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

Three Rides to Polarize Your Training

To truly polarize your training, you need to focus your training in two key zones. Coach Trevor Connor explains how this works for the sport of cycling, but the physiology applies to all endurance sports.

3 workouts to polarize your training

In one of Fast Talk’s most popular episodes, Coach Trevor Connor made an audacious claim: There are just three rides you need to do as a cyclist. This is the polarized approach, applied in a disciplined fashion, stripping away the distraction to help endurance athletes see the bigger picture, then execute it in training. It’s a great place to start polarizing your training. If you focus on nailing the right mix of intensity with a consistent line-up of workouts, then it’s easier to see significant gains in performance. Of course, these rides evolve as you build endurance and fitness.

Get instruction on how to do these three rides, along with additional insight from the experts on why these workouts are so effective.

Not a cyclist?: Check out this article for run workouts from Olympian-turned-coach Ryan Bolton and this article for Bolton’s swim workouts.

Ride 1: Long, slow distance

Dr. Seiler’s research has shown that, ultimately, the more time you train in zone 1, the more gains you’re going to see. This ride is all about accumulating time in zone 1.  

Frequency: 1-2 times per week 

Duration: 2.5–6 hours  
Your experience and typical volume should inform this decision: 2.5 hours for a rider with less experience or base training (volume), 6 hours for a pro 

Intensity: Zone 1, at or below aerobic threshold 

Route: A flat route works best, but if you hit a climb and go a little over aerobic threshold, that’s fine. 

It’s the length of this ride that will cause fatigue, not the intensity. You will hit a point where you start to feel a “whole-body” fatigue, and it will become more apparent and more taxing as the duration extends, especially at 3, 4, or 5 hours. You will know you’ve succeeded if you get home and you can say, “I never really went hard. I stayed in Zone 1. But I’m feeling that. I’m a little bit tired.” 

Connor stresses that when you do these rides, you need to focus on heart rate, not power. Remember that power is an external load, but it doesn’t reflect how your body is responding to that output. Heart rate is a measure of what’s going on in your body, how hard your body perceives that you are working. 

Late in the ride, the internal load will increase. Heart rate will slowly drift up. Your muscle fibers will start to get stressed or damaged, which triggers recruitment of more fibers, and this (along with dehydration) raises your heart rate, even if your power stays the same. If you are not paying attention to heart rate, you will miss the goal of the ride. For example, if you tried to ride at 180 watts, you might start in zone 1, but you could be solidly in zone 2 by the end of the ride. 

Enlist more muscle fibers with long, slow workouts

Dr. John Hawley weighs in on the physiology at play in these endurance workouts:

“Having the ability to utilize fat at the highest rates possible is an advantage in long endurance events. While these long, slow workouts don’t necessarily help your top end race form, they build up extra capillaries and get the muscle accustomed to using fat, turning on beta oxidation, and triggering adaptation in the muscle.  

If you just go out and ride for an hour, you’ll tap into some slow-twitch fibers. But by going longer and going to exhaustion at that submaximal pace, you’re asking the muscles to recruit the slow twitch fibers, the fast twitch IIa and the fast twitch IIx fibers. Unless you do very high intensity intervals, you won’t achieve that. So you’ve got two ways of tapping into your muscle fiber population. Either go long and slow to exhaustion, or do high-intensity work and risk wiping them out.”

Just as importantly, while a hard interval session will recruit your fast-twitch fibers, a long, slow ride will not only recruit them in the second half of the ride, but will force them to work aerobically. Which is something they don’t particularly like, but it is great for your endurance adaptations. While IIa’s and IIx’s will never be as effective as your slow-twitch fibers, training to use more oxygen and burn fat for fuel will make you a stronger endurance athlete.  

Ride 2: High-intensity intervals 

To realize the benefits of polarized training, you have to get the high-intensity work right. For most athletes this comes down to smart management of the frequency of these workouts and the stress response that they trigger. Connor explains it this way: “There’s plenty of research showing that two high-intensity sessions per week is ideal. You see no additional gains with three. And if you start doing four or more, you’re really pushing that autonomic stress and one of two things is going to happen: You’re going to overtrain very rapidly and/ or you’re going to see that none of those sessions are really, truly high intensity.” 

This is why even a pro athlete doing 20+ hours per week is still only going to do two or three high intensity sessions. They have the time for more, but they understand that they aren’t going to get any additional gains. 

For these sessions to work their magic, you need to spread them out and get in plenty of recovery rides in between.  

