Polarized Training – how to become a better cyclist

Polarized Training close to the sea in Sicily


In the beginning of a cyclist career, almost any reasonably training plan will produce improvement. However, after some years the training plan probably needs more consideration if the athlete still wants to improve.

The polarized training model has shown promising results compared to other training models in different studies and therefore will be the subject of this article.

Seiler & Toennessen made an interesting study in 2009 where they examined the training data of professional cross-country skiers and rowers. Their findings suggest that most of the athletes training were either in low power zones or in very high power zones. Remarkably short time the athletes spend around AT (Aerobic Threshold). Typically the athletes distributed their training intensity in the different zones around 75% at low intensity, 10% around AT, and 15% at a High intensity above Threshold.

Symbol of Sicily

What is really interesting with Seiler's study is that he examined training data over a long period. Typical, studies are conducted in a controlled environment Like a stationary bike over a few weeks. Instead of testing, Seiler analyzed the athletes training and found this Polarized approach in the way the top athletes conducted their longterm training. Besides a testing study by CM Neal et al confirms Seiler's observation.

In this study, the researchers had 12 well-trained cyclists doing two different training routines. Before each routine the cyclist had a detraining period of four weeks. The two training routines lasted each 6 weeks:

Polarized model: 80% low-intensity; 0% medium-intensity; 20% high-intensity.

Threshold model: 57% low-intensity; 43% medium-intensity; 0% high-intensity.

The physical cardiovascular improvement was greater for the Polarized model. You can go into more details about these studies in the links below.

Bike Chain

Does this mean that Polarized training is the “right” way to train if you want to maximize your training level? For now, there is not an easy answer to that question. Paula Radcliffe, the famous marathon runner, based her training on a lot of medium-intensity just under lactate threshold. She sat the world record back in 2003 - a record she still holds to this day. She reached the highest level of her sport with a different training approach. Could she have been even better with a polarized approach? we will never know.

What we can extract from studies on the subject is that, without reasonable doubt, high-intensity training (HIT) is an important part of your training if you want to ride fast.

But how can we use this knowledge for cycling if we want to apply this Polarized Training Model in praxis?

First, you need to determine your Lactate Threshold Power and/or Lactate Threshold heart rate. You can use heart rate if you don’t have a power meter but I will urge you do get one because it gives you a more direct and precise response and measurement.


Testing to use the Polarized Training model in practice.


In theory, you have to make a laboratory-based testing with invasive blood sampling but very few have access to this kind of test. So the next best is to either rely on training data collected or do a Lactate Threshold test. Manny scientist and coaches agree that you Lactate Threshold is the average heart rate or power you can sustain for one hour.

In the following, I will concentrate on Lactate Threshold Power test that can be done without a laboratory equipment. What you need is a power meter. You can do the one hour test but most people I know never get this done because it is way too long to keep focus for most.

So what I suggest is that you do a 20 min. all out test on your road bike. It is important that you find a circuit or a long road where you will not have to stop at any point during the test - like in a race.

From the average power, you can sustain for those 20 mins. you detract 5%. Here is an example:

Average power: 300 watt x 0,95 = 285 watt is your Lactate Threshold Power.

When you have established your Lactate Threshold Power you can put your number into the following model made by Andrew R. Coggan.

Bike Chain

So to follow the Polarized training approach you have to spend approx. 80% of your training time in level 1-2 and 20% on level 5-7. It is, of course, impossible in practice so try to aim for something like 75% on level 1-2 and keep level 3-4 under 10% and spend 15% on level 5-7.

Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all optimal training intensity distribution so ultimately you have to experiment and ideally have a coach help you find out what works best for you.


Seiler S et al
Adaptions to Aerobic interval training: interactive effects of exercise intensity and total work duration.
Scand J Med Sci Sports 23, 74-83, 2013

Stephen Seiler and Espen Tønnessen
Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training

CM Neal et al.
Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists