Zach Friedenreich, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist, New York City
Are you new to the world of running? Looking to get a little bit more serious about your training and improvement? Or maybe you’re concerned about staying healthy while running?
If you said yes to any of those questions, you’re going to want to stick around for this one.
Today’s topic is polarized training, a style of training for endurance athletes, especially runners, that has been scientifically proven to improve performance and running efficiency, and reduce your chances of getting hurt.
Before we talk about polarized training, let’s discuss what other training approaches are out there…
Other Training Approaches
High-volume, low-intensity training is thought to be the fundamental training method for endurance sports. Essentially, training in this manner means that all of your miles are performed at an easy pace over a long duration. If you’re using heart rate to determine intensity, this means lower than 80% of your max heart rate at all times. The idea is that these long, slow miles will improve your aerobic base and VO2 Max.
Lactate Threshold Training
Your lactate threshold is the point at which your body produces more lactic acid than it can clear while exercising. It is approximately 85% of your maximum heart rate. This is usually somewhere between your 10K and half-marathon paces, but can be different for some. Threshold training has been shown to improve running performance and efficiency, especially in untrained or new runners.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High intensity interval training, as it relates to running, is basically the exact opposite of high-volume, low-intensity training. It focuses on running shorter distances at intensities above your lactate threshold (>85% of your max heart rate). HIIT training has been shown to improve endurance performance in both trained and untrained individuals.
So What is Polarized Training?
Polarized training is essentially a combination of the above training methods. The term “polarized” refers to incorporating intensities that are both well below and well above a runner’s threshold.
When practicing polarized training, the most common approach is to run 80% of your miles at an easy, conversational pace (similar to high-volume, low-intensity training). The goal for the remaining 20% of miles is to incorporate a combination of threshold training and high intensity intervals.
What Are the Benefits of Polarized Training?
The main reason to opt for polarized training is that it improves key running performance metrics more so than any of the other 3 approaches individually, including VO2 Max, power production, time to exhaustion, and time trial performance.
In addition to the improving your performance, polarized training inherently provides some variation in your training. Instead of the exact same types of running workouts multiple times per week, a polarized approach exposes your body to different types of stresses throughout the training week. Varying these stresses may help to prepare your body to handle different types of stresses and reduce your overall risk for picking up an injury.
What Types of Workouts Should I Include In A Polarized Training Approach?
This is a great question and really takes us into the practical application of polarized training.
As previously mentioned, the majority of your time is still going to be spent running at a slow, conversational pace. Depending on your experience with running, you should include somewhere between 2-4 of these low-intensity, longer duration runs in your training week.
The remaining 20% of your miles should be a combination of threshold work, in the form of tempo runs, and HIIT, in the form of speed workouts.
Tempo runs usually involve some sort of intervals during which you run between your 10K and half marathon pace.
Speed workouts usually call for even higher intensity intervals compared to tempo runs. These types of sessions can vary a ton, but may look something like 400 meter repeats at your 5K pace or 100 meter repeats at your mile pace.
If you’ve never done any sort of interval work, or you’re brand new to the sport, keep these higher intensity sessions to once or twice a week at first.
Whether you’re new to running or a seasoned veteran, polarized training is the key to improving your performance.
The key lies in sticking to the game plan.
On the days that your sessions are meant to be easy, make sure that you’re actually running easy.
On the days that your sessions are supposed to be high intensity, make sure you’re leaving it all out there!
Doing so will guarantee that you’re getting the most out of polarized training as a runner.
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