How Polarized Training Can Save You From Overreaching

It can be very easy to train at a moderate intensity all the time, which can be a surefire way to land in an overreached state. Polarized training can help prevent that—and in this video, Dr. Seiler explains how.

Pathways Logo graphic interpreting polarized training method as 80/20 mix of intensities, from green to yellow/red

Interested in checking out the Marit Bjørgen case study Dr. Stephen Seiler references in this video? See it in Frontiers: The Training Characteristics of the World’s Most Successful Female Cross-Country Skier.

Video Transcript

The Importance of Discipline

Do you have research that backs up the importance of discipline? Taking that step back, and doing what is the right thing to do, not necessarily just the thing that feels good in the moment?

Marit Bjørgen Case Study

Well, it’s the elite athletes and every athlete is an N of one. But, there’s been some case studies and one of the most beautiful case studies is a Norwegian cross country skier.

She’s the all-time Winter Olympian with Olympic medals, World Cup wins and so forth, named Marit Bjørgen. Her case study, I can strongly recommend, it’s free to read, it’s in Frontiers, and it’s her whole career. But what it shows is a wonderfully talented athlete that wins her first World Championship at a very young age, but she’s doing a lot of high intensity work, about 100 hours a year. It turns out to be not sustainable, and she starts breaking down, and so three to four years after that first World Championships, she’s about, she’s ready to retire. It’s because it’s just not happening, and then she has to just do a reset and go back to basics, reduce the high intensity component, increase the low intensity component, get herself back in a sustainable physiological flow. Then, she just starts winning, and winning and winning, and has a five-year period where no winter athlete has ever won more. It really is interesting, because it wasn’t a massive change. It was a fairly modest change. But it was so critical to her coming into a sustainable physiological state where she stayed healthy, she could mobilize, she could hit those big gears, attacked the hills, and win against the best in the world, versus be a number five, fallen off the podium.

There are many examples of that, where athletes have gotten too hungry, they get overreached, they try to solve a problem by doubling down on intensity, this is a very common thing to do: “If it’s not going well, I need to train harder.”

The athlete is motivated, and it’s not going to be an issue, they’re not going to let failure to work hard be the problem. It ends up being the problem because they work too hard. That happens also to those of us who are recreational athletes, it’s no pain, no gain. We go out there with great intentionality, to do good things and work hard, and that’s going to take us to the top, but we just beat ourselves up every day. It starts out, we get a nice improvement, and then we stagnate. Then for a lot of people, we even will get a dip, will start going down the wrong direction. Then we’ll beat ourselves up even more by going even harder, until we just blow up, until we just say, “I don’t think I should cycle anymore, I’m just terrible at this.” Then some of them, some of us learn to do a reset, and say, “wait a minute, I think maybe I better go look on the internet and see what’s going on.”

That’s when I get a lot of people that will start emailing saying, “Well, I’ve been doing this and this and I’m exhausted, and do you have any advice?”

Timeframe for Success with New Training Habits

What’s the time course that we see for changes? If somebody starts adopting these principles, are they automatically a better, faster athlete next week? Does it take a month, a year? What’s the timeframe?

I think it’s almost like an addiction issue, that if you’re trying to come off of an addiction, I don’t have a lot of experience with it. But, let’s say you’re addicted to caffeine, probably most of us are that are listening to this video. If you were trying to stop that, you would not feel better immediately. The first week would just suck, because your brain is used to a certain kind of stimuli. What we see with athletes they’ll say, this was tough, because it didn’t feel right. I’m so used to being able to get that adrenaline surge and now you want me to stay a little bit under that radar for at least most workouts. Then they’ll say yeah, but after about four weeks I started feeling you know, oh, now I’m getting now these hard, high-intensity sessions are starting to really rock for me. I’m starting to be able to push and I feel good and so I’m in this flow. That’s usually what I would hear from athletes is it takes a few weeks to because they have to re-calibrate and they have to find the discipline in it because their their instinct will be to push back up, they won’t be able to let easy stay easy.

Believe me, it’s the same for me. I’m supposed to be an expert on it, and I do exactly the same thing sometimes. Very often, what we find is that recreational cyclist runners, they do not have very good metabolic control. When we do so-called lactate profiles on these athletes that are very often doing a lot of training kind of in the threshold range. Almost every day, they’re just, that’s where they end up, because they’re in group rides, are kind of halfwheeling each other into a state of submission. Every workout ends up being semi-hard. Well, those athletes, when we do lactate profiles on them, they don’t have a very nice profile in the sense that they don’t have that very flat lactate, low lactate period that then breaks cleanly, when they hit a certain point. They have this profile that just kind of goes up, up, up, up, up, and they’re already at two millimolar from the first get go. Then, when we get them to start being more disciplined, and they keep low, low, and then they do you know they have good quality in the high intensity sessions, it takes a few weeks. But then when we go back and look at lactate again, now it starts to look a lot better. It starts to look like at least in the shape of the high performance athletes. They’re still not producing the same powers, but they’re at least starting to get metabolic control. So we can see this in the course of six or seven weeks of a training study.

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