Polarized Training Throughout the Season

Coach Trevor Connor details how to apply the polarized training method and distribute intensity across your entire season.

At Fast Talk Labs, we are proponents of the polarized training model popularized by Dr. Stephen Seiler. In this workshop, Coach Trevor Connor explores how you can polarize your training through the season.

He starts with a brief explanation of the polarized model, before discussing how the distribution of training intensity can shift throughout the season, while staying within the parameters of the polarized approach.

Finally, using a yearly training plan, he walks through how that looks across a season.

Video Transcript

Chris Case  00:00

At Fast Talk Labs, we’re big believers in the polarized training model popularized by Dr. Stephen Seiler. In today’s workshop, Trevor and I are going to help you apply that training method across your season.

 

Trevor Connor  00:10

The polarized model does involve a mix of slow and high-intensity all year long, but that mix is going to change from the base season to when you’re doing final prep for that big event.

 

Chris Case  00:20

Let’s dive into polarized training.

 

Chris Case  00:32

Welcome to Fast Talk Laboratories, your source for the science of endurance performance.

 

Trevor Connor  00:42

So, let’s dive into polarized training. Now, we are going to cover briefly, the basics of polarized but really what we’re trying to do here is explain, how do you approach it through your season? What does it look like in the base season versus the height of your race season? That said, let’s take a quick look at what we’re talking about when we mean polarized training.

 

Defining Polarized Training

Trevor Connor  01:04

So, here, we have a couple graphs, I stole these right out of a couple of Dr. Seiler studies, and if you’re interested, the references are down here. This is basically your three-zone model. So, if you did a lactate test, which is this line here, what you would see is three zones. So, zone one is when you really see your lactate levels being pretty level, not really rising. So, that’s your really low-intensity, there’s a certain point where right about here, as you can see where you’re going to start to see lactates rise up, and that’s called LT1 or VT1, that’s the start of what’s in the scientific literature is called your threshold zone, because on the other end of this right around, so this would be around four millimoles, there are different ways of identifying this exact spot on your lactate curve. It’s also called the anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold, we’re just going to call it MLSS, LT2, or VT2. So, you’ll hear a lot of people talk about VT1, VT2, or LT1, LT2, that range in the middle is your zone two, and then everything above that anaerobic threshold, that’s your zone three. So, it’s a pretty simple model. What’s really nice about it, is it based purely on physiology, you’re taking two key points that can be identified in a lactate curve, and saying, what’s below? What’s in the middle? what’s above? If you look at these two different graphs over here, where do you see it as this is the polarized model, so in zone one, you’re doing upwards of 90% of your time, in zone one, you are doing in very little time, maybe five, six, seven percent in that zone two, and then the rest, so upwards of eight, nine, to twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen percent in zone three.

 

Trevor Connor  02:59

Another model that you hear about a lot is that sweet spot model, those of us who are less inclined towards it will call that no man’s land, but it’s the exact opposite, you spend most of your time right in that middle zone.

 

Chris Case  03:12

So, just to clarify, for the polarized model, it’s polarized, because there’s a lot on one end, and there’s a lot on the other end, and there’s not that much in the middle, correct?

 

Trevor Connor  03:21

A whole bunch of time on the pulls not a lot of time in the middle.

 

Chris Case  03:24

Very good.

 

Trevor Connor  03:24

Where the sweet spot, their argument is right in this middle zone is where you are going to see the most adaptations to the most systems get the most bang for the buck, so the sweet spot model says that’s where you should be focusing your time. They’ll tell you spending a whole lot of time here, you’re not going to see a lot of adaptation, so why would you do that?

 

Chris Case  03:44

Right. But we don’t necessarily believe that way?

 

Trevor Connor  03:47

We don’t fully agree with it actually, as you know, we just did a podcast on this talking about how much high-intensity work should you do, and really gave that explanation for why you want to keep this lower? Why you need this? We really didn’t go into this zone very much, but what you see, so the whole basis behind this polarized model, what do you see is the top-level endurance athletes just don’t spend a lot of time there. What you see more with them is that’s just an area where you’re probably building up a lot of fatigue, you’re building up a lot of what’s called autonomic stress, and you’re just not getting the same gains out of it. That’s the counterargument.

 

Chris Case  04:27

Yeah, very good. All right, so explain this graph that we’re looking at here.

