Polarized Training: Go Slow to Go Fast

Get out of training purgatory with a polarized approach.

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You’re working your tail off day after day—so why aren’t you getting faster? Turns out that hard work actually might be hindering your progress as an athlete. One of the biggest mistakes athletes can make is taking a “Goldilocks” approach to training: not too hard, not too easy, but somewhere in the middle. It may feel just right, but it’s anything but. Enter: polarized training.

“Amateurs often fall into this trap,” explains Dr. Thomas Stöggl, a sport and exercise science researcher at the University of Salzburg. “Their training plan says they should do an easy run, but they do it slightly too hard, which depletes their energy and prolongs their recovery. Then, when they’ve got a hard workout on the training plan, they’re too fatigued for a high quality effort. They’re constantly in that middle ground, and wonder why they can’t reach their performance goals.”

Besides keeping you in performance purgatory, the Goldilocks approach can lead to burnout; if you’re doing all your workouts at the same intensity, things get really boring, really fast. It’s no wonder so many triathletes get stuck and frustrated in a training rut.

To avoid this trap, commit to a polarized approach this season. The polarized training philosophy places an emphasis on the opposing “poles” of the intensity spectrum; easy workouts are truly performed at an easy effort, and hard sessions are actually hard. In the polarized approach, there is no middle ground.

“The polarized training approach works well for me,” says multiple Ironman champion Linsey Corbin. “It’s made me a more dynamic athlete, because my range has increased.” Prior to taking the polarized approach, Corbin often found herself in the middle-intensity trap. When she dropped her easy workouts to a truly easy level, however, she was surprised to see how much her hard efforts improved. This improvement inspired her to stay consistent with training—instead of getting frustrated with a plateau, she was motivated by the improvement as training stacked up over time.

Stöggl says the science backs up this cycle of improvement: “When we study successful endurance athletes, we see they often follow a polarized training regime. Polarized training has been shown to lead to greater improvements in key performance indicators of endurance capacity, including maximal oxygen uptake, peak performance, and performance at thresholds. High-volume, low-intensity training led to no changes or even decreases in endurance performance.”

Human response to polarized training might be hardwired in our genes. From an evolutionary standpoint, we were designed to perform at the extremes: “Our ancestors needed to be good at doing things at low intensity for a long period of time, like roaming to different locations and tracking animals for food,” Stöggl says. “They also needed to be able to fight or flight, or perform at really high intensities. It’s very unlikely that a caveman tried to escape a lion attack by doing a moderate-intensity jog.”

Though we’ve eschewed our loincloths for spandex and hunt PRs instead of buffalo, the principle still applies: Do the easy sessions truly easy, which allows you to push hard when you need to. Corbin, for example, takes her easy runs at a pace of nine minutes per mile or slower; this allows her to sustain a 6:30 minute per mile pace on aerobic runs. Ditto for her rides: You’ll rarely see her go over 100 watts on her easy days, which lets her hit 220 watts in hammer-dropping workouts. Even though Corbin admits the harder workouts are intense, it’s actually the easy workouts that pose the biggest challenge: “The hardest part about polarized training is slowing down. It’s easy to always push the pace and go hard. Anyone can train hard or push themselves to their limits. It takes a lot of confidence, courage, and patience to slow down.”

Linsey Corbin’s Weekly Polarized Training Template

To ensure your easy efforts are truly easy, Corbin recommends wearing a heart rate monitor.

Recovery swim (mainly pulling/no legs)*
Group swim** + aerobic ride with efforts** + recovery jog*
Strength swim* + longer aerobic ride** + aerobic run off the bike**
Group swim** + race-specific run** + recovery ride*
Recovery swim* + recovery ride* + recovery jog*
Group swim* + race-specific ride** + race-specific run off the bike**
Long run with pace work** + recovery ride* + optional recovery swim*

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