The objective of any training, no matter the event, is to achieve the highest level of adaptation while experiencing minimal fatigue. Unlike untrained or moderately-trained exercisers who are often working out to lose weight or burn calories, high performance athletes additionally have the ultimate goal to improve athletic performance. The best way to achieve this is by implementing an adaptive approach to training rather than merely increasing training volume.
The Polarized Training Model
Observations of workouts of many elite athletes show consistent themes relating to the polarization of effort. The majority of training time is spent at easier, sub-lactate threshold (zone one) levels or the difficult, high-intensity (zone three) levels, while very little time is spent training at medium, lactate threshold (zone two) levels. This “polarized” approach to training is the principal factor that differentiates top athletes from their peers, notes Seiler of Agder University. The polarized training model is characterized by a reduction in total training volume offset by an increase in the volume of training above the lactate (anaerobic) threshold.
To develop a polarized training plan for the individual, it is necessary to evaluate the athlete’s abilities objectively. This includes conducting tests to determine the athlete’s lactate profile, oxygen utilization and sometimes VO2max. Coach Neal Henderson recommends that all tests be done in a lab and followed by field responses.
Athletes who do not have access to a lab can still determine lactic threshold level through simple breathing tests. At sub-threshold, breathing is accelerated but controlled. When the athlete exceeds the anaerobic threshold, breathing becomes gasped and less controlled.
In the field, Henderson recommends conducting power profiling, a procedure developed by author Andrew Coggan, Ph.D. This involves assessing maximum power at five seconds, five minutes and 20 minutes. The five-minute test relates to the VO2max reading in the lab, while the 20-minute maximal effort is comparable to lactate threshold. Testing can be completed either in a single session, as Dr. Coggan recommends, or spread over a number of days, as is Henderson’s preferred method. During field tests, it can also be beneficial to film athletes to allow them to view their movement when working at the different zones to better understand their mechanics and see where improvement is needed.
In his experience, Henderson reports seeing differences between lab and field statistics infrequently; however, underachieving in the field can mandate the need to work on cadence and pacing in order to best improve athletic performance. Henderson recommends repeats in field testing every four to eight weeks for athletes in this position.
Data collected is used to define the athlete’s training zones in order to best determine the polarities that will improve athletic performance. In this way, the athlete can develop a regime that incorporates both extremely easy and very challenging workouts.
All the above tests should be repeated after three or four months for a reassessment, by which time athletes should have experienced significant changes in their performance that is likely to affect the polarities.
Regardless of the specific approach, competitors trying to break through to the next level and improve peak performance should consider a polarized training model.