Polarized Training

A Comprehensive Guide To Polarized Training Heart Rate Zones

In endurance sports, especially triathlon, athletes are always looking for ways to improve their performance or get more bang for their buck from the training they do. This could be anything from race equipment, nutrition to recovery tools, or training structure.

In this article, we look into the former. So let’s dive into polarized training, or more commonly known as 80/20 training.

Polarized Model of Endurance Training

The polarized model of endurance training was originally developed by the work of Dr. Stephen Seiler of the University of Agder, Norway. His research showed that around 80% of the time elite athletes train at a low-intensity level. That means for the remainder of their training they are only spending around 20% of it training hard.

But what does this mean for the triathlete?

Doing the bulk of your training at under 80% of maximum heart rate helps to build a solid aerobic foundation. Not only does it help strengthen the lungs and heart but strengthens your ability to burn fat.

The remaining 20% of your training is done at a higher intensity level (above 85% of maximum heart rate) which helps to improve your lactate threshold and ATP-PC system (which provides energy for all-out efforts such as a sprint.

Once put together some research shows that recovery time should improve, and the quality of the harder sessions should be better.

While many studies show this method of training is ideal, many recreational athletes tend to fit into a more 60/40 category. Doing a lot of training, at or above 80% of maximum heart rate. But why does this matter? Shouldn’t harder training pay bigger dividends?

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According to the studies and preachers of the polarized training method, doing too much work at this intensity fails to build a solid aerobic capacity and allow for adequate recovery. That, in turn, sees these types of athletes plateauing during the season.

With the lack of aerobic development and not enough recovery it is common to see these athletes struggling to finish or even produce quality hard sessions. This is primarily because they just don’t have the energy to do so. They then get stuck in a downward spiral of efforts that aren’t hard enough to produce any worthwhile results.

This is commonly referred to as being stuck in no man’s land, where workouts end up being between hard and easy, rather than hard.

Polarized Training Heart Rate Zones

Polarized Training Heart Rate Zones – A Complete Guide

While we went over the basics of the polarized method of training, it is a bit more complicated than following an 80/20 plan (80% low intensity, 20% high intensity).

When following the polarized training heart rate zones approach, you are more likely to spend your training closer to a 70/10/20 ( 70% easy, 10% moderate, 20% hard) layout rather than the 80/20 that is usually pushed on athletes.

This means that a high percentage of your time is spent at low intensity with a small 5-10% at moderate intensity and the remaining 15-20% at high intensity.

If you are using a heart rate monitor to set your polarized training heart rate zones, you should follow these guidelines:

Low intensity – Training under 80% of your maximum heart rate
Moderate intensity – Training between 80-88% of your maximum heart rate.
High intensity – Training above 88% of your maximum heart rate.

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However, if your training is based on your lactate threshold, the below training zones will be more accurate.

Low intensity – Below 95% of your lactate threshold heart rate
Moderate intensity – Between 95-102% of your lactate threshold heart rate.
High intensity – Above 102% of your lactate threshold heart rate.

Alternatively, if you are a beginner triathlete looking to follow the polarized training method, you can use a simple 1-10 RPE (rating of perceived exertion) calculation:

1: Extremely Easy – 10: Extremely Hard

Low intensity – Lower than 5 RPE counts as low intensity
Moderate intensity – An RPE of 6-7 counts as moderate-intensity.
High intensity – Above RPE 8 counts as high intensity.

Polarized Triathlon Training Plan

Before you get excited and start following a polarized triathlon training plan, this method of training structure may not work for everyone. But if you are looking to make the switch, there are a few things you should know.

Start by looking at your past training. If you one of the athletes spending less than 75% of your triathlon training at low intensity, you will need to replace some of the high-intensity workouts with easy ones.

Alternatively, if you are spending too much time training at low intensity, replace one of your easier sessions with moderate to high-intensity workouts.

Naturally doing either of these will gradually shift the percentage more into the 80/20 bracket. Thus following more of a polarized triathlon training plan.

However, if you are a more experienced athlete, you may need to do a bit more juggling with your training. That may mean some of your high-intensity training may need to be shifted into a more moderate intensity. Thus giving you the 70/10/20 ( 70% easy, 10% moderate, 20% hard) approach we talked about.

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Before you dive into a training structure like a polarized training or a Polarized triathlon training plan. First, start by making gradual changes to your training you are already doing. Doing so may prevent any injuries or fatigue when changing the training load on the body.

Also, remember what may work for one person, may not work for another. So while this short article may give you some understanding of the training approach, trial and error will be your ultimate reference to whether it works for you.

Finally, most of the studies down on polarized training focuses on professional, elite, and recreational athletes. Unfortunately, there are not many studies done on beginner athletes, especially in triathlon.

So, if you a beginner triathlete looking at the polarized model of endurance training, we recommend you talk to a qualified triathlon coach to see if this may work for you.

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