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Luca Filipas, PhD, is a researcher at the University of Milan and an endurance sports coach of professional and amateur runners, cyclists, and triathletes. In this interview, we discuss his recent study comparing polarised, pyramidal, and combined POL-PYR or PYR-POL training intensity distributions, and the applications of this research in planning a periodised endurance training plan.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How combining pyramidal and polarised training blocks (in that specific order) may be a more effective periodisation scheme to optimise endurance performance
- How the goal event (e.g. 5k vs. marathon running) might influence and change these findings
- The alignment of a pyramidal-polarised periodisation with classic tapering and peaking research
- Periodisation across a season: the importance of downtime and careful race planning
- Luca's coaching methodology and top tips for endurance athletes
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- I am a PhD researcher at the University of Milan. I completed my PhD in endurance training.
- I am primarily a researcher and an endurance coach for triathletes, cyclists, and runners.
Summary of Luca's study
- It was complicated to complete this study, where we did a training intervention, so it was challenging to do it because doing research with high-level athletes involves a lot of commitments.
- Previous research on training intensity distribution had limitations because they only compared static training intensities.
- Therefore, in our study, we wanted to combine two different types of intensity distribution.
- Training intensity distribution consists of when HR stays at different training zone intensities.
- We typically have zone one below the first ventilatory threshold. Zone two is between the first and second thresholds, and zone three is above the second ventilatory threshold.
- The two primarily training intensity distributions are polarised and pyramidal.
- A polarised method is a training intensity distribution where the time in zone one is larger than the time in zone three. Time in zone three is higher than time in zone two.
- Pyramidal is when the time in zone two is higher than in zone three.
- Previous studies compared polarised against pyramidal or traditional training intensity distributions. It also compared periods of high volume versus periods of high intensity.
- However, when you see a training program, there are changes in the methodologies from beginning to end.
- Endurance athletes often go from high volume and low intensity at the beginning of the preparation to a more pyramidal approach during the pre-competition period.
- In the end, they present a polarised training intensity distribution during the competition phase.
- This methodology is what athletes do more regularly.
- Therefore, we wanted to evaluate if this approach was the most appropriate to the performance and physiological adaptations.
Methodology of the study
- We recruited 16 well-trained athletes with VO2max around 65-70 mL/kg-min. Thus, they were high-level athletes.
- Their personal bests were between 15-16:30 in the 5 km distance.
- Therefore, doing a controlled intervention for 16 well-trained runners was demanding. This aspect is why these studies are not common in the literature because it is difficult to control the program for 16 weeks.
- We divided the athletes randomly into four different groups.
- The first grout did all 16 weeks of the pyramidal training intensity distribution.
- The second group did 16 weeks of the polarised training intensity distribution.
- The two other groups combined both methodologies.
- One group did eight weeks of pyramidal and eight weeks of the polarised training intensity distribution.
- The last group did eight weeks of polarised and eight weeks of the pyramidal training intensity distribution.
- All groups did a six-week preparation before the 16 weeks intervention to familiarise them with the training methodologies.
- We did a pre-test before the intervention and did another two tests in the middle and end.
- The tests were a 5 km time trial, a blood lactate test and a VO2max test.
- We organised the 16 weeks in four mesocycles of four weeks.
- All groups did three weeks of load, followed by a taper week.
- Athletes trained six times per week, and the training volume was around 400 minutes per week (80-100 km per week). It was similar to what they did before the study.
Results concerning performance
- All groups improved their performance. However, one group improved more than the others.
- The pyramidal to polarised group improved more than the other by 0.5 %.
- All groups improved performance by 1-1.5 % from pre- post-test.
- The speed associated with the lactate threshold also improved more in the pyramidal to the polarised group.
- The VO2max changes did not vary between groups, so VO2max might not change with only 16 weeks of training intervention.
- Therefore, VO2max at this level is not a predictor of performance.
Results extrapolated to other racing distances
- If we analysed training intensity distribution, the results would be different.
- This study has a takehome message that intensity can guide participants' fitness levels.
- Going from low to high intensity throughout the program is the best method to train endurance athletes.
- The training intensity at the end of the program will depend on the intensity of the race.
- If you are training for a 5 km race, going from pyramidal to polarised is a good option because, in the end, you are doing the specific sessions.
- If you are preparing for a marathon, you will race in zone two. Therefore, the best approach should be to go from low to higher intensity throughout the training block. However, you might have to start at a lower intensity than preparing for a 5 km.
- In the end, you might train similarly to a pyramidal training intensity distribution, with a higher percentage of time spent in zone two.
- For example, in the beginning, you can start with 90 % in zone one and 10 % in zone two.
- At the end of the preparation, you might get to 80 % zone one and 15 % zone two and 5 % zone three.
- You increase the intensity, but the pattern changes.
