Polarised training Q&A and Mikael's thoughts and perspective | EP#178
An in-depth discussion and Q&A session on the ins and outs and dos and don'ts of polarised training for triathletes and endurance athletes in general. This episode is a follow-up to the extremely popular interview with the godfather of polarised training, Dr. Stephen Seiler in EP#177.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Personal case examples from Mikael Eriksson's and Stephen Seiler's training and resulting performance improvements.
- Common objections to polarised training.
- How can polarised training apply to age-group triathletes?
- Polarised training for beginner athletes, masters athletes, and for longevity and health (rather than performance).
- Periodisation with polarised training.
- How to execute low-intensity workouts correctly.
- How to execute high-intensity workouts correctly.
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Stephen Seiler case example
- Stephen rode 285 watts in his 60-minute indoor 'hour of power' cycling test.
- He is 53 years old.
- Stephen has only been cycling consistently since August.
- He was training 5 hours a week from August to December, and since January he has been doing an average of 7 hours per week (Ranging from 5-9).
- Stephen had one 10 hour week in March 2019, but he noted that this was difficult to achieve on a consistent basis due to work.
- Stephen trains completely polarised, meaning all his training is either low or high intensity, nothing in between.
- Stephen's goal is 300 watts for the full hour.
- He did do some competitive cycling for 3 years (1987-1990), and he switched to rowing after that.
- Stephen mentioned that the last few years have been too much work and not enough training!
Objections to polarised training
Q (from Sryke): Is there really strong evidence that elites avoid certain zones? Shouldn't we re-name polarised training to HLIT (high low intensity training)?
- In the early days of research, Stephen and his team found a really polarised approach worked best in some disciplines (e.g. rowing), but as they began looking at others (cycling/triathlon etc) they found that a more pyramidal approach can work.
Pyramidal means part of the high intensity is mid-zone work such as tempo/threshold/sweet spot.
- It seems to depend on the goal event and the discipline.
- As a while, endurance athletes don't avoid certain zones.
However, rowers that compete for 6 minutes will generally avoid the mid-zone. Track cyclists may do the same.
In terms of triathlon, it tends to include both medium and high intensity.
If using pyramidal though, it would still involve the vast majority at low intensity, and splitting the remaining time between high and mid intensity work.
This might mean 85% low intensity, 10% moderate intensity, 5% high intensity.
- It's not about avoiding certain zones, it's knowing what you're training for and distributing high and medium intensity accordingly.
- All these athletes will tend to stick to the same concept - doing the vast majority of training at a low intensity:
80% of sessions, 90% of total training time.
- It doesn't mean that everything is a recovery ride or run, but you need to know your zones and what low intensity means for you.
- It also depends on the individual!
Q (from Steve Pallidino): What is Stephen's perspective on the Kenyan distribution for half and full marathons apparently being at odds with the polarised distribution?
- There are some different findings in some cases.
Not all research on their training suggests it's polarised, but some do show that it is more pyramidal.
- However they still do have a large chunk of time at low intensity.
- There is a chart showing Eliud Kipchoge's training leading up to his world record which had his distance in each zone.
From this, it seemed that 80-85% of his training time was at low intensity, 10% moderate and 5% high.
- Similar to the previous answer, it seems that across most athletes the majority of training is at low intensity, and how you distribute the remaining time between moderate and high depends on the athlete, the discipline and the goal event.
- To summarise, it's not at all at odds, but it does vary across different athletes and disciplines.
I think the high low intensity training is a good descriptor!
Q (from Janerney): How to reconcile a polarised model with race specificity? For a lot of people like myself, or pros that will be doing a lot of high mountains, we spend a lot of race time in zone 3. Surely training in this zone intensively and adapting to this effort level is useful, and yet I think this flies in the face of polarised training?
- We discussed volume in the previous episode, with Stephen suggesting 10% of time being at not low intensity sessions. He noted that triathletes can adapt this a little.
For example, if doing 3 sessions in each discipline per week, doing 1 high intensity session in each discipline may make sense.