 

Basics of Polarized Training

Trevor Connor  04:32

So, again, this graph, you get to see your three zones down here, it’s going to show you again, that polarized approach to spending most of your time in zone one, a decent amount of time and zone three, and not a lot of time and zone two. What’s different here is you see three different ways of looking at it, and the two I want to focus on are time and zone and session goals. So, Dr. Seiler, when he did the initial research, he was really looking at session goals. The idea being, you go out, you do an interval workout, that whole workout counts as part of zone three if you go out and do a long ride that’s got some climbing in it, even if your heart rate goes into that zone two goes into that zone three briefly, which you probably shouldn’t be doing, if you’re trying to do a long, slow ride, all the same, the whole ride is going to count towards zone one. So, that’s the session goal, time and zone is we are actually measuring this or either measuring your heart rate or measuring your power. So, if you did interval session, still very little of that is actually going to count towards zone three because it’s only those times when you’re going really hard. So, you can see time and zone, you’re upwards of 90% in zone one, and not really a ton in these zones. It actually in this model, you see what’s called more of a pure middle approach, which is a ton of time and zone one, a little bit of time and zone two, and the least amount of time and zone three, because if you go and do a killer interval workout, let’s say you’re going out and doing Tabatas, 20/10s, you do three sets of that anybody can tell you, you’re gonna be limping home for that.

 

Chris Case  06:09

Right.

 

Trevor Connor  06:10

But you add that up, you’re spending six minutes at intensity.

 

Chris Case  06:15

And the rest of that ride doesn’t count, but the six minutes is the only portion that’s counted.

 

Trevor Connor  06:20

The other thing to be careful about here, because I’ve had people look at distributions of heart rates or distribution of power and go, oh, I’m not polarized at all. But think about it, you’re doing those Tabatas, it’s gonna take a while for your heart rate to get up, and if you’re doing this by heart rate, you’re actually going to see a fair amount of time in zone two, even though you’re putting out 500-600-watts, you finish those intervals, and you drop your power down to 90-watts, you’re still going to see again, a fair amount of time with your heart rate in that zone two. So, I will tell you, if you are actually recording heart rate, and doing your distribution by heart rate, it’s very hard not to look pyramidal, because of all these reasons you’re gonna see heart rate dip into that zone two. So, that’s why Dr. Seiler is very big on the session goals of saying, what was the purpose of the workout?

 

Chris Case  07:10

In some ways just a little bit easier to say, okay, that ride goes in this bucket, that ride goes in that bucket, you don’t have to do any post-analysis to figure it out.

 

Distributions You Might See Throughout the Season

Trevor Connor  07:18

Right. Yeah, that does make it a lot easier. Okay, so now that we’ve talked about the basics of polarized, let’s take a look at the sort of distributions that you might see through the season. Here’s a really addressing study again, everything’s down here, it’s another Dr. Seiler study. If you look over here, this is U23 Spanish Team, high-level cyclists, here’s their bass season, here’s their spring season, and you can see not doing a whole lot of that high-intensity in the bass season. As they’re getting into the season, that’s where you start to see they’re really taken on more of that true polarized, let’s hit the top-end pretty hard, but the whole way through, still, this is your biggest bar, that’s zone one.

 

Trevor Connor  08:08

Let’s now take a look at another study. So, this is actually done by some students who worked with Dr. Seiler. It’s actually a review. So, they took a bunch of studies that looked at how athletes in different endurance sports, were distributing their training through the season. I highlighted the cyclists here, but we’re going to talk about all sports, what they’re going to point out, here’s your cross-country skiers, they are truly more than any other sport that I’ve seen, truly, truly polarized. So, you can see 85% of their time in zone one, decent about 10% of their time in zone three, not a lot of time in zone two. You look at the cyclists here a whole lot of time in zone one, they’re almost up to 90%, but you can see in this prepper, so this is the preparation period, you can see, just like we saw that previous slide, actually not a ton of high-intensity at that point in the season. That’s consistent across all of these. This is another cycle study where you see a little more of this pyramidal type of approach.

 

Chris Case  09:14

This right here is pretty amazing. This is rowers,

 

Trevor Connor  09:17

Yes.

 

Chris Case  09:18

And they’re spending 98% of their time in zone one, and just maybe 1% in each of two and three.

 

Trevor Connor  09:26

Exactly. The key thing to see here is except for this one right here, all these 80% up into the 90-95% zone one, this is where they’re spending the bulk of their time in that preparation period. So, I was looking at the pre-competition period, so if you think about your competition being in the spring and the summer, pre-competition you’re probably talking about February, March timeframe. Here you could see in some of these the zone one is coming down a bit, but still not way down here. I have seen athletes where I’ve done the analysis of their data and you’re seeing 30-40% of their time in zone one, and that’s where I go, we need to adjust this, this is off. So, still bulk of the time zone one, it comes down a little bit, but look at zone three up here, versus zone three down here. This is where you’re seeing them, say, let’s throw into that high-intensity type of work. Finally, fewer studies covered this, it’s often very hard to get athletes to continue to participate in a study when they’re in the middle of the competition, so a lot of studies will be in the pre-competition period. This is where you see competition still 80% or higher in zone one, and once again, here you see over here, that zone three is staying pretty high.

