Low Risk, High Reward: The Polarized Training Method for Cyclists

Volta de bicicleta

, by Chris Case

Photography by: Patrick Foto

Can you make significant performance and fitness gains with just three types of rides? The science says yes: A greater volume of long, slow rides paired with a few intense interval sessions could revolutionize your training.

If you study how the greatest endurance athletes in the world train, their formula for success becomes clear: most of the time they go slow so that they are fresh when they want to go hard.

This is exactly what Dr. Stephen Seiler learned as he researched and worked with world-class Norwegian athletes over the past 30 years. And it’s what led him to conceptualize the so-called polarized training method.

Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that it isn’t just professional athletes who stand to gain from this approach. Amateurs may actually benefit the most from this low-risk, high-reward model.

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“90% of the time, 90% of athletes are going to have success. That’s the definition of a low-risk, high-reward model. That’s polarized,” Seiler says.

The 80/20 principle

In his research, Seiler found that athletes were doing around 80 percent of their training at low intensity, and only about 15-20 percent at high intensity. They did very little training between the two ends of the spectrum.

That led him to propose a simplified three-zone training model: zone 1 is easier endurance—think of it as the ‘green’ zone. Zone 3 is intense intervals—this is the ‘red’ zone. And zone 2, the ‘yellow’ zone, is mostly to be avoided. (I’ll explain the rationale in a moment).

While the initial concept was based on what athletes were doing, the science has since caught up to make it clearer why this method works so effectively.

Photography by: Maxpro

There are numerous complex adaptations that are taking place during training. For the purposes of this article, just know that the easy endurance rides have immense value—from improved utilization of fat as fuel, to increased mitochondrial density, and much more. If you give yourself enough time to allow these adaptations to accumulate, you will see great benefits.

Though the easy rides are productive over the long term, they don’t produce a lot of training stress. That’s a very good thing, because that also allows your body to be prepared for those intense interval sessions. Therefore, when you do your workouts, you can go very hard, and thus take full advantage of the adaptive process.

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“Amateurs need to go easy enough and long enough in the low-intensity sessions to build that biological durability—in their hormonal system, muscular system, cardiovascular system—so that those high-intensity sessions really can be developmental,” Dr. Seiler says. “Then athletes can really push.”

Intense workout sessions can be used sparingly, and there are certain easy-to-execute intervals that are effective, efficient, and uncomplicated.

Polarized training can be quite simple. Effectively, it comes down to three types of rides: easy and long; short and hard; and short and easy days for recovery.

Finally, zone 2 rides are mostly to be avoided because they are not hard enough to elicit the maximum adaptation, nor are they easy enough to allow you to be fresh for your zone 3 workouts. That’s why they aren’t prescribed much in a polarized model.

Executing polarized training

For cyclists, polarized training can be quite simple. Effectively, it comes down to three types of rides: easy and long; short and hard; and short and easy days for recovery.

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Of course, the mixture, makeup, and overall volume of your riding will fluctuate throughout the season, but the ratio should stay relatively close to that 80/20 split.

If you do this training with discipline, and focus on the fundamentals while eliminating the distractions of overly complicated workouts and unproven training trends, you stand to make huge gains—in fitness, performance, and, very likely, overall health.

Photography by: kovop

The formula is simple: It all comes down to the appropriate mixture of endurance and intensity—nothing more. Let’s take a closer look at these three ride types:

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Endurance rides

  • 1-2 times per week.

  • Zone 1

  • When your intention is a long, slow distance (LSD) ride, resist any urge to go harder or to tag along with a group who will likely push you above the desired level.

  • The duration of this ride—not intensity—leads to fatigue and, thus, adaptation.

  • The longer you can go, the more adaptation you will cause (to a point, of course).

High-intensity intervals

  • 1-2 times per week.

  • Zone 3

  • Do these workouts when you are well recovered, so that you can do high-quality, intense work.

  • Depending on the time of season, you could do longer (5-minute, 8-minute, or longer) threshold workouts, or sprint workouts or 1-minute intervals, for example.

  • With threshold work, it takes about three months to see gains. So, you could consider doing these most of the year.

  • With short-duration intervals (e.g. 1-minute efforts, sprints, and Tabatas), it takes 6-8 sessions to see the majority of the gains. Do these in the leadup to racing.

Recovery rides

  • 3 or more times per week.

  • Zone 1 (Easy!)

  • In the big picture, these rides become crucial—not every ride needs to hurt.

  • Recovery rides enhance the gains you accumulate from your intense sessions, and simultaneously prepare you for the next hard workout.

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