- You have to choose how you distribute your 'non low intensity' time - whether this is sweet sport, or above threshold etc.
- In terms of race specificity, and whether you choose to do more at your mid-zone, my perspective is that race specificity is often overrated compared to building the engine.
- For some events, building the engine and race specificity align very neatly - e.g. for a 10km runner or Olympic distance triathlete, their race specificity is ideal for building the engine.
- However for an Ironman athlete, it's not.
- I would do a lot of race specific training for an Olympic distance triathlete than an Ironman athlete.
I would do slightly more for a 70.3 athlete compared to Ironman, but still less than Olympic distance.
- For any race event, I do agree that some race specific training is helpful.
For 70.3 and Ironman I would usually prescribe race specific work in the last 4-8 weeks before a key event.
- The more experienced the athlete, I think the less specificity is needed.
A beginner long distance athlete I would give 6-8 weeks race specific training, but still with most workouts at low intensity.
Whereas someone who is a Kona contender, I would give 4-6 weeks race specific work.
- For a 'B' race, I would do less race specific work.
For my recent B race I did a bit of race specific work on the run and swim, but none on the bike - and still had a really good bike in the race.
I did a lot of training right at my threshold, which I believe is classed still as moderate intensity. I also did VO2max type sessions in that build, but no race specific intensity.
- The more experienced you are, the less you need to focus on race specificity as you've built economisation in previous builds.
- Also it doesn't really fly in the face of polarised training, it just comes back to doing enough at low intensity. You don't want to do more race specific work if it'll cut into your low intensity time.
Q (from BBarrera): Which cycling coaches have adopted polarised training, and do those coaches only use it or do they only apply it to certain phases of the training year? Would they use sweet spot or tempo training with their athletes, and if so, during what phases of the year?
- We did discuss this in the previous episode but generally yes, they do use sweet spot and tempo training as well.
- Road cycling and triathlon tends to be more pyramidal, but meaning 85/10/5 as mentioned above.
- Just to note, this is my own person perspective!
- There may be certain changes throughout the year in terms of distribution in intensity zones, but those changes are mostly about the distribution of moderate and high intensity.
- Easy training becomes even easier closer to race day.
- A good study to check out would be The Road to Gold: Training and Peaking Characteristics in the Year Prior to a Gold Medal Endurance Performance.
- This study has data from a lot of world champion and olympic champion cross country skiers and their periodisation.
It is very nuanced - it's not as if a lot is changing but you can still make changes within the parameters of that training intensity distribution.
- I'm not following the professional cycling scene very much, but the research in this space comes from elite endurance athletes who have elite endurance coaches!
- Some examples from this podcast where we've gone into detail with coaches of elite athletes show that they're using it - people such as Joel Filliol, Arlid Tveiten are using this training approach in a pyramidal way with their triathletes.
The terminology isn't always used in the same way but it's clear from the interviews that that is what they are doing.
Q (from Zombo): What evidence is there that a polarised approach is better than sweet spot and low volume (4-7 hours per week)? I don't doubt you can improve with either but which is most effective?
- There are a few studies, but we need more and better comparing different approaches directly.
There are also some flaws in the studies in amateur athletes. This means most of the evidence is anecdotal.
- It doesn't necessarily mean strictly keeping to the guidelines when you train low volume, but generally trying to keep to them - maybe spending 75-80% at low volume.
In my experience the boundaries do change a little, but I generally always follow the principle.
- Using sweet spot can be individual and comes back to what event you are training for and where you are in your training cycle.
- I think Dr Seiler would say that polarised is better than doing more at higher and moderate intensity. There's definitely a case for looking at the individual.
- Experiment with both and see what works for you.
- If you are someone who has a naturally high VLAmax, perhaps sweet spot training may be better than more high intensity training.
