When you look at your running logs, training time spent in various heart rate zones or at certain levels of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) will vary depending on your goals and training program.
However, scientific research led by Dr. Stephen Seiler observed that the majority of elite endurance athletes tend to spend most of their training time at low intensity, followed by a small amount of time doing high-intensity workouts.
Polarized training gets its name from the fact there is no middle ground in endurance training, according to scientists who have also dubbed it the 80/20 training style. Because elite athletes spend the majority of their training time at low intensities and a small amount of time in the higher end of the RPE spectrum, the label of “polarized” has been applied to this workout approach.
Is polarized training for you? What are its benefits? And what is the science behind it all? Read on to find out:
- The definition of polarized training and its meaning for runners
- Why polarized training has become so popular for training intensity distribution
- How to make the most of your easy and hard runs
What Is Polarized Training?
The concept of polarized training became popularized by Dr. Stephen Seiler, who in his paper “Intervals, Thresholds and Slow Distance: The Role of Intensity and Endurance Training” made public his finding about how elite athletes trained. Analyzing a large number of previous studies, he concluded that endurance athletes spend 80% of their training time doing low-intensity workouts. A further 20% is spent on quality speed work at high intensity.
So, how does it work? The thinking is that, by doing a large volume of running as low-intensity training (using zones 1 and 2 of heart rate training, for example), will lead to training adaptations that give you a great aerobic foundation. You will be strengthening your heart and lungs and also teach your body to burn fat for fuel in this way.
This is valid for recreational runners as much as for professionals, with the important distinction that anecdotal evidence shows that most people go too hard on their easy days, thus never building that all-important base. Prof Seiler and his team make the case that polarized training is the best choice for endurance runners, but he does have a number of detractors, too. Below, we’ll look at the case for and against it.
Why You Should (Or Shouldn’t) Adopt a Polarized Training Approach
While well-trained and elite endurance athletes have been found to perform well by doing most of their workouts in the low-intensity zone, does this necessarily work for recreational runners? And why is there so much hype around 80/20 and polarized training?
The Case for Polarized Training
The main argument in favor of doing most of your training volume in the easy bracket is experience: Prof Seiler drew from a huge number of athletes in a variety of sports, from cycling to rowing, from skiing to swimming, and of course, running.
However, it is important to note that his findings state that these athletes adopted either polarized OR pyramidal training regimes.
So, what is the pyramidal approach and how is it different from polarized? In fact, it turns out there is quite a blurry line between these two! Pyramidal training refers to still doing a large training volume at low intensities, but then adding in a moderate intensity block, and finally having a short time spent in the top effort zone, such as when doing high-intensity interval training.
You might think if the difference in training intensity distribution as 80/20 easy/hard for polarized, and 70/20/10 easy/medium/hard for pyramidal. To make matters more complicated, many adepts of polarized training include moderate training sessions in their training plans, too – making it more like 70/10/20 where you add in 10% of time spent at moderate effort levels.
Multiple studies have tried to understand whether the polarized approach really is superior, finding that focus groups of athletes tended to improve more, in relative terms, by doing this sort of training.
The conclusion is that, through polarized training, elite or recreational athletes can build a lot of volume with as little stress as possible. This can contribute to more enjoyment of the running, lower likelihood of injury or burnout, and an efficient adaptation of the body to using various sources of fuel for energy.
The short bursts of high-intensity training, above lactate threshold, are enough to build strength and speed without maxing out stress levels.
The Case Against Polarized Training
The opposing view to this research is represented by scientists Mark Burnley, Shawn Bearden and Andrew Jones. In their paper, they posit that athletes’ diaries (used in the research quoted above) are simply not enough proof in favor of one type of training or another. They also point out that most examples of athletes picked for the studies in favor of polarized training actually display pyramidal training.
Unsurprisingly, this is where the debate becomes quite difficult to follow in one direction or the other. Proponents of polarized training – Prof Seiler included – will just say that they class their workouts as either “hard” or “easy”, therefore an easy-to-moderate run (e.g. where you get into Zone 3 Heart Rate, but don’t spend all your time at that level) falls under “easy”.
This way, any moderate intensity work can be split down the middle (or wherever the line can be drawn!) to fit a polarized training model, rather than a pyramidal one.
What Can Recreational Runners Learn From This?
The conclusion, as you’ll have guessed, is that for recreational athletes looking to improve their performance and enjoy their training, subscribing to a specific training philosophy is actually unnecessary. Instead of focusing too much on how you’d label your training intensity distribution, it makes more sense to just draw some practical lessons from the research.
Making the Most of Your Hard and Easy Runs
Runners often push too hard on their easy runs – ending up doing threshold training, putting more stress on their bodies and not recovering appropriately from their hard workouts. There are some fascinating studies on the differences in perception of training between coaches and adults, such as this one.
Moreover, the rise of fitness performance sharing platforms such as Strava, with its competitive segments, has led to more of us trying to always better our times on specific routes or post what we perceive as a “good” run. However, if jogging at the right intensity to recover means you’ll miss a course record on Strava, it’s a sacrifice that’s worth making for the sake of your bigger seasonal and annual goals.
Finally, focusing on quality sessions that don’t wear you out when you do your high-intensity interval training means that you will maximize your chances of getting the benefits from those, too.
There Is No One-size-Fits-all Approach
While much has been written about both the polarized training model and its significance to recreational athletes, as well as about the benefits of adding in more medium-intensity training, research points to the fact that athletes should choose what works best for them in a tried and tested fashion.
A polarized training plan can help you develop endurance for long distance events, such as marathons and beyond. It will allow you to increase your fitness level without leading to too much stress from spending too much time doing hard workouts. And it will help you increase training load with less risk of injury.
At the same time, maybe if you’re training for a 10k race or for short track competitions, polarized training distribution makes less sense for you. In any case, whichever type of training plan you follow, you should always observe rest days and complement your workouts with strength training and mobility work so that you benefit from your training regimen without getting injured or burnt out.
Benefiting From a Polarized Training Program
The popularity of polarized training is based on scientific research looking primarily at its effects on well-trained endurance athletes. For non-elite athletes or for those not looking for performance in endurance events, it doesn’t automatically follow that it would yield the best results.
However, the debate around polarized vs pyramidal training reinforces the saying that more isn’t always better. Quality sessions at high intensity should be kept to a low percentage of your training volume to avoid over-training and burnout, while endurance runners who want to prepare for long events will benefit from doing a lot of volume at low intensity.
Additionally, there are good reasons for your training regimen to contain different types of workouts and a low number of high-intensity training sessions per week. You should stick to the recommended intensities for each, and you’ll build a stronger, more enduring runner as a result.