 

Chris Case  10:48

Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s amazing to see that honestly, in the competition period, there’s still that much time spent in zone one.

 

How To Approach Polarized Training

Trevor Connor  10:57

Right. One last thing to point out, if you could read this over here, this is the threshold training, so this is talking about zone two. You can see it says, training performed mainly in exercise intensity corresponding to lactate threshold, EG four millimoles blood lactate, or second ventilatory threshold. So, it is saying right there when it was doing this analysis, if we go back to those previous slides, basically saying that threshold training, a lot of it’s happening right on that line there. So, again, this study, I believe the Lucia a few of these other studies, we’re using heart rate data or power data, and if you had somebody doing threshold intervals, so one of the ones that Dr. Seiler loves, that we’ve been asked about a lot are those four-by-eight-minutes, they’re going to be right on that edge of zone two, zone three, so, they’re gonna add time to that zone two. Likewise, if you go out and do it a long, slow distance, say a bike ride, but you hit a hill, and you go that just a little bit harder,

 

Chris Case  12:04

Right.

 

Trevor Connor  12:04

You might go into just the lower end of that zone two. So, you again, you do have to be careful that sometimes you’re going to build out that zone two, but you’re building it out on the edges, and the intention of the ride was still a,

 

Chris Case  12:17

Yeah,

 

Trevor Connor  12:18

An easy ride, or high-intensity interval ride. So, don’t get too caught up when you see that.

 

Trevor Connor  12:25

Okay, so now I’m going to show you this giant mess of a graph.

 

Chris Case  12:31

Yes, tell us about what we’re looking at, help us understand what this is.

 

Trevor Connor  12:36

This is the template I use to build out my athlete’s plans, and just so you know, whenever I have a new athlete, and I send them their excel sheet, I send it to him with an email saying, don’t let this slip you out, I know you’re not going to get any of this, we’re going to sit down, and I’m going to explain it to you. Then my athletes get it, but yes, I know this is a giant thing to take on. The worst part is, this is only the top part of the Excel sheet, there’s even more below that I spared you from. But what you are seeing here is up here’s a calendar for the whole season, so it goes by week. Here are the events that the athlete is doing, and I like to color-code, so I ask athletes to rank events A, B, C, D. A is your top race of the year, so you can see only one A race in the season. B is important, just not your A race and you only get two or three of those in the season, so there’s one, there’s two, and actually we made a camp one of those. Then C races are these black, and that should be the bulkier races. I always tell my athlete, you can have some D races and actually, I didn’t color-code that one right, but I could tell you get D races, way to think of a D race is you have a choice between picking bellybutton lint out of your belly button or doing the race and it’s a toss-up.

 

Chris Case  13:59

It’s a toss-up. Wow. Okay, what an interesting question to pose.

 

Trevor Connor  14:03

If there’s just not good belly button lint to get out of there, go for a race.

 

Chris Case  14:07

All right.

 

Energy Systems

Trevor Connor  14:09

So, that’s the way to think of it down here, any of you who have listened to our podcast, you know, I’m big on talking about energy systems. There’s a lot of ways you can break up those energy systems. But for training, these are the ones I use, and you can see over here, it’s pretty small, zone one, zone two, zone three. So, I organize them by generally where they fit into that polarized model. If you look really closely, because of what I was talking about with the lactate threshold intervals where they’re right on that edge, I actually labeled them two, three. So, there’s my threshold work. If you go across, this is how I map out the season is trying to figure out which energy systems do I really want to be focusing on at any given point. The dark purple is what our primary focus is, the lighter purple is secondary, if we can do some work on that, or come up with intervals that really hit a primary, but also help the secondary, we’ll do some work there, and then rest is kind of either we’re not going to hit it or it’s going to be maintained by the other work you’re doing. So, you could see, well, the purple bars move, you’re focusing on different energy systems at different points, I could still go across this and show you that it’s relatively polarized. So, you could see the bass season here a whole lot in zone one, we are really focusing up in that region, but a whole lot of threshold work here as well. That’s the other primary focus, and as I said, that’s right on that edge, but I’ve generally with my athletes consider that to be high-intensity work. So, even in the base, you’re doing a whole ton of this, you do it a little bit of this, and that’s going to work out to about those ratios that we were showing you before. But again, we measured by power or heart rate, you would still see very little in that truly,

 

Chris Case  16:04

Right.

 

Trevor Connor  16:04

High-intensity zone three.

 

What Polarized Training Looks Like in Your Base Season vs. the Height of Your Race Season

Trevor Connor  16:07

Now we get into this is that that pre-competition period, you can see still do it a lot of that zone one work. Now we’re getting into truth zone three work. So, you would see exactly what you saw on that study where zone three is going to get a little bit bigger, but we’re still doing a whole lot of zone one, and you could trace that all the way across. So, the key message here being we’re changing the type of work we’re doing at different seasons, we’re focusing on different energy systems, but if you look at it in that polarized model, it’s still going to work out to about the ratios that you saw before. Anything I’m missing here, Chris?

