There are numerous approaches to cardio training for cyclists.
Some cyclists focus on doing a lot of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), others tend to stick with moderate-intensity steady-state cardio workouts, and others use heart rate zones to guide heart rate training.
Another worthwhile approach is polarized cardio.
Polarized cardio splits the focus to the two extremes, taking the easy workouts super easy, and the hard workouts super hard, with very little training time or energy spent in the murky middle.
But how do you do polarized cardio for cycling? And does polarized cardio work for cyclists?
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- What Is Polarized Cardio for Cyclists?
- What Are the Benefits of Polarized Cardio for Cyclists?
- How Do You Do Polarized Cardio Training?
- Does Polarized Training Work for Cyclists?
- Polarized Training Plan for Cyclists
Ready for the lowdown on polarized cardio for cyclists?
Let’s jump in!
What Is Polarized Cardio for Cyclists?
In much the same way that the North and South Poles are located on the opposite ends of the Earth, polarized training involves splitting your workouts into two extremes: very easy and very hard.
Polarized cardio can be performed with any type of aerobic exercise, such as cycling, running, rowing, and swimming.
Essentially, rather than going “kind of hard” or doing a “moderately-difficult workout,” when you practice polarized training, you only do easy workouts and hard workouts. The murky middle is effectively eliminated.
What really defines polarized cardio is that easy workouts are easy and the hard workouts are hard.
Cyclists who engage in polarized training usually use an 80/20 approach to polarized training, which means that they do 80% of their training volume at an easy, relaxed pace, and 20% of their volume at a high intensity.
The concept of polarized cardio for endurance athletes emerged roughly 20 years ago. Influential coaches and exercise scientists such as Dr. Stephen Seiler started noting that most elite endurance athletes in various sports seemed to be structuring their training with this polarized approach, deliberately or not.
Essentially, many of the top athletes in sports like cycling, running, and cross-country skiing were seemingly performing a lot of low-intensity workouts throughout the week, with high-intensity workouts peppered in.
What they weren’t doing was spending much training time in the middle zones: the “moderate-intensity effort” middle ground.
What Are the Benefits of Polarized Cardio for Cyclists?
It’s not uncommon for recreational and competitive cyclists to end up doing a lot of their rides during the week at the same “sort of comfortable, sort of hard” effort level.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with moderate-intensity cardio or training rides, this may also not be the most effective approach to getting fitter and faster on the bike.
Cyclists who try to incorporate speed workouts and long rides do end up having some distinction between effort levels and cycling speeds for different workouts.
However, even in these cases, the difference between effort levels is often narrowed by flawed recovery rides that aren’t easy enough to truly allow the body to fully recover.
For example, imagine feeling all rested up and 100% ready for a hard workout.
Then, if you do a challenging hill workout with lots of high-intensity climbing, you might be down to 40-50% in terms of how much energy and strength you have left when the workout is over.
In order for a full recovery to occur, you have to bounce back to that initial 100%. If you fuel well and rest overnight, you’ll start the recovery process. The next day, you might be back to 70% or so.
If your recovery ride that next day is too hard, rather than helping you recover further, it will stagnate your recovery, or worse, set you back further.
One day on, you have a big interval workout at your VO2 max pace. Because you did your recovery ride too fast, rather than recovering all the way back to 100%, you’re still at only 70-80%.
Therefore, when you get in the saddle for the workout that really counts – the VO2 max intervals ride – you don’t have a full tank.
As a result, your ability to hit the right paces on your VO2 max intervals is impaired, compromising your potential performance improvements. Essentially, if you can’t hit the right pace on the hard workouts, your body won’t get as much of a strong training stimulus to adapt.
Proponents of polarized cardio argue that moderate-intensity training, such as rides in zone 3, is not effective. This effort level isn’t hard enough to trigger the physiological adaptations required for improved performance, nor is it easy enough to facilitate recovery or improve endurance.
In this way, riding the same pace every day, or doing your cardio workouts at the same intensity level, can limit your fitness progress.
You’re also always targeting the same metabolic pathways.
Additionally, it can increase the risk of overtraining and overuse injuries because there’s no variation in the cadence or pressure used, so the muscles have the exact same stresses. And, without allowing for complete recovery, overtraining and fatigue became real threats.
In short, the primary benefits of polarized training for cyclists include the following:
- Allows you to maximize your potential to perform well in hard workouts, which can cause faster and greater performance improvements.
