Polarized training for running: does it work?

Polarized training for running
What are the benefits of polarized training for running? (Image credit: Getty)

There are a number of different types of training for runners and this includes polarized training. Put simply, polarized training for running refers to a specific type of training intensity distribution and it’s a way of organizing and distributing intensity within a training plan. It can be used for all types of sports but in this article we’ll focus on running.

Polarized training for running

Polarized training is identified as a plan for fitness gains (Image credit: Getty)

Polarized training for running: the details

Jamie Lloyd, a performance coach, explains that a good quality training plan that offers the best results for runners will “productively balance training stress with recovery over time".

He adds: “When you hear about polarized training this means a running plan will be periodized in different ways, dividing the overall structure of stress and recovery into annual, monthly, weekly, or block-by-block cycles, for instance. 

“Training intensity distributions such as polarized training are a way of organizing training stress within a periodized structure.”

Common training intensity distributions

Jamie, who is also a Bio-Synergy ambassador, reveals there are different versions of training intensity plans. 

High Volume Low Intensity Training (Long slow distance): Training composed mostly of long, low-intensity workouts; often associated with base training. 

Threshold Training (THR): Training primarily occurring at moderate intensities, not to be confused with the Threshold Power Zone or Threshold intervals (these are actually high-intensity efforts).

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Training mostly composed of short, hard efforts at high intensity and low volume.

Pyramidal Training (PYR): Training at a mix of intensities, with the most time spent at low intensity, less time at moderate intensities, and the least time spent at high intensity. Most TrainerRoad training plans are pyramidal in design.

Polarized Training (POL): Training mostly at high or low intensity, with little to no time spent training at moderate intensity. 

Polarized training for running

Polarized training see runners doing sessions that are mostly at high or low intensity (Image credit: Getty)

What are the benefits of polarized training?

It’s claimed that the main reason to opting for polarized training is that it improves key performance metrics – and more so than any of the other approaches individually, including VO2 Max, power production, time to exhaustion and time trial performance.

Jamie, who also works as a pain relief expert, adds: “In addition to the improving your performance, polarized training inherently provides some variation in your training. 

“Instead of exactly the same types of endurance workouts multiple times per week, a polarized approach exposes your body to different types of stresses throughout the training week. 

“Varying these stresses is thought to help to prepare your body to handle different types of stresses and reduce your overall risk for picking up an injury.”

To further explain Jamie reveals that it’s thought that moderate-hard intensity training, which is not the focus of the polarized approach to training, is “rather unproductive” for making fitness gains. 

The performance coach adds: “Instead, it polarized training proposes that endurance athletes such as triathletes, runners and cyclists would be better to spend a large proportion of their training time working at low intensity, that is in the ‘easy’ and purely aerobic zone, plus a a small proportion at a very high intensity, near the athlete’s maximum power output.

“The thinking is that polarized training provides an excellent ‘aerobic foundation’ yet allows for high-intensity work that really stimulates training adaptation without becoming too tired.”

Although, Jamie does point out that if runners follow any well-designed training program, and stick to it and don’t over train, they will make fitness gains. 

Polarized training for running

Low intensity sessions are part of a polarized training plan for runners (Image credit: Getty)

What about the science of polarized training?

Studies have revealed that the use of a polarized approach among elite athletes is no coincidence because it really does seem to offer performance benefits. 

For example, one study looked at cyclists who completed two blocks of six-week endurance training periods with similar total training volumes but with differing intensity distributions.

The first, was polarized training, averaging 6.4 hours per week spending 80%, 0% and 20% of training time in low, moderate and high intensity zones respectively;

The second was a more middle-of-the-road block, averaging 7.5 hours per week spending 57%, 43% and 0% of training time in low, moderate and high intensity zones respectively.

Although both training periods produced fitness gains, the polarized training regime resulted in a 5% extra gain in peak power output, a 48% extra gain in high-intensity exercise capacity and a 7% extra gain in power output at lactate threshold. 

These results also tied in neatly with those from a comprehensive study on triathletes, cyclists, runners and cross-country skiers.

This study compared four training approaches over a nine-week period (high-volume training, lactate threshold-training, high-intensity interval training and polarized training) to see which produced the greatest gains in key components of endurance performance. 

The results showed that while the high-intensity intervals produced good gains, it was the polarized training that resulted in the greatest improvements.

Interestingly, both the lactate threshold and high volume (mainly low-intensity work with very little high-intensity training) approaches failed to produce any further improvement in endurance and this is noteworthy because this is how many endurance athletes actually train.

How to follow a polarized training plan

It's a good idea to consult with a sports performance coach to fully benefit from a polarized training programme for runners. Ensuring you are training in the right zones will allow you to make the greatest gains. 

Fiona Russell
Outdoor writer

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.