In today’s journal club, we’re digging into the topic of “Polarized Training” by examining two new opinion papers that take opposing sides on whether Polarized training is an optimal strategy for endurance athletes. Let’s jump in.

On the left we have Burnley et al. with “Polarized Training is Not Optimal for Endurance Athletes.

On the right we have Foster et al. with “Polarized Training is Optimal for Endurance Athletes”.

We’ll start by defining a few terms relevant to the polarized training debate. 

What it Is

“Polarized training” loosely defines a strategy in which roughly 80% of training is performed at an “easy” intensity, with around 20% at a “hard” intensity  [1].

This “easy/hard” dichotomy is further broken down into three primary training zones. 

Polarized Training Zones

Zone 1: Low

Below lactate threshold one (LT1)

≈ Power Zones 1-2

RPE < 4

Zone 2: Moderate

Between LT1 and lactate threshold two (LT2)

≈ Power Zones 3-4

≈ RPE 5-7

Zone 3: High

Over LT2

≈ Power Zones 5-6

≈ RPE > 8

To polish off our description of polarized training, we’re left with a cycling approach where approximately 70% of time is spent below RPE 4, 10% between RPE 5 and 7, and 20% of time over RPE 8 [2].

Being surgically precise with our Training Intensity Distribution (TID) isn’t the point (nor is it even possible) of a polarized approach. 

More broadly, polarized advocates recommend that you should spend most of your time riding at a low intensity, avoid getting stuck doing lots of work around tempo and threshold, and instead spend your most focused energy on the highest intensities at VO2max and above. 

A Close Cousin

Sharing much of the same DNA, the other training strategy discussed in these two papers is the “pyramidal approach”.

As its name implies, pyramidal training brings greater balance to training time, with more time being spent in the “moderate” zone between RPE 5 and 7.

When we look at the TID of the pyramidal approach we get about 70% of time spent below RPE 4, 20% of time between RPE 5 and 7, and 10% of time over RPE 8 [2].

In a graphical sense, this is how these two training strategies might look. 

On the X (or horizontal axis) we have the percent of training time (TID).

You can see how the TID for zone 2 and 3 is flipped between the Pyramidal and Polarized approaches.

So why are distinctions between polarized and pyramidal training worthy of discussion? Any time someone makes a claim of an “optimal” training strategy, debate is certain to follow.

Let’s start with the first paper, aptly titled “Polarized Training is Not Optimal for Endurance Athletes” [3].

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  1. Neal, C.M., et al., Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2013. 114(4): p. 461-71.
  2. Foster, C., et al., Polarized Training is Optimal for Endurance Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2022. Publish Ahead of Print.
  3. Burnley, M., S.E. Bearden, and A.M. Jones, Polarized Training is Not Optimal for Endurance Athletes.Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2022. Publish Ahead of Print.