- Facilitates recovery after workouts.
- Targets different energy-generating pathways, which improves your metabolic flexibility.
- Reduces the risk of overtraining and overuse injuries.
How Do You Do Polarized Cardio Training?
The polarized training model divides training intensities into just three zones, instead of the five heart rate zones traditionally used.
Zone 1 is the low-intensity zone.
You should be able to talk in complete sentences, and it should feel like a very easy effort.
Physiologically, Zone 1 is an intensity level below your lactate threshold or ventilatory threshold and usually corresponds to 70-75% of your maximum heart rate.
Zone 2 is the moderate-intensity zone.
You should be able to speak short sentences, and the effort should feel “comfortably hard.”
Zone 2 falls between your lactate threshold and respiratory compression threshold or critical speed, and usually corresponds to a heart rate of about 80-85% of your maximum heart rate.
Zone 3 is the high-intensity zone.
When riding in Zone 3, you will only be able to utter a couple of words at a time, or very choppy sentences. This is a very hard effort.
The heart rate while riding in Zone 3 is above 85% of your maximum heart rate.
Generally speaking, cyclists engaging in the polarized cardio training model spend about 80% of their training time in Zone 1 and 20% of their training time in Zone 3, with virtually no time in Zone 2; hence, the polarization.
With that said, polarized training has adapted to include a few different iterations in terms of distributions of training volume and zones.
Some coaches who still consider themselves relying on a polarized training approach combine zones 2 and 3 together, and therefore athletes do 80% of their training in zone 1 and 20% of their training in zones 2 and 3 combined.
Other cyclists adapt polarized training even further, by spending 70% of their training volume in Zone 1, 20% of their volume in Zone 2, and 10% in Zone 3.
Technically, this latter approach should be distinguished as pyramidal training, but the term polarized training is often still used.
Does Polarized Training Work for Cyclists?
So, does polarized training work?
There is some compelling research pointing towards the benefits of polarized training for endurance athletes.
One study compared the effectiveness of four different approaches to training on improvements in aerobic capacity (VO2 max) over the course of nine weeks.
The researchers split a group of 48 highly-trained endurance athletes (runners, cyclists, triathletes, and cross-country skiers) into four different training programs: high-volume training, “threshold training,” high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and polarized training.
Out of all four approaches, the athletes assigned to the polarized training group experienced the most significant improvements in VO2 max, time to exhaustion, and peak velocity/power after the nine weeks.
The athletes in the polarized training groups increased their VO2 max by 12%, time to exhaustion by 17%, and peak velocity/power by 5%.
Moreover, not only did polarized training lead to significant improvements in the tested endurance performance parameters, but the other training programs were found to not cause improvements in any of the variables measured.
It should be noted that some cyclists and coaches critique the polarized cardio model, arguing that it does not really allow for race specificity training. This is because any tempo efforts are ditched, and most cycling endurance races are performed in those “sweet spot” intensity levels.
Polarized Training Plan for Cyclists
Remember, with polarized training, you want to do about 80% of your mileage or training time in Zone 1 and 20% in Zone 3.
For example, if you’re riding 10 hours a week, you’ll do 8 hours at your easy effort and 2 hours at a high intensity.
Here’s our example polarized cardio training plan for cyclists. You can modify it to suit your training goals, sticking to the principles above.
- Monday: 1-hour VO2 max ride. Warm up and cool down in Zone 1. Workout: 6 x 3 minutes at HR of 90% or above.
- Tuesday: 1-hour easy ride (Zone 1).
- Wednesday: Rest (or 1-hour easy ride).
- Thursday: 1 hour VO2 max ride. Warm up and cool down in Zone 1. Workout: 20 x 45 seconds flat out.
- Friday: Rest.
- Saturday: 2-3 hour easy ride.
- Sunday: Rest (or 1-hour easy ride).
Now you know all about polarized cardio…
Although polarized cardio isn’t guaranteed to work for every cyclist, if you find your progress is stagnating, or you feel stuck in a rut in terms of the speed you’re riding, it could well be worth utilizing.
Even if you’re not interested in fully doing away with every tempo ride or moderate-intensity workout, you can try taking your easy days really easy to see if you’re better able to push yourself to your maximum potential in your hard workouts.
This way you can still see some of the benefits of polarized cardio, even if you’re not willing to make it the cornerstone of your training routine.