 

Chris Case  16:43

No, I think it’s a lot to take in, you probably want to pause the video right now and absorb it, intensity goes up as you’re going down here. Time is going this way, so you can see how this season if you can flip it on its side, the season goes this way, and it starts here with a lot of that zone one stuff and it’s the slow sort of progress in that direction as the season goes into the races, the intensity adds up, but there’s still a lot of maintenance going on as well.

 

Trevor Connor  17:14

Yep. The last thing I’ll point out here, I like to do this with my athletes, I have a point in the year where I say, we need to back down, we need to rest, we need to go back and do some base work. So, notice this little three-week block here for this athlete, where you can see the focus here is the same as what you see mostly on that base season. Go back do some threshold work, really focus again on doing some long rides, get the body back in balance, and then, okay, let’s hit you hard again, getting ready for your A race.

 

Trevor Connor  17:47

Okay, so the last thing I’m going to show you is how this plays out actually see some true distributions from some athletes I’m working with. I’m going to admit here, we’re going to start with mine as an example of didn’t do it quite right. We’ve already talked about this. So, I’ve created a chart and WKO, that takes each week, and shows that three-zone distribution. So, there’s your zone one, there’s your zone two, there’s your zone three, and you can see with me, so there’s 20%, there’s 40%, I’m only at about 70%, sometimes less in zone one, and you can see so again, you know, don’t get too caught up in the zone too, because I’m mostly hitting that zone two from the edges, either doing high-intensity work that drops down or doing a zone one ride, and I hit a climate, it adds a little bit. What you can see is basically, I’m out as though that zone one for a fair amount of time each week, and as you remember, we talked so it was in May where I said, I’m starting to get really fatigued, I’m not racing well, something’s up, this is one of the things I looked at, and now if you look at since then, I brought that down to a nicer ratio.

 

Trevor Connor  19:01

Now, I’m going to show you an athlete I’m coaching who is a pro and he’s having one of the best seasons of his life. Look how big his zone one work is. You’re almost never seeing him above 20% with the zone two and zone three, and he is racing on fire right now, like I said, this is the best season he’s ever had.

 

Chris Case  19:26

I want to go back to your execution here and just ask us a simple question, which is why didn’t you get it right?

 

Trevor Connor  19:34

That is one of the questions I’ve been asking, and I fell into a little bit of that trap of I personally have a big goal this year. I want to go back and race with those Cat1’s, be competitive, because of the hours we’re putting in at work, which I don’t need to tell you about, I have a little less time to be on the bike than I want, and I think without noticing it, I was probably falling into a trap of I got less time,

 

Chris Case  20:00

To go a little harder,

 

Trevor Connor  20:01

To go a little bit harder and was probably going hard at times when I shouldn’t have it. So, part of the adjustment I made is, I am actually doing a little more time on the bike, but I’m making sure my easy rides are easy. I’m making sure when I’m going out and doing my long rides that I’m not going, oh, there’s a 20-minute hill, I can hit it hard.

 

Chris Case  20:22

Ah, right.

 

Trevor Connor  20:23

Avoiding those little things, and keeping it a little more structured, a little more dedicated.

 

Chris Case  20:27

Yeah.

 

Trevor Connor  20:28

This is something you know, with my athlete here, he has a coach yelling at him to do this, so he goes out and does a long ride, he keeps it steady.

 

Chris Case  20:36

Yeah.

 

Trevor Connor  20:37

He goes out and does intervals, he does the intervals. When I tell him to do it easy recovery ride on a Wednesday, he does an easy recovery ride, and since I don’t have somebody to report to,

 

Chris Case  20:47

Yes,

 

Trevor Connor  20:48

Even as a coach, it gets really easy to go.

 

Chris Case  20:51

Yeah.

 

Trevor Connor  20:51

I can do a little bit.

 

Chris Case  20:52

Right. I mean, it also speaks to the fact that it isn’t necessarily easy to do this, there’s a lot of factors involved, and hopefully, this helps people understand it changes throughout the course of a season, it should change throughout the course of a season, and at some point in the season, you have to check and make sure you’re doing it right and make adjustments if you’re not.

 

Trevor Connor  21:14

Exactly. So, and certainly having graphs like this that you can look at and see those trends, those sorts of things are going to help you a lot.

 

Chris Case  21:23

Thanks for joining us today. Hopefully, these tips will help you create a truly polarized training plan for your entire season.

 

Trevor Connor  21:29

If you have any questions about what we talked about today, write us on the forum.

 

Chris Case  21:33

See you next time.

 

Trevor Connor  21:34

Let’s make it fast.

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