I recently began a lecture by flashing a number prominently on the screen: 314. I addressed the audience saying, “This number is really important to me.”
I watched them engage in mental acrobatics to figure out what is so special about 314… Is it a target for FTP?
I quickly let them off the hook, “This is the number of workouts I completed last year.”
A recipe for performance
As athletes, we have access to an unprecedented amount of data, which can make it really hard to see the forest for the trees. I’ve been an endurance athlete for many years, and despite all of my own research, it has taken me a long time to identify the recipe for endurance training:
And the order conveys the importance. To build a foundation for performance, you have to start with frequency. Once I have built up both the habit of getting out the door “X” times per week, and the ability to recover and manage the stress of this habit in my life, only then can I start lengthening some of these training sessions. After I extend the duration—and I am able to recover and manage the stress of this habit in my life—from there, I can begin to work in more intensity.
Where athletes go wrong
Most ambitious athletes do not follow the recipe for performance. In fact, they tend to invert it:
Problems begin to arise when athletes overdo intensity or duration. The first thing to suffer is frequency, that is, they cannot train as much as they are likely fatigued, under-recovered or even injured.
If you look at the most successful athletes (whether that’s juniors, pros, or top age groupers) they all have one thing in common: they are able to consistently manage the stress of their training with minimal setbacks or missed/failed hard sessions because they’ve undertaken their easier, low-intensity workouts at the correct intensity. Polarized training puts guardrails around the risks inherent to endurance sports, particularly as it relates to overreaching. We see the vast majority of professional athletes follow this polarized approach, so why is it that so many age groupers and recreational athletes don’t train like this too?
Too much of a good thing
Exercise can be addictive, especially for endurance athletes. It’s the higher intensities that release those hurt-so-good feelings. But as we continue to chase that high-intensity “high,” we end up falling into the addiction trap. We must continue to up-regulate our intake or exertion to get the same feeling. Unfortunately, that feeling in the brain is not correlated with adaptations in the body. As athletes, we want to maximize adaptation, not feelings. Meanwhile, there’s feedback that we are ignoring, problems that are brewing, and our body ends up regulating things in a downward direction. The brain gets mixed up. Now instead of our max heart rate getting higher, it’s trending down. Eventually, we will not be able to work as hard on those high-intensity intervals because we’ve not managed our training stress well. We end up overloading the system and compromising it.
The good news is that when we consider the various addictions we can fall prey to, exercise is one of the easier addictions to address, at least physically. Your body can undergo a “receptor reset” relatively quickly.
A system reset rooted in science
The bigger challenge is likely mental. We have to let go of the “no pain, no gain” mentality; the idea that if we don’t “seek” and even double down on the “pain” part of exercise, we are somehow weak-minded. These ideas are baked into our culture, not science. It’s culture that set us up to overindulge in those “kind of hard” threshold training sessions.
I have good news for you. You can have your cake and eat it too. In other words, you can both get faster and smile and enjoy the training process. When you can manage your training stress in such a way that you can create a dichotomy between big volumes of work at a comfortable, low-stress pace and a small, but potent load of high-intensity work (high stress and recovery demand/high adaptive signal workouts), you are setting the table for consistency and progression.
Here’s a tell-tale sign that you are getting polarized training right: You reach the end of the day and forget that you worked out. Meaning this: You can’t feel that two-hour low-intensity ride you did, and you flinch a little… Wait! Did I work out this morning?
So many athletes will tell me that they finish these long zone 1 workouts feeling better than when they started. This is how we know we are winning at recovery—and it takes discipline to get it right.
Converting to a polarized training model might require you to reset your system, both physically and mentally, but years of research and practical feedback from athletes of all abilities tells me that you will find the challenge pays off in the long run.