THE CONCEPT OF POLARISED TRAINING AND SUCCESSFUL ENDURANCE TRAINING
A review of the literature on polarised training for endurance training.
There are many ways to train endurance. Recently in literature, research has shown that the most successful athletes use a polarised approach to endurance training. The purpose of this brief review is to highlight the recent literature regarding polarized endurance training.
The review demonstrates that polarized endurance training plans consistently outperform other endurance training methods including: high-intensity interval training (HIIT), threshold-based training, and high-volume low-intensity training, and combinations. The practical implication for coaches is to incorporate a polarised approach into their exercise prescription and training programs.
Keywords: Polarisation-of-training, polarised-training, endurance-training, HIIT-training, threshold-training
Australia’s and one of the World’s most successful distance athletics coaches, Pat Clohessy tells his athletes to “darn well jog around.” There is method to his relaxed style and coaching method. Science calls it “polarisation of training.” Pat calls it “darn well jogging around!”
Good empirical research on the distribution of training intensity in well trained athletes is fairly new in the sports science literature. It highlights the paradoxical finding that while Olympic endurance events are performed at or above lactate threshold (greater than 85% VO2Max), the large majority of training is completed at or below lactate threshold intensity. (20,21)
Research on the most successful endurance athletes (the ones that win) shows a common theme. Their training is polarised, or in simple terms, they either train very hard, or very easy, and do very little of the “in between” training. (2,8,19,20,21,23) Research shows that the most successful endurance athletes have an 80, 90/20, 10 % split in their training. I.e. They have a massive volume of very easy training (80-90%) and a small volume of very hard training (10-20%). (19,20,21)
So “Darn well jogging around” or training easy, is important to race fast. And that is what puzzles many at all levels of endurance sports. Be it Olympic marathoners running 2.03 marathons, or your average Joe getting through a 5km, having a volume of easy training is where fast race performances are built. The benefits of easy training are varied, but important when understanding how polarised training works. Easy training allows athletes to build an aerobic base and create physiological adaptions, while not forcing too much fatigue upon the body and allowing the body to recover fully before the next high-intensity session. (1,3)The purpose of this study is to provide clarity on the existing research by highlighting the recent studies in the field. In addition this review aims to provide practical advice for coaches and athletes as to the polarisation of endurance training.
A brief review of current literature was conducted. Key word searches using the term/s ‘polarisation’, ‘polarisation AND training’, ‘endurance training’ were used within the online databases; Google Scholar and SportDiscus. Articles found within these searches were selected for use in the review based on the following criteria:
1 The relevance to understanding polarisation of training
2 Their applicability to specific testing and program design.
The reference lists of selected articles were then scanned for additional relevant studies.
The keyword searches identified 376 potentially relevant article. 23 of these articles satisfied the selection criteria and were therefore included in this review.
Endurance has been defined as the ability to maintain or repeat a given force or power output (4). VO2Max, its average maximum fraction maintained during exercise, and economy of movement are the primary factors influencing aerobic performance. (1,3,4,21) Endurance training increases capillary density, the number and volume of mitochondria, activity of oxidative enzymes, and the blood’s capacity to transport oxygen. (3,4,9,10). Lipid oxidation during exercise is a key factor in preserving liver and muscle glycogen stores, which can be depleted when the duration of the event exceeds 90 minutes. (4,7,21)
When searching for what works, a lot of people follow what elite runners do and an examination of elite runners demonstrates that easy running forms the majority of their training. Billat (2) undertook studies on marathoners leading up to the Olympic Trials (2.06-2.11 PB), and a group of elite Kenyan 5km and 10km runners. When their training was analysed for research, a three-tier approach was used to quantify the training, and roughly break the sessions down into three zones; 1) easy jogging; 2) threshold; and 3) high-intensity interval training. Roughly 80% of the training for both groups was considered to be easy jogging.
A Spanish study by Munoz (16) on trained distance runners (39.3min ±4.9min), split runners into two groups and had one group train predominately aerobic all with 72/13/13 zone split while the other group focused more on intensity with a 46/37/15 zone split. The result of the study was that the only significant correlation between performance and training was the amount of running in zone 1, as the zone 1 group improved by 7% compared to 1.6% for the intensity group, a significant difference.
