We all want to get faster. And most endurance athletes are driven, motivated people. That means we tend to push the limits of our training with every single session, leading to the expectation that we will be better by the next session, and constantly seek progress. I remember when I first began training and competing for skiing, when I would head out for a training session I would trying to ski as fast as I could for the entire duration of my session. Every session.
However, this is not a wise approach. We end up tired, our progress plateaus, and our motivation wanes. So we know we need to add some recovery days to balance out the hard days. It wasn’t until I joined my local ski club where I began to learn how to alter the intensity of my workouts each day. But how much intensity do we need? The last thing driven and motivated endurance athletes want is to be doing too little. But odds are, we end up doing too much. My coach always used to tell me, “work smart, then hard.”
So the goal of this article is to introduce simple ways to schedule your hard and easy workouts into weekly training, so you know when to push the limits and when to relax and recover. This balance will help give your body the training stimulus as well as the recovery it needs to adapt, and will ultimately lead to shattering plateaus and facilitating phenomenal progress. Let's meet the contestants.
Polarized essentially means opposite ends of the spectrum. And that is exactly the goal with polarized training, to train on the far ends of the intensity spectrum; on the low intensity aerobic side, and on the high intensity anaerobic side. Polarized training includes hardly any work in between, referred to as moderate-intensity or tempo/threshold workouts. The exact breakdown of polarized training is:
80% low intensity aerobic work + 20% high intensity anaerobic work (1,2,3)
With endurance sports, an aerobic base is arguably the most fundamental quality an athlete should strive to build. And the biggest driver of aerobic adaptations is the duration, time under stress (3). If we go too fast, we won’t be able to survive the duration necessary to elicit the stimulus we want. So slow and easy is the name of the game for aerobic work, prioritizing the duration of your training over the intensity. Secondly, keeping our aerobic work slow and easy shortens recovery time and allows us to be fresh and ready for the next session.
The other 20% of polarized training is high intensity, which is an essential component of optimal sports performance. High intensity training will improve movement economy (efficiency), VO2max, power output (factors of both speed and strength), anaerobic systems, and high intensity exercise capacity (2,3). The driver of these adaptations is the high level of intensity, so ensuring that 80% of your work is low intensity means that you will be rested and recovered to give true high intensity efforts on the right days, which will elicit greater adaptations in power output, VO2max, anaerobic energy systems development, and ultimately competition performance (1,2,3).
Pyramidal training receives its name from the decrease in distribution of intensity as we work from the bottom to the top of the intensity spectrum. It is similar to polarized training in that it includes low intensity aerobic work as more than half of weekly volume. The common theme in both of these training styles is that the bulk of an endurance athlete’s training should be comprised of this low intensity aerobic work! Time in this zone will be the most important factor driving aerobic adaptations, and also allow for sufficient recovery between sessions (3). Next, and differing from polarized, pyramidal training involves some moderate-intensity (tempo/threshold work). And at the top of the pyramid, this training style includes a small percentage of high-intensity work. The exact breakdown looks like:
75% low-intensity + 20% moderate-intensity + 5% high-intensity (3)
Polarized and Pyramidal Training On Paper
Using a 50km/week runner, here is how their weekly training schedule may look when integrating a polarized training style.
It is very common for athletes to use a more time-based approach to their weekly training, as opposed to measuring total volume in kilometres or miles. There are pros and cons to using different training metrics, but essentially it is important to track something measurable. So for pyramidal training, let's look how the week might look for a 5-hours/week runner.
Which is best for me?
Both polarized and pyramidal training are highly beneficial training systems, and because a significant bulk of training volume is aerobic in both systems, there are minimal differences in terms of the gains measured in studies (2,3). However the key differentiation between these training methodologies have to do with training age, specificity, and periodization.
Intensity is hard on the body. The greater the intensity, the harder the muscles are working and the greater overall stress we place on our bodily tissues. This is why intensity, the speed or effort at which we run, is one of the biggest factors in injury. The faster we run, the more force output we demand from the body and the greater impact (ground reaction force) we place on our bones, muscles, and tendons. Athletes who are new to structured training, intensity, or running in general, should shy away from high intensity bouts. The 20% high intensity associated with polarized training may be too much for a beginner athlete to fully recover and adapt from, and could potentially result in an injury. This is why beginning with pyramidal training is more likely the wise choice (3). The predominance of low and moderate intensity work will allow the body to strengthen and handle the smaller 5% high intensity work.
Depending on the distance and event you are preparing for, one style of training may be more specific than the other. Shorter aerobic events, such as the mile, is run at a much greater speed and therefore has a greater anaerobic component than an event like the marathon. Therefore, it may be more beneficial to utilize polarized training, as more weekly volume will be run at speeds and paces, as well as use energy systems, specific to the event. Conversely, a marathon runner or triathlete may benefit more from pyramidal training as the tempo and threshold paces of the moderate-intensity workouts contribute more directly to the paces and energy systems used while racing for 1-4+ hours.
Lastly, we commonly see a shift from pyramidal training to polarized training throughout an athlete’s periodized season. The reasoning is in both points explored above. Firstly, it is advantageous for athletes to utilize pyramidal training during their base or preparation phase. Typically following a period of rest from the sport, it is best to ease into intensity with training, and similar to training age, this is safest with higher proportions of moderate-intensity (threshold) training than high intensity training. Secondly, it will allow the athlete to build volume, a common goal of the base or preparation phase, while minimizing risk of injury or burnout. As the season progresses towards pre-competition, training can shift towards a polarized intensity distribution, as the athlete has built up strength and tolerance necessary to handle greater volume at high-intensity training (3). This is essential in terms of performance as well, as athletes can accumulate more volume at intensities (speeds, power, energy systems) specific to competition.
Let's remember that these training methodologies are primarily for endurance athletes. The common theme is that over half of the weekly training volume is focused on improving aerobic base, and therefore will work best for sports where the aerobic contribution is dominant. Both polarized and pyramidal training have been shown to produce superior athletic performance when compared to a threshold training style. Essentially, this means spend more time training easy! In both pyramidal and polarized, over half of the volume is easy aerobic work. And keeping these sessions easy will allow you to be recovered and fresh for true high intensity bouts!
We need to balance our intensity throughout the week to be able to properly train and recover, ultimately leading to consistent adaptations. If you are not currently planning our your weekly workouts, the easiest way is to ensure more than half your weekly volume is easy aerobic exercise, and a little intensity added in.
1. Neal, C. M., Hunter, A. M., Brennan, L., O’Sullivan, A., Hamilton, D. L., DeVito, G., & Galloway, S. D. R. (2013). Six weeks of polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists. Journal of Applied Physiology, 114, 461-471. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00652.2012.
2. Rosenblat, M. A., Perrotta, A. S., & Vicenzino, B. (2019). Polarized vs. threshold training intensity distribution on endurance sport performance: A systematic review and meta- analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33(12), 3491-3500.
3. Stoggl, T. L., & Sperlich, B. (2015). The training intensity distribution among well-trained and elite endurance athletes. Frontiers in Physiology, 6(295), 1-14. DOI:10.3389/fphys.2015.00295