- If I were to plan a 5 hour training week for a cyclist I would do the following:
1 x 2 hour ride (low intensity)
1 x 1.5 hour ride (low intensity)
1 x 50 minute session (including threshold intensity or slightly above, e.g. 4 x 8 minute intervals with 2 minute recovery)
1 x 40 minute session (getting in 20 minutes at VO2max intensity)
This would give you 50 minutes of intensity at intensity (32 minutes threshold, 18 minutes VO2max), which is 17% at moderate or high intensity.
- If you're a cyclist doing 8 hours a week, two times per week will still be sweet spot work.
Scaling down polarised training to age-group athletes
Q (from Oggie): I see massive benefits in all the low intensity training, but I think polarised training has been over-hyped and doesn't scale down well to age-groupers training 6-10 hours a week. The approach Joel Filiol spoke about in his episode resonated more.
- If you're talking strictly polarised, I would agree, but I don't think that's the message we should take home. It's about doing more low intensity training.
- It's a more pyramidal approach in cycling and triathlon, with large amounts of low intensity, but including the moderate intensity as part of the quality sessions.
- If we forget about the terminology, Joel Filiol would still fall in this category.
- From a triathlon perspective, the idea of avoiding certain intensities isn't what Seiler promotes, or what would be helpful for a triathlete.
- It's a naming convention that has caused the hype, if you look past it it makes a lot of sense.
This concept is not new! Doing a large amount of low intensity training is not uncommon.
If you look at work by Arthur Lydiard, he has been doing this for years with his runners. Having 800m runners doing 180km running weeks.
- If you have low volume you may do a little more intensity proportionally.
- If you find an intervention that works in elite athletes, it's very likely that the same thing will work for athletes who are less elite.
The other way around doesn't usually work though! If you take untrained college students and find improvements from an intervention, it absolutely doesn't mean you'll find the same in elites.
Things scale down from elite to amateurs far better than things would scale up.
- The difference between elites and amateurs can be over-exaggerated at times.
- Personally, I've had as low as 70% of my training at low intensity, and while I may have had good results in the short term, I've then had overtraining issues.
In hindsight I think I would have seen more improvements if I spent more time doing low intensity training.
Doing hard workouts well
Q (from Sryke): How intense should intense days be?
- You don't have to really kill yourself.
- Dr Seiler noted that they've found being at 90% of maximum heart rate and accumulating minutes here is highly beneficial.
The 4 x 8 minute workout can be ideal for this.
- In their studies they also measure the RPE of the athletes and it's not all out - it's lower than sessions such as 4 x 4 minutes at a higher intensity.
- From my perspective, you should go hard but almost never puke hard - you should almost always feel like there is a little left in the tank.
- Personally I've used this more this year and it's really worked for me.
I don't put pressure on myself to always do better in a workout than I did before, and I'm fitter than ever at the moment.
I'm training less with a group and racing people and myself less than before, as I don't think that was beneficial at all.
- Bigger blocks of training are absolutely more important than single sessions, look at the big picture.
Q (from Arnauld Dely): What are the best three training sessions for swim, bike and running?
- There are no magic sessions, but the concept he prescribes a lot involves accumulating minutes at a high intensity, but an intensity that allows you to keep going for 30-40 minutes.
This usually ends up being 90% of heart rate max as an average.
- If you compare this to your threshold power or pace, it should be around there but not at VO2max.
- The 4 x 8 minute workout is a perfect example.
In Seiler's research they had 2 minute recoveries. I personally use 4 minute recoveries and I find this works better for me.
- For running, your 10km race pace is good if you are a sub-45 minute 10km runner.
If you're a slower runner then between your 5 and 10km race pace.
Q (from Webbierex): How do you combine weight training with high intensity training? Does weight training count in the high intensity quota?
- I'm not sure what Stephen would say on this so this is my personal perspective.
- For me it's neither high or low intensity training.
It is training, and I count it in my weekly hours, but it doesn't affect the amount of low or high intensity that I'm doing.
- When I calculate my training intensity distributions, as I use only my swim, bike and run training for this.
- In terms of structuring it in the weekly plan, I try and keep it away from my easy days to ensure they remain truly easy.
