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Finlay McAndrew  •  Running Training •  12.06.2019 •  8 min read

The benefits of polarised training

Unfortunately there isn’t a best way to train, as runners will differ in how they respond to various training stimulus. Research in sport science has identified different models of training that are commonly used by elite athletes. These are ‘big volume’, ‘lactate threshold’ and ‘polarised’. Some runners may respond better (get more adaptations) from one style of training than another and it is impossible to say which is the optimum without knowing the athlete very well. What science has shown us is that the majority of us will respond best to a polarised training model.

How a 'polarised' training model can improve your run?

A polarised training model means that the intensity of training is either very easy or very hard and training volume is typically lower than other models like big volume or lactate threshold. The principles of this training model have been backed up by significant research.

Why is this training model so effective? There are three main reasons:

  1. Stops runners training in the ‘grey zone’. A lot of runners make the mistake of running at the same pace in their runs. This ultimately results in a plateau in performance. Running in the ‘grey zone’ results in significant fatigue without significant adaptations.
  2. Involves doing a relatively short amount of intense work (less than 20% of overall load per week). You need to work at high intensities to maximise training adaptations but you also need to be able to recover from these efforts to get fitter and stronger. Doing a small amount of high intensity training allows the body time to absorb the work.
  3. Ensures that runners do their easy training easy. Most runners do their easy runs too fast. This causes a considerable amount of fatigue and stops them being able to do their faster runs at the right intensity because they’re too tired. Running at easier intensities is also important for getting fitter as we get specific adaptations when training at lower efforts.

Principles of aerobic vs anaerobic training

A polarised training model is based on sound scientific principles.

We produce energy when running by converting carbohydrate, fat and protein in to something called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). This is the energy currency of the body. We produce energy both anaerobically (without oxygen) and aerobically (with oxygen). How energy is produced is dependent on what intensity we run at. Different energy systems are used to make ATP depending on the length and intensity of running.

A polarised training model is designed to work different energy systems in the optimum way to maximise training adaptations.

Runner Running up Steps

Aerobic metabolism

Aerobic metabolism is the way your body creates energy through the combustion of carbohydrates, amino acids, and fats in the presence of oxygen.

When? This pathway will be used for longer or lower intensity running.

How? Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are converted to ATP, using oxygen. The circulatory system has to supply oxygen to the working muscles before ATP can be produced. This pathway produces energy slower than anaerobic metabolism. Training at lower intensity will improve our aerobic metabolism and improve our efficiency to produce energy in this way.

Training effect? Going slower will result in more energy being produced from fat metabolism. Breaking down fat in to energy versus carbohydrate takes longer and yields less energy. However, we have a finite amount of carbohydrate stored in the body but an abundance of fat stored.

Runner on Trail

Becoming more efficient at metabolising fat will improve your ability to sustain a higher pace for longer distances with fewer fluctuations in energy levels. This is particularly important for runners training for longer distance events.

You can use heart rate or pace as a guide for making sure you’re not going too hard or fast in these runs. Running at a slower pace won’t induce as much fatigue as faster paced sessions. This will result in you feeling fresher and more ready to work hard when you need to.

Anaerobic glycolysis

This is when we produce energy from carbohydrate only and with no oxygen used. Lactate acid is produced as result.

When? This system will be used when exercise intensity is moderate to high because this is the fastest way to produce energy. At high intensities, lactate acid will accumulate in the body causing a burning sensation. This level of intensity is difficult to sustain for prolonged periods of time.

Training Effect? Performing short and faster paced runs will result in this energy system being used. Doing this type of training will increase the point at which lactate acid can’t be cleared from blood as fast as it’s accumulating. Otherwise known as the lactate threshold.

Doing short and faster efforts will bring about various other adaptations that enable us to go faster. Training hard increases our ability to work harder for longer. Running never gets any easier, we just go faster. Harder or faster running gets the mind and body comfortable with being uncomfortable.

By following a polarised training model and only doing relatively small proportion of overall training at this intensity, we will be able to recover from it. You don’t get faster when you train, you get faster when you recover. If you’re training at a load that is too great for you to absorb your performance will plateau and it may even deteriorate.

Examples of training sessions

Tips to nail your 'easy runs'

  1. It's not about the speed. For easier running, heart rate or pace can be used as guides to make sure you’re going at the right intensity. Just going by feel can be equally as effective though. Running at a certain pace one day may feel different from running at that pace on another depending on other factors such as fatigue. Using perception of effort will ensure that you are going at the right pace.
  2. Use softer shoes. Don’t be blinded by data, it is useful when used in the right way. For slower or longer runs, try using softer cushioned shoes, as your muscles and joints will flex less so it can feel easier.
  3. Gradually build up your training. Having a longer slower paced run each week is essential for improving your aerobic efficiency and overall fitness. Building the time or distance of this run gradually is the most effective way to build fitness and reduce the chances of getting injured.

Incorporating shorter slower runs in your training plan, as ‘recovery’ runs, will keep muscles pliable and loose. You should never feel guilty about running at an easier intensity. Hopefully this article gives clarity about the benefits of running at easier paces.

Principles for faster paced sessions

  1. Use pace as your indicator. The best way to perform faster paced running is to use pace. Heart rate won’t change as quickly as pace so you may end up working too hard or not hard enough because your heart rate hasn’t changed enough in the time of the interval. A GPS watch will track your pace, distance, time, heart rate, rest times and much more (depending on the model).
  2. Break your session into intervals. Interval training involves doing harder or faster paced running for a set number of repetitions with a set amount of active rest between each rep. The active rest enables us to run at a pace for the intervals that we would find extremely difficult to sustain if we ran for the cumulative time of the intervals with no rest. Doing intervals of 2 minutes to 4 minutes in duration, depending on fitness level, are very effective. Set a pace that is challenging and difficult to sustain for the duration of the repetitions. This pace could be a little bit quicker than your 5km pace for example.
  3. The importance of active recovery. Take enough rest between repetitions that allows you to recover enough to repeat the interval several times. The rest time could be equal to the interval time for example. It is important to keeping moving during the rest period so it’s active recovery. Continuing to move stops lactate acid from accumulating.

As you get fitter, you can increase the speed at which you are performing the intervals, reduce the rest time, increase the amount of reps performed or gradually increase the time of intervals. Using stiffer and more responsive shoes will help you when running faster as they will return more energy than a softer cushioned shoe.

Runner Stretching

Focus on quality over quantity

Doing training in this way is very time effective as the emphasis is on the quality of training and not the overall training volume. Doing a 60 minute run at the right intensity will be much more beneficial than doing a 90 minute run with no clear aim or objective.

The saying ‘more is not always better’ could not be more relevant to running. We all have time constraints and no one has limitless time to train. Using this type of training is very practical for many people as they can get faster and fitter with less training than going out and running at the same pace every run. Giving your runs a goal and aim will ensure that they are beneficial to your overall target and help you stick to the right pace.

Doing a 60 minute run at the right intensity will be much more beneficial than doing a 90 minute run with no clear aim or objective.

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