Frequency: 2 times per week 
If you are only riding 4–5 times per week, do just 1 high-intensity workout. 
If you’re on a big week that’s designed to fatigue you, you can consider doing three. 

Duration: not to exceed 30–40 minutes of interval work (excluding recovery) 
If you’re doing very high-intensity work such as Tabatas or sprints, you may only accumulate 8-12 minutes at intensity. 

Intensity: Zone 3, at or above anaerobic threshold 

Plan your week so that you can do these rides when you are recovered, and can do high-quality work. As for what type of interval, there’s a value to sprint workouts, 1-minute intervals, and there’s also a value to those longer, 5-minute, 8-minute, and even longer threshold workouts. 

With high intensity work such as 1-minute or 2-minute efforts, sprints, and Tabatas, it only takes about 6-8 sessions to see most of the gains.  

With threshold work, it takes much longer (12–14 weeks) to truly see the gains. So if you’re going to be polarized all year and you want to see gains in your fitness, Connor suggests anaerobic threshold work for a lot of the winter. One of Dr. Seiler’s studies found that the highest-level cyclists were focused on one high-intensity session and one threshold session per week. 

How to structure high-intensity training

Dr. John Hawley discusses how best to time different types of high-intensity work in episode 68 of FastTalk, The Big Picture: The Three Types of Rides You Should Do.

“With polarized training, there’s a huge volume of low-intensity, what I would call ‘steady-state aerobic work,’ and peppered into that are bits of high-intensity or even supramaximal intensity. This seems to be what works for endurance athletes—I’m not sure you need to do intervals all year round. If you want to get really, really sharp, my guess is you can probably do this in 3–6 weeks. I certainly wouldn’t do two sessions of intensity in a single day and probably only 2–3 maximum in a week—with cyclists, probably just two.  

“When we’ve done our training interventions with cyclists, sessions of 8 x 5 minutes, we’ve only done three sessions a week, tops. Any more and I think the cyclist will probably go over the top, I really do think two to three sessions.  

“At the top level, it’s all you can handle, really intense. And when I say intense, I mean glycogen-stripping, high-carbohydrate, high absolute power output . . . so the actual work time is probably 30–40 minutes maximum.”

Ride 3: Easy recovery

Many athletes are typically resistant to recovery work. Not every ride needs to hurt, so look at this ride in the context of the training week: This work is enhancing the gains from that hard workout you did yesterday, and this is going to help you get ready for the next hard session.

Viewed from this perspective, it is far easier to find the motivation to get on the trainer for an easy spin.  It’s these gentle rides that get you to that 80/20 split, reducing stress and making those zone 3 rides count.  

Frequency: 3+ times per week

Duration: 1–2 hours 

Intensity: Zone 1, below aerobic threshold  

Keep it easy! You can use these rides to fit in neuromuscular work, do cadence pyramids, or spin-ups. Just make sure you keep your heart rate and wattage low. 

Ride to repair your body

The immune system fights viruses, bacteria, and other invaders, but it is also responsible for muscle repair. So, when you do a hard training ride that includes high-intensity intervals, you do damage. Then the immune system comes in to repair that damage. If you train effectively and do that repair work, the muscles become bigger and stronger. The specific system you trained is now better than it was before. 

These slow, easy rides increase blood flow and aid the immune system. This means you can potentially see better adaptations and you will recover faster so that you can be ready for your next high-intensity session. 

The big picture: Build durability to improve development

Coach Connor explained that the magic is not in working any one energy system, but a mix of both. It starts with the easy training, including the longer endurance rides, to build biological durability. Dr. Seiler explains how that durability opens up the athlete to truly develop their work at high-intensity and reap the rewards of polarized training:

“What we see in elite endurance athletes is that a lot of that volume, that low intensity work, builds durability in their system—their hormonal system, muscular system, cardiovascular system. When your systems respond well to training, they recover from training, and they can mobilize multiple days in a row. There’s no shortcut to building biological durability. You can’t do it in just three days a week or with 30 minutes of high-intensity work. . . .   

“So many recreational athletes are scared of not training hard enough, and that’s not what they need to be afraid of. They need to be thinking about training—easy enough and long enough in the low intensity sessions to build that biological durability so that those high-intensity sessions really can be developmental. Then athletes can really push and handle those hard sessions.” 

For more on this topic, listen to episode 68 of FastTalk, The Big Picture: The Three Types of Rides You Should Do.