Polarized Training for Cycling and Mountain Biking

Polarized Training for Cycling and Mountain Biking

What is polarized training in relation to cycling?

A polarized model for cycling training concerns spending most of the time spent training at low intensities and less, but still significant time spent training at higher intensities. Low intensity here is defined as anything below the cyclist’s lactate threshold, and high intensity is any endurance training performed above the lactate threshold.

It’s distinct from what’s been called a “Threshold model” where considerable time is spent training at or around the lactate threshold, middle intensity range. The polarized training model has come to light in recent years after the work of Stephen Seiler and colleagues.

Why train using a polarized model?

It’s still unclear exactly why the polarised model seems to be the chosen intensity distribution for top performers in many endurance sports, but there have been several theories put forward as well as anecdotal evidence.

Many coaches who have had success using this model agree that training at the lactate threshold excessively induces too much stress on the athlete for the amount of fitness benefit they can reasonably expect to gain. It has been referred to as the “blackhole” of training, where the training is too hard to promote recovery and not hard enough to induce large favourable adaptions.

This intensity distribution may play into the psychology of the athlete. When only having to “dig deep” and train very intensively about 1 in ever 5 training sessions, the athlete is likely to feel that the training is more manageable and that they can mentally refresh before having to suffer through a painful session again. By being mentally and physically recovered by the time of their next high intensity workout, athletes arguably get the most from these sessions and may be less likely to suffer from overtraining syndrome or burnout.

Practical considerations

As an endurance athlete, it may be wise to adopt some or all of the characteristics of the polarized model into your own endurance training. Here are some practical ways that a cyclist could action some of the recommendations:

  • Increase overall training time by vastly increasing time spent training at low intensities (far below lactate threshold, <2Mml lactate, Zone 1, 2 and 3 heart rate and power)
  • Train conservatively at the lactate threshold intensities at appropriate times in the season
  • Spend more training time towards the VO2Max level of intensity, using interval repetitions of ~5-8 minutes.
  • Include very easy days for rest and recuperation.
  • Learn how to train with a power meter in order to closely monitor training intensities using a time-in-zone method.