A Quick Update on Polarized Training

Now that race season is coming around, I thought it might be the right time to write a quick update on polarized training.  Admittedly, the idea wasn’t exactly mine– a reader named Larry asked me about it on Facebook.  But I thought it’s good information to share with everyone, especially now that it’s changing a tiny bit to get ready for race season.

It’s been a few months now since I posted my thoughts of how to actually implement a polarized training plan.  In fact, I haven’t posted about it since October of last year— when I was just starting out on my polarized training adventure.

Lots of Distance and “Tough Speed”

Back in October, the first goal was to get a long-distance base.  For me, this was about 50-60 miles a week.  Every day in the lousy Seattle weather, I would slog my way slowly through ten miles a day.  Ugh.  Lots of slow, easy miles.  My race pace at the time for this distance would have probably been a tad faster than 7:00 per mile and my heart rate would be about 155 bpm– but for these easy runs, I was barely running at 10:00 per mile and my heart rate was a sluggish 110 bpm.  I opted to keep the daily mileage the same because I wasn’t shooting for running a marathon– just getting a consistent base of slow miles.

Once I got to 60 miles a week, I reduced my mileage to about 50 miles and started adding in some speed.  “Polarized,” after all, implies an emphasis on extreme opposites.  And in a classic polarized plan, this means lots of initial work on maxVO2 work.  So my goal was to progress from 300 meter repeats (done at about 800 meter race pace) up to 8-minute intervals over the course of several months.  A typical progression might be:

  • Week 1: 6 x 300 meters on 2-3 minutes recovery
  • Week 2: 8 x 300 meters on 2-3 minutes recovery
  • Week 3: 6 x 400 meters on 3 minutes recovery
  • Week 4: 8 x 400 meters on 3 minutes recovery
  • Week 5: 4 x 800 meters on 3 minutes recovery
  • Week 6: 6 x 800 meters on 3 minutes recovery

During these first few weeks, the efforts are really high– hence the long recoveries.  The 400 meter intervals are run at about all-out mile pace and the 800 meter intervals are run only slightly slower than that.  This means that all of these efforts are at maxVO2 pace or faster.  After these first few weeks, I intended to change things up a bit.

Stephen Seiler, the exercise physiologist who first really discovered the polarized training pattern used by world class athletes, tried to identify the ideal interval length and effort.  In his research, Stephen found that 8-minute were particularly effective compared to other interval lengths.  His workout pattern of 4 x 8 minutes on two minutes recovery was pretty much the perfect formula– it raised BOTH maxVO2 and lactate threshold running pace.  But these workouts are super-tough.  The goal is to run the 8-minute efforts as hard as you can for the total workout.  This means that you’re running at right around what you could sustain in a 5K to half-hour race.

Why is this workout so effective?  My take on it is that true all-out 5K to 30-minute race pace sits right between lactate threshold and maxVO2 in terms of effort level.  One of the key principles of polarized training is to avoid training “in the middle”– which means right around lactate threshold.  But racing most distance races means that you have to have an impressive lactate threshold pace.  I think that the secret to this workout is that it gives a super-strong push to boosting lactate threshold by staying above it– but not too far above it.

So how do you get to this sizzling effective workout.  Well, the base established in the first few weeks sets a good base for it by emphasizing maxVO2 or higher.  To put it in Philip Skiba’s terms, we’ve got a nice high roof (maxVO2), so now we can work on raising the ceiling (lactate threshold).  But we’ll do that in a very polarized way– by running faster and harder than our lactate threshold.

  • Week 7: 4 x 1200 meters on 2 minutes recovery
  • Week 8: 4 x 1600 meters on 2 minutes recovery
  • Week 9: 4 x 2000 meters on 2 minutes recovery

For me, eight minute intervals comes out almost exactly at 2000 meters.  If you’re faster or slower, you can tweak this schedule accordingly.  The goal is ultimately to run right about eight minute efforts HARD and give yourself only two minutes of recovery. Because this workout is designed to be run “as fast as possible,” it’s perfectly fine to repeat it for several weeks in a row– hopefully, you’ll get gradually faster each week.  Whether you get faster between the weeks or not really isn’t super-critical– if you really give them your best effort, your race pace is going to increase.  Guaranteed.

Lot of Dawdling Miles for Recovery but a Reduction in Miles

Once you start to get into the once-a-week interval workouts, it’ll become quite clear how important those slower days can be. In fact, I found myself actually getting slower on my recovery days– especially the day after the track workouts.  In fact, sometimes my runs became half running and half walking.  The early season big volume helps build a good aerobic engine but it also made me into a much tougher runner if I remembered to keep the pace slow.  Being both aerobically and physically tougher were critical to being able to run the speed sessions successfully.  Of course, this isn’t anything new– runners under the Lydiard program have been doing this for generations.  I have a friend who runs blistering fast marathons (e.g. 2:30) and he won’t go near a track for speedwork until he has a base of at least a few weeks at 50+ miles a week.