Q (From Webbierex): What is Dr Seiler's opinion on the efficacy of micro-intervals (e.g. 30 seconds on, 15 seconds off x 10) instead of solid blocks of 8 minutes.
- Based on some of the things we discussed in the episode, I think I can say that Stephen prefers the solid blocks of training.
- However, I don't know his opinion of micro intervals.
- I think micro intervals can be really useful but it depends on the context and the objective.
- I recommend listening to the episode with Paul Lauren on the application of high intensity interval training.
- Personally I don't think they're as useful as longer blocks (e.g. 6 x 4 minutes, 5 x 3 minutes), but they can be beneficial.
- It may be helpful if you're a single sport athlete where you have multiple high intensity sessions to have micro-intervals.
- The strain from micro-intervals is slightly less than the longer blocks, but the effectiveness may also be slightly less.
- It may help during a heavy block of training though where you may find them easier to handle and recover from.
Q (from unknown): How much intensity mid and high zone combined is too much, both in terms of training stress and cumulative duration?
- Dr Seiler's research suggests that 80% of sessions and 90% of time should be low intensity.
- I personally prefer to use the time based distribution for triathletes.
- It's just a matter of calibrating how much training your doing, and working out 10% of that.
That's your quota for high intensity training, which includes both moderate and high.
- I would give some leeway to low volume athletes though. 80% of low intensity work is probably fine, and you'll be able to handle that well.
- In short crash blocks you can get away with doing more high intensity, and then take an easy block of training to recover and adapt to that stimulus (e.g. an intensity camp).
This works acutely but you don't want to do it for too long.
- It's also better to err on the side of caution and not over-do it and become over-trained, because you lose so much more if you cross this line.
- The longer the perspective the more it becomes important to have enough low intensity training.
E.g. looking back on your month should ideally converge to high low intensity training.
Doing easy workouts well
Q: Which would be preferable, 1 x 4-hour ride on the weekend, or 2 x 3-hour rides back to back on the weekend, and why?
- I can only answer this for myself, not for Dr Seiler.
- My opinion is absolutely 2 x 3-hour rides.
3 hours is already a good duration do getting in an extra hour to make it 4 would be good, but not better than the upside of doing 2 x 3-hours - which you gives 50% more total volume.
Q (from Anthony Lane): Is the aerobic work that makes up the low intensity always the same? For example, is it always to do a 2-4 hour ride at your low intensity heart rate, or does it vary from week to week?
- My impression from what Seiler himself does in his training is that all of his low intensity rides are quite long rides.
- My personal perspective is mixing the low intensity work into three categories: recovery workouts, easy endurance (zone 1/2 in a 5 zone model), and LT1 (extensive endurance, done around the first lactate threshold for parts of the session).
For example a LT1 session in a marathon block might be a 2.5 hour run with 1.5 hours at LT1 heart rate.
This might be sandwiched between two 30 minute blocks at very easy intensity.
- The duration of these workouts would differ, you could have something as short as a 20 minute run or 30 minute ride for the recovery segment.
You could also have something as long as a 4-5 hour ride for the easy endurance or LT1 workouts.
- They serve slightly different purposes, but they all serve the purpose of building a strong aerobic base through building biological durability and fatigue resistance.
- The majority of my rides in the build up to my recent race was generally a one hour easy ride, done at 150 watts, generally at 100bpm.
This is in contrast to the 4 x 8 or 9 minutes I did at or slightly above or below my second threshold. In those I'd be around 150bpm, 280-290 watts indoors and 310-320 watts outdoors.
THere's a massive difference in power and heart rate for the easy workouts, but they still add up!
Time crunched age-groupers
Q (from Csaba Szappanos): Does a polarised approach differ for age groupers having 7-10 hours per week to train? Do they need more intensity, more easy, or the same percentages?
- From Seiler's perspective the answer would likely be that it's the same - and he's done a lot of research with amateur athletes.
- My personal perspective and experience is that it's almost the same, but there's some flexibility there.