In another Spanish study (6), two groups of moderately trained runners were split in half and one group trained with a zone distribution of 65/25/10 and the other with 80/10/10 split for five months. Essentially one group did a lot of easy running while the other group focused on threshold training. The result was that both groups improved, however the group that focused on zone 1 (easy running) improved by 157 seconds ± 13 seconds while the threshold group improved by 121.5 seconds ± 7.1 seconds.
Seiler et al (20) in a review article on polarized training, concluded that for competitive endurance athletes about 80% of training sessions are typically performed at low intensity and about 20% dominated by periods of high-intensity work.
Neal et al (18) studied 12 well-trained cyclists performing 6 weeks of polarized training and 6 weeks of threshold-focused training, with greater performance benefits resulting from the polarized training.
Munoz et al (16) studied 30 runners performing either polarized or threshold-based training for 10 weeks and improvements were measured in a 10k-race. Both groups improved significantly compared to their starting level, but a sub-analysis of the 12 runners who had best managed to stick to the prescribed intensities showed that polarized training was significantly more effective than threshold-based training.
In another study by Munoz et al (15) the training distribution of 9 recreational Ironman triathletes was quantified, and found that a greater percentage of training done at moderate intensity was strongly correlated with worse performance in the Ironman event they all participated in at the end of the training period. In contrast, more training at a low intensity was correlated with better Ironman performance.
Stöggl and Sperlich (23) concluded from experimental studies lasting 6 weeks to 5 months that superior responses were achieved with polarized training intensity distributions compared to threshold-based approaches.
Athletes respond differently to training according to the principle of training individualisation. Evidence suggests polarised training is successful at increasing endurance across a wide variety of athletes and sports. (5,16)
Helgerud et al. demonstrated that high intensity training is an important component of successful endurance athletes. (10)Seiler et al. recommend about 2 high intensity sessions per week seems to strike a good balance between positive effects and stress load (>4mmol/L blood lactate) (20)
Laursen et al showed that an established basic endurance base built from high volumes of training may be an important precondition for tolerating and responding well to a substantial increase in training intensity over the short term. (11)
Midgley et al and Seiler et al discussed the idea that a dichotomous physiological impact of high intensity training and basic endurance training is probably exaggerated, as both methods seem to generate overlapping physiological adaptation profiles, and are likely complementary. (13,21,22)
Easy training generates capillary development, and this is vital as capillaries help deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscle tissue while waste products are removed. (1,3,4) This means that easy training increases the capillaries in the muscle fibre, therefore allowing the body to deliver oxygen and fuel more efficiently. (1,3,4) Easy running also increases mitochondrial density that enables us to burn more fat to create more fuel during exercise. (9,10) The increased Activity of oxidative enzymes, and the blood’s capacity to transport oxygen are other benefits of easy training. (9,10)
When working at an easy level adaptations can occur, but as the athlete works harder in their easy training the adaptations are not necessarily increased to the same extent, but the fatigue is (21,22). The Easy training being easy enough, ensures that the athlete is fresh enough so the work at intensity is of the highest quality and can be maximised. Every hard session is a source of stress but also a signal for adaptation. (21) The studies state between 55-75% of max HR or the pace at which an athlete can hold a conversation is the correct intensity for easy (20,21). If using Max HR as a guide these intensities are applicable:
- Training around 65% of VO2Max counts as low intensity.
- Training at about 90% of VO2Max counts as high intensity.
- Training between 65% and 90% of maximum heart rate counts as moderate intensity. (20)
Alternatively, if training is based on blood lactate levels, the following intensity zones are used:
- Training at less than 2mmol/L blood lactate counts as low intensity.
- Training at greater than 4mmol/L blood lactate counts as high intensity.
- Training between 2 and 4mmol/L blood lactate counts as moderate intensity. (20)
CONCLUSIONS AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
Polarised training is a sustainable and productive way to train for endurance. Polarised approaches consistently outperformed other endurance training methods including: high-intensity interval training (HIIT), threshold-based training, and high-volume low-intensity training, and combinations. The split of 80%-90% Easy and 10-20% Hard or polarisation of training is consistently used by the most successful athletes. Frequent low intensity (<2mmol/L blood lactate or 65% of VO2Max) longer duration training is effective in stimulating physiological adaptations. High intensity training is also an important component of successful endurance athletes. About 2 high intensity sessions per week seems to strike a good balance between positive effects and stress load (>4mmol/L blood lactate or 90% of VO2Max). It is recommended that endurance coaches utilise a polarised approach in their training. This review has provided appropriate guidelines for implementation of a polarised training program.
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