For myself, however, the progression in the season means a reduction in miles.  I think the magical safe lower limit on miles for a multisport athlete in a polarized training program is about 25-30 miles a week (versus 50 miles a week for my marathon runner buddy).  My body just can’t sustain 50 miles a week of running, PLUS an extra 6-8 miles of speed work, PLUS tough cycling workouts.  As speed work and cycling start to increase, weekly running mileage decrease.  Right now, for instance, I’m at about 35-40 miles a week and loving it.

A Bit of Funnel Periodization

My original ideas on training focused on funnel periodization.  This was brought home to me by Steve Magness, who I think is is the greatest young running coach in America.  The idea here is that a season starts with a highly-polarized format– lots of long slow running and lots of high-speed running to prime the neurological system (e.g. 8-second uphill blasts made famous by coaches like Brad Hudson and the legendary Renato Canova).  As the season progresses, the funnel narrows to be more and more race-specific.  This means transitioning towards workouts like tempo runs and progression runs that are highly-specific to the demands of racing.

While I’m in the thick of it right now, my goals over the coming weeks will be to focus on extending out the length of intervals from 8-minute efforts to something longer– maybe just short of the traditional 20-minute tempo effort.  But I want to keep the efforts still higher than lactate threshold.  This makes traditional 20-minute efforts a tad impractical in training because running them at faster than lactate threshold pace puts them uncomfortably close to race pace.  Instead, I think 12-15 minutes is about as high as I’m willing to go while keeping the intensity this high.  Of course, if someone wants me to run a 5-10K race instead, that would be quite the ideal workout!

Given that I’m just about at 6:30 pace for my 8-minute efforts, my intervals will probably top out at 2 miles or 2-1/4 miles– maybe on 3-4 minutes recovery to help keep the pace high.  While this isn’t close to the ideal 4 x 8 minutes x 2 minutes in Stephen Seiler’s research, any coach will tell you that there are diminishing returns from doing the same workout for too many weeks on end.  Plus, as coaches like Steve Magness will tell you, it’s really important to keep a mix of energy systems and there is a very different mix going on in 15 minute intervals than in 8-minute intervals (I’m sure it’s not as mixed as Steven would ideally like– but hey I’m just an aging duathlete who has to fit my bike workouts into this mix as well).

  • Week 14: 3 x 1.5 miles on 2 minutes recovery
  • Week 15: 4 x 1.5 miles on 2-3 minutes recovery
  • Week 16: 3 x 2 miles on 3 minutes recovery

Admittedly, these longer intervals can be a little soul-crushing but, as I recently blogged about, using “broken” intervals is a great way to make these high-intensity, long duration intervals bearable.  For instance, each 1.5 mile effort can be broken down into 3 x 800m on 15 seconds recovery.

After a few weeks at this longer distance, I’ll have my A-race (for this year, that’s Duathlon Nationals in St. Paul), take a little break, and then focus on my cycling power to bring it in line with my running speed (future post teaser: here I’ve been playing with my ideas on shorter cranks and having great results).  Depending on how things go and what I feel like doing with my race season, I may either maintain my peak by folding in a variety of training stimuli into my speed work sessions– or simply going back to the start and have a new (but shorter) buildup for autumn races.

Results?  Awesome!

So how has all this training actually progressed this year?  In a word: awesome.  While I’ve hardly raced at all because of weekend commitments (more on that in a future post), my running times have been really fast.  How fast?

  • Two weeks ago, I ran 4 x 1-mile on two minutes recovery at 6:20 average pace.  I have a hard time really pushing myself to run super-hard in training and that pace is slightly faster than my 5K pace.
  • Last week, I ran 4 x 1.5 miles on two minutes recovery at about 6:25 pace.  Longer intervals and short recovery has usually been a deadly combination in the past.  This year, it’s not a problem.  And keeping it so close to my 1-mile effort pace is a real breakthrough for me.
  • On Friday evening, I ran my weekly 11-mile long run a bit too fast (sorry– violated polarized training principle number one) at about 7:15 pace.  This felt hard and fast, but certainly not a race intensity effort.  I’ve run all-out half-marathons slower than this so I was quite happy with the results.
  • Only two days later, I did a duathlon brick to simulate the St. Paul effort coming up.  My goal wasn’t to run it at race pace– just a good solid effort at “about 90%.”  I ran my opening 5K at 7:10 pace, my 20-mile bike at 94% FTP, and my closing 5K at 6:59 pace.  Each leg would have been respectable race efforts for me– and combined this workout was probably even a little faster than I raced at St. Paul last year.  My heart rate was also a good 10-12 beats below my race effort and I felt really comfortable the whole way.  For me, that’s pretty amazing coming on the heels of that long hard run.  I can’t wait to see how it plays out when it comes race time!
  • And then only two days after that (last night), I ran a blend workout of 4 x (1 mile, 2-minute rest, 400 meter, 3-minute rest) with my miles at 6:29 average and my 400’s at a speedy 5:40 pace.  In a future post, I’ll talk about blend workouts, which Steve Magness describes in great detail– I think they need to be in every multisport athlete’s training plan.

So, yes, polarized training works well.  Really, really well.  Granted, the last week has seen me run a LOT more speed than a polarized training program usually includes (this week was at about 50% instead of 20-25%) and I’m going to have to settle back shortly.  But I wouldn’t be here without that base of easy miles punctuated with a sprinkling of fast stuff.

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