I would give a bit of leeway for a higher percentage at high intensity, and the lower the volume the bigger the leeway.
For 12 hours a week I'd give very little leeway, but for 7 hours a week I'd consider 80% at low intensity rather than 90%.
- Personally I'm around 85% but I train 20 hours per week. My swim skews the results because the bike is 90% low intensity, the run is 87% low intensity and the swim is 79% low intensity.
Interestingly the swim went the worst for me in the race!
Mikael's personal case example
- My personal example was from the lead up to the Setubal triathlon half distance race - the long distance season opener in Portugal!
- I was sick in late February for 10-12 days, so the first week included here is my first week back to normal training (4th March), and the last week is the race week (8th April).
In preceding weeks I included races in the calculations, but in the final week I only include Monday to Saturday training, not the race itself.
- So it was a 6 week block of training minus race day - 41 days total.
- I've been calculating my time in zones for this block, not the sessions.
- A typical week for me would be 4-5 swims, 2 being intense swims:
1 would be VO2 max (e.g. 12 x 100 or 8 x 150 on 2:1 work to rest ratio).
1 would be a threshold session (e.g. 10 x 200, 5 x 400), usually 1800-200m total work which is 30 minutes total work at threshold, typically with short recovery (e.g. 20s)
- On the bike I usually did 1 long ride (4-5) hours and 1 VO2max session (usually 2-3 minute intervals), so 15-20 minutes at intensity.
I did do some 4 minute intervals earlier in the year and the block, but not much in this final 6-week run up to the race.
I also did a session which typically targeted threshold, which I categorised as moderate intensity (e.g. 4 x 8, 4 x 9 - 30-45 minutes of intensity).
5-6 rides per week all at low intensity.
- For the run, at the start of the block I did one above threshold session 4 x 8 minute or 3 x 10 minute sessions, trying to get 30-40 minutes of work.
I did a long run which was 1 hour 45 - 2 hours long.
I also ran 6 times per week almost all weeks.
I did do brick runs but never intense ones, it was all easy collecting minutes and low intensity.
In weeks 3 and 2 leading up to the race I added a second intense run. It was a tempo run, 30 minutes continuous running slightly above my open half marathon race pace.
- Looking at my intensity distributions across those six weeks:
For the swim, 39% low, 40% moderate and 7% high intensity. I estimate that moderate intensity is 10% faster, and high is 15% faster than low intensity.
For the bike I did 87% of my work at low intensity, 10% at moderate and 3% at high intensity.
For the run I did 83% at low intensity, 11% at moderate intensity and 6% at high intensity. This is because the threshold workouts on the run were slightly above threshold.
- So when you sum up all of my work I did 84% at low intensity, 11% at moderate intensity and 5% at high intensity.
High low intensity training with a pyramidal approach that works well for triathlon.
- In the weeks, I have some that are 88% at low intensity, and some weeks that are as little as 79% at low intensity (this was during a race week).
- I did tune up races which were included in these calculations - one duathlon and one Olympic distance triathlon, which meant that those weeks skipped an intense run or intense bike.
This still made the distribution a bit different to normal.
- This made my variation around 10% between weeks.
- My lowest high intensity week was 1% and my highest was 7%.
- My lowest moderate intensity was 8% and I did that for 3 out of the 6 weeks, and my highest moderate intensity was 20% - this was the week I did the Olympic distance race which is almost all at moderate intensity.
- The race at the end of this 6 week block went really well!
For the swim I was 36th out of 700ish participants
I was 7th after the bike, and ended 5th after the run.
I ran nearly close to my 1:19 half marathon PB.
- The bike was also excellent, low 2:30's, 255 normalised power at a weight of 67/68kg and one of the fastest bikes of the day. It was also on a difficult course to hold high normalised power, not your typical half Ironman course.
- I was really happy with the results and this training has been working much better for me.
It feels more sustainable.
I do less VO2max work on the run which I'm coping much better with. I have done a single puke workout in this build!
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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