a time trialist. I’m seeing large improvements with a former USA National Champion because we are specifically working on his strength and extensive anaerobic capabilities. So although many of us hate going hard, I don’t think it’s too intense to make adaptations. I’ll be curious to see where the research goes with this.

Absorb the Aerobic Training for Cycling

A great point brought up is the lack of the aerobic system that so many athletes encounter these days. They get into cycling and immediately purchase a Suffer Fest plan and just hit it hard week in and week out. There is no rest, and therefore no way to absorb the training stimulus. See my video on the need for continual rest weeks! I was lucky to have mentors that drilled in the fact that October through December was easy base miles, but lots of them. I truly believe that is why I have such a massive endurance engine for an amateur cyclist.

Polarization asks you to do the easy rides, and do them longer. Believe in the system. I like this accentuation on aerobic fitness, because so many people lack it. They never ride at a consistent aerobic pace. I honestly am not sure why, as this is my favorite type of riding, but it is not common for many.

I never really focused so much on the concept of us being sponges. It’s great, and I think an easy reminder for us all to ask, “Am I absorbing this?” If you have a crazy week of training, you need time to recover from that, absorb it, and get stronger. You get STRONGER when you rest, when your body GROWS from the stimulus. You do not get stronger the minute you finish the really intense session; it’s after it has been absorbed that you see true growth.

Max Watts Vs. Repeatability

They interviewed Larry Warbasse, and this is what he had to say:

Biologic durability is more important than peak numbers. All the World Tour Pros set their best numbers in January in camp; blowing the roof off the numbers! This, however, doesn’t mean that’s the strongest that they’ll get. They’re fresher, so they’re setting high numbers, but it’s not repeatable. Is the max power test the best fitness; no? It’s what you can do over and over. No one at the same skill level gets dropped on the first attack; it’s the fourth or fifth or end of the race move! This is why we have athletes hit 95% 6-8 times! It’s so much more effective for becoming a stronger cyclist.

Cadel Evans never did intervals during the camps, and Larry asked him, how the hell is he so good without doing intervals? Cadel knew that it doesn’t take a long time to get really fit, and he can only hold it for a certain amount of time….so wait until you get close to the objectives, and then rip it. I think it’s best to keep in mind though, this is coming from a pro cyclist who is riding 20 hours a week. Of course if he starts ripping it too early, it won’t be sustainable. He needs to just ride to keep fit and will be sporting a very high Chronic Training Load (CTL), and then when he adds the intensity on top of that, he’ll see his true race form come out.

We adapt pretty quickly to things, even as athletes. We adapt and can hit our higher levels of fitness within a short amount of time, especially if we are trained athletes. The ceiling effects are clearly there for high intensity work, so hold back in duration of intensity and level of intensity. You don’t need to burn the candle too early. If you go too hard too early, there’s nowhere else to go. To the guy on the group ride explaining to me that he’s doing a Sufferfest plan right now with 4 Sweet Spot workouts a week; please reread this section! 😉

A lot of this is trial and error; you need to fiddle with things and see what balance of training works for you. This is the artistry side of coaching and being an endurance athlete. It’s hard to make the right call when you are tired and questioning things; get a coach and have them optimize your performance! Winning, and crushing goals, is the best feeling ever.

Training for the Cyclist with Tons of Time

First off, be thankful if this is you. I wish I had been cycling in college! I can only imagine the adventures people were having. Okay, daydream is over.

Get ready for longer intervals, and really use the longer testing protocol to your advantage. People try to take shortcuts on the FTP numbers, and base their whole training on it. Originally it was using an hour of power in the lab. An hour is a tough workout if you really lay it down, but this is a realistic amount of power that is sustainable. Now we have shortened it to 20 minutes, which many use because it’s easier and they only have an hour to ride. The issue with 20 minutes is that anaerobic capacity can help you cheat these numbers, so it is a little arbitrary. A former athlete told me he’s doing the 6 or 8 minute protocol. Hey, whatever you want to do.

Longer intervals, up to 120 and 240 minutes in duration, but also harder ones, where you’re truly trying to ping numbers at vo2max and beyond, are keys to reaching the highest level of your success. If you have a lot of time, you can hit your race specific intervals (whether they are long or short in duration, with the intensity inversely related), and then fill in the rest with lots of aerobic building, fun adventure rides, and races. Just because you have a lot of time doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have a lot of structure.

Aerobic Vs. Anaerobic Contributions

Another great topic that they bring up is Aerobic vs. Anaerobic contributions in cycling. We overestimate the anaerobic and underestimate the aerobic portion.

In a 2 minutes race, about 65-70% involves oxygen, so it’s aerobic! That really surprised me. I would have thought it would be 30 seconds aerobic, and 90 second anaerobic.

I decided to google “how aerobic is cycling”, and found an article from 2013 that talks about just how important the aerobic system is after only 10 seconds of cycling! Wow. That’s awesome (since I love aerobic workouts).

How Important is Anaerobic Energy in Cycling? Part 1

Many time athletes start talking about the need to work on their top end, but really it is always about the last sprint that they should be worried about. If you’re just under your threshold for the whole race, which can happen if you’re racing much faster people, no wonder you have nothing at the end! If everyone is nose-breathing and you’re dying, it’s game over. Is your issue truly top end or basic endurance? Build a huge foundation, and you can do this with those tempo and sweet spot workouts that polarized training doesn’t want you to do. The key is making sure you recover from those fully before doing your main intensity workout of the week. The hard has to be hard!

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; it has to be fun!

Are you ready to become a stronger and faster version of your current self? Contact me if that sounds like a transformation you want to see happen. I was overweight and feeling like a blob before I found cycling. Things have changed in my life and I am so grateful for that; I’d love to help you reach as many of your goals as possible, no matter how small or grandiose you think they are. No better time that today to GET STARTED!

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:

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