- In theory, the time spent in Zone 2 is low with polarised training. We applied a "real" polarised training plan that participants could easily apply for our study. (we kept a minimum level of zone 2 training)
- In our study, we did 80 % in zone 1, 4-6 % in zone 2 and 14-16 % in zone 3.
- For the pyramidal, we did 77 % of training in zone 1, 17 % in zone 2 and 6-7 % in zone 3.
Best practices of peaking for a race
- Keeping the intensity high at the end of the training program improves performance, similar to other literature on tapering.
- If we reduce 40-60 % in volume without changes in training intensity, we will taper in the best way.
- During the last weeks of the training intervention, polarised training kept the intensity high. I believe that is the reason for the performance boost at the end of the training program.
- The relative intensity was higher relative to the pyramidal group. It is why we find the differences between the group that changed from pyramidal to polarised because they increased the intensity over the training program (it was higher at the end of the training protocol)
- You have to increase the intensity over the training program and keep the same intensity at the taper, only reducing the volume before the race.
Applying the training protocol during a season
- At the beginning of the season, you have to decide how many peaks you want.
- The most common is having two or three peaks in a season.
- Therefore, you have to break your season after each peak. You go from low to high intensity and peak.
- Then, do a transition period and start with a base period again.
- You have to break down the protocol even if you are training for a race in 12 months.
- Otherwise, the training is too long, and the risk of overtraining or injury is higher.
- One interesting topic about the covid period was that doing extensive training without racing for elite athletes was helpful because they often spend much time racing and recovering from racing.
- In that way, they built a strong base, and the results were better during the summer.
- In the Tour de France, they broke many records on climbs in that year, so it explains well how to do a proper base period.
Reasons for VO2max not being a good performance indicator
- VO2max is the maximum oxygen consumption, measuring how big your engine is.
- Therefore, it is not the most critical metric for competition because you can only maintain the velocity associated with VO2max for a short period. Often, you do not need this power in a more extended competition.
- You have to go at the highest VO2max percentage you can maintain for that period of the race.
- If you are doing a marathon, you are trying to use the highest fractional utilisation of VO2max for that marathon.
- Suppose your VO2max is 80 mL/kg-min, you will run at a lower level of your VO2max, and you aim to run at a higher VO2 than another runner with the same VO2max.
- It is crucial for shorter races (1500 m) but less fundamental for longer races.
- Of course, you cannot be a professional athlete with a 60 mL/kg-min VO2max.
- To run a 2h05 marathon, you need a higher VO2. If your limit is 60 mL, you know you cannot reach that level. But when athletes have an excellent VO2max, the critical metrics are the movement's thresholds and economy.
- You do not need to know if you have 75 or 78 mL/min-kg. If you can do 300 W for 60 min, and after you can do 350 W for 60 min, you know you are getting better.
- Of course, that VO2max will improve if we increase our power for 60 minutes.
Take-home messages from this study
- For endurance competition (middle distance to 5 km), moving from pyramidal to polarised training improves performance.
- Going from low to high-intensity at the end of the block is the best way to improve performance.
- For all endurance competitions, you do not need to have changes in VO2max to improve performance.
- Submaximal changes are enough to obtain improved results.
Lucas' coaching philosophy
- I usually train based on the evidence from the literature.
- We found in the study what I usually do during my training.
- Typically, I do a big base block of training. Inigo San Milan talks a lot about the importance of zone 2 (on a 5 zone training model).
- Therefore, I prescribe high volume low intensity at the beginning of the preparation and then move to specific training intensity, going from the base to the peak of performance.
- I also apply a micro-periodisation in my training program because I believe having a fixed approach of three weeks of load and one week of taper is overrated.
- You need to check if athletes need to recover based on metrics like HRV or RPE. In this way, you can give shorter taper periods, and then you can start again doing a block of training.
- The overcompensation that people think happens at the end of the taper period is more extensive than what happens.
- Suppose you do a high-intensity session today and do a couple of easy training days. In that case, your body is ready to perform again at a maximum level to reach another stimulus and do another high-intensity session.
- Therefore, I do not see a reason for a fixed approach to training.
- So, I do one day of high-intensity and two or three days of lower intensity training. (until the athlete reaches a state of overreaching or just fatigue)
How long athletes can maintain training before overreaching
- Variability is very high. So that is why I apply this approach because you cannot standardise the time of the taper and the week of low load.
- The training characteristics of the athlete and the athlete's life outside training will affect the need for recovery.
- We usually only consider training, but amateur athletes might also do 13 000 steps each day, which will affect their fatigue at the end of a training program.
- Runners need to recover more than cyclists and swimmers because the impacts when running are higher.
- They need recovery after a couple of weeks. I have seen swimmers doing a perfect micro-periodisation for six or seven weeks without having any perception of fatigue.
- It varies from athlete to athlete, their discipline and their daily life.
- An article compares the training intensity distribution of different athletes over 24h, and they achieve different results for the same training protocol.
