Boost your Race Performance with Polarized Training

by Sandro Sket, Run Coach at run4speed.com

Most runners overlook “polarized training”, perhaps, because it sounds like an extreme approach to running training. Without exception, though, all of the elite runners adhere to it religiously. In fact, they have no other choice as they can’t afford stagnation or injury. So what is “polarized training”? What are the benefits? What will you have to change in order to train like the elite?


The Status Quo

If you are like most runners, you like that feeling of comfortable hard runs for a comfortable length of time. It seems time-efficient and you leave training with a perceived sense of accomplishment, without being all worn out. These are commonly medium distance runs with a pace slightly under the lactate threshold, which fall somewhere into marathon to half-marathon pace. Whenever the race season approaches or you step up one race distance, you simply add mileage to these workouts, or you schedule 1 or 2 additional runs each week. You try harder and it works somehow – but you have never really had a breakthrough either.

The main culprit with this approach to running is twofold. First, these runs do not challenge your physiological systems sufficiently to significantly upgrade your VO2max, lactate threshold and neuromuscular recruitment – all of which make you a faster runner at any distance. Second, these moderate runs are still taxing your body to a large degree, hence you won’t be adequately recovered to handle these potent high-intensity runs and you won’t be able to increase your total mileage either. It is a double defeat before you even step up to the starting line in the hope that you magically perform better this time around, which most certainly you won’t.


The 80/20 Rule

There have been numerous studies in recent years to unveil the most effective ratio of high-intensity, moderate-intensity, and low-intensity training prescription. As it turns out, the most potent mix was a combination of 80% at low intensity paces and 20% high-intensity runs. The average runner, by comparison, logs roughly 45% at low-intensity, 45% at moderate intensity and 10% at high intensity. At the same total mileage, this is a harder training program to digest, even though it features less than half the amount of the crucial high-intensity training. In other words, more total effort with less results towards a better race performance.

Now, that is not to say moderate-intensity paces do not have a place in a sound training program. For half-marathon and marathon runners, moderate paces equal race paces for those distances. Thus, once an endurance base is established with low-intensity runs (easy runs, long runs), and top speed fitness (intervals, repetitions) on the other end of the spectrum, moderate paces close the gap in the final weeks prior to a race to function effectively at race-specific paces. These are your tempo runs and marathon pace runs. They can be stand-alone runs or they can be attached as a portion at the end of a long run for maximum effect.

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The Benefit of 20% High Intensity

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and its benefits has been all the rage in recent years. In exercise science, it is defined as a pace at or above lactate threshold. It yields high rewards with a relatively low input of time. The problem, however, is recovery. A 5x 1K interval session at 95% of VO2max is equally hard, if not harder to bounce back from than a 15K long run at 65% of VO2max, despite being only 1/3 the distance. Yet 1 to 2 high intensity interval sessions per week is all that is needed to maximize your VO2max, lactate threshold, and neuromuscular recruitment. This is the type of training that makes fast runners fast.

The most common HIIT runs are sprint repetitions, VO2max intervals and to some extent  “cruise intervals”. Sprint repetitions are a magnificent way to train muscular power and neuromuscular recruitment. 400s at 1500m race pace with a work to rest ratio of 1:2 get the job done. Do these early in your training cycle. VO2max intervals, as the name implies, are the best tool to increase your maximal oxygen uptake capacity. A 5x 1K at 5K race pace with a work to rest ratio of 1:1 is a classic workout. Finally, cruise intervals are meant to raise your lactate threshold. For most runners this coincides with a 15K race pace. A 2x 3K with a 1min rest is enough for most runners to stimulate a response in training.


The Purpose of 80% Low Intensity

Low intensity running training is not the sexy part of running. In the fitness community it has recently been regarded as an inefficient use of time to get “fit”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. First of all, this type of training can be done on a daily basis without placing large amounts of stress on your body. This is what we call the ‘mileage game’. Secondly, it does a great job to single out the slow-twitch endurance muscle fibers. Especially the long runs lead to unique adaptations as they deplete glycogen stores and train your fat-metabolism. Control these runs with a heart rate monitor. The pace range should be at 60 – 75% of VO2max.

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In this category fall: recovery runs, easy runs and long runs. A midweek easy run and a weekend long run are the absolute minimum for distance runners from the 5K to the marathon. The exact distance depends on your event and your training level. The long run is generally 50% longer than your midweek easy run but it should not make up more than 30% of your total training volume. Recovery runs can be added, at will, on other days. Often they are regarded as ‘junk miles’. Runners of an advanced age fare better to leave out recovery runs and replace them with a cross-training activity, such as swimming, cycling or strength-training.


Genetic Type & Race Distance

While all runners should follow the established principles of exercise science, it is important to note that runners differ considerably in their genetic make-up, and therefore respond differently to certain training stimuli. The biggest distinction is an individual’s muscle fiber type ratio. Athletes with a natural capacity for speed tend to have a larger percentage of Type IIa and Type IIx fast-twitch muscle fibers and, therefore, respond very well to high intensity training. By contrast, athletes who are predominantly Type I slow-twitch are able to tolerate more extended tempo runs and long runs. Small modifications on the 80/20 rule may apply.

The other factor determining the amount of high intensity vs. low intensity is your race distance. A 5K runner would need a fair amount of running at high intensities as the event itself is run at 95% of VO2max, which is way above lactate threshold. Hence, a 75/25 ratio could be more beneficial. A marathon runner, on the other hand, would fare better with an intensity ratio slightly skewed towards lower intensities, since marathon race-pace itself is well below lactate threshold for most runners. Thus 85/15. Having said all that, perhaps, the ideal approach is to keep a running log and notice what training ratio works best for you.

Sandro Sket,

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist – run4speed.com

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