- People spend a lot of time in zone 2, running to take the bus or taking the steps to their apartment. One athlete would only train and rest, and another would do 14 000 steps and 2-3 % in zone 2.
Training for events of different durations
- Training volume matters when you think about different disciplines.
- I believe volume is a crucial variable for training. It changes from 5 km to a marathon, but I think athletes also need a high volume of training for 5 km races.
- Moreover, I believe the specificity of the training program also plays a role. You have to train a lot at your specific race intensity, but mainly during the specific period.
- The best way to do it is to start with more intervals at your race pace and extend the intensity.
- For example, for the marathon, you can start with 4x3km at marathon intensity and achieve 6x4 km at your marathon pace at the end of the block. You can also start with 5x2 km at your marathon intensity and finish with 4x6 km at your marathon pace.
- This approach of matching the race intensity is crucial for running because you run at a steady pace.
- It is different in cycling, and it is essential to do more short intervals than running because changes in power happen more often.
- In cycling, you can maintain your cadence at different power outputs. In the running, you cannot do this.
Three pieces of advice for endurance athletes to improve their performance
- The first is training volume. If you can increase your volume gradually during your competitive career, you can improve your performance.
- You also need to maximise your availability in terms of time to do more volume. You have to be aware of possible injuries, so address your biomechanics before changing your training.
- The second thing is to give your body enough time to recover after each interval session. I am not a fan of doing extensive blocks of high-intensity sessions.
- Your body cannot improve when tired, so it is better to give enough time to recover and do the next high-intensity session when you are ready.
- The final tip is to start at a low intensity and move to a higher relative intensity until the end of the periodisation. During this, I believe you have to select the suitable races during the season to allow the body to make this approach.
- Therefore, I am not a fan of doing a lot of races at the beginning of the base period because races are high-intensity stimuli, so they need to be at the end of the preparation.
- This approach can help you peak at the exact moment you need to be in top shape.
Research project Luca is working on academically
- We are working on determinants of cycling performance, and we are trying to publish a couple of papers on the periodisation of world-class cyclists.
- We have data from World Tour teams from a colleague from Spain, so we are trying to do an observational study comparing the top 10 Grand Tour finishers in their training approach to these races.
- To peak in a Grand Tour, these athletes have to manage the races carefully throughout the year.
- The intensity of training increases over time, but they put the higher intensity at the end, which correlates with races.
- For cycling, there is nothing better than doing intensity during races.
- Therefore, in preparation for a Grand Tour, these athletes do a block of 2-3 stage races in preparation for the target event.
- We recently published a study comparing junior, under 23 and elite cyclists from a racing view. In some weeks, we will publish the training differences between athletes.
- We wanted to apply a different approach to other researchers on the Grand Tour paper because we did multiple case studies, and we do not want to do mean or standard deviation to compare these case studies.
- We want to present what these athletes do because coaches must see what they do by themselves. (the approach, volume, training patterns, distributions and races)
- Therefore, it is better to present each athlete separately.
One sports science area underappreciated by the regular audience that Luca uses in his training approach
- Concerning research, I believe low-intensity training research needs more development.
- We have essential studies on high-intensity training but little research on low-intensity training sessions.
- I believe this approach should change, and our research group will research this topic.
- You spend 70-90 minutes at a low intensity during training, and we do not know a lot about this kind of activity.
- We usually compare high-intensity with continuous steady-state training.
- Few studies compare zone one and two in a five-zone model or go a bit higher than the first ventilatory threshold. We need to know what happens physiologically, hormonally and from a central nervous system perspective.
- I try to evaluate the athletes and check the first ventilatory threshold in my coaching. When you do easy training, it is crucial to go below that level.
- And it is not essential to train far from this threshold, but of course, after a high-intensity session, you can go further below the VT1. (I allow my athletes to go easier)
- Suppose you are far from a high-intensity session. In that case, I go more specific and put my athletes to ride closer to the first ventilatory threshold and then do another moderate to a high-intensity session on the following day.
Rapid fire questions
What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes by Phillip Skiba
What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
For coaching, you have to be "a psychologist" for athletes. Therefore, communication with the athletes is essential to get the best training program possible results. Psychological knowledge is the link between coaching and research experience.
Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
My supervisor for the PhD, Antonio de la Torre, is now the head of track and field athletics at the Italian Athletics Federation. He inspired me throughout my career as a coach and a researcher. The other people that inspire me are the top researchers in sports physiology.
LINKS AND RESOURCES:
- Luca's website, Instagram, Twitter and Research Gate
- Effects of 16 weeks of pyramidal and polarized training intensity distributions in well-trained endurance runners - Filipas et al. 2021
- The training intensity distribution among well-trained and elite endurance athletes - Stöggl and Sperlich 2015
- The integration of training and off-training activities substantially alters training volume and load analysis in elite rowers - Treff et al. 2021
- Tapering, periodisation and recovery with Iñigo Mujika, PhD | EP#256
- Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes with Dr. Philip Skiba | EP#311