Smart Athlete

Polarized Training – Revisited

Polarized Training – Revisited

We did a Christmas re-release of the Stephen Seiler episode we recorded a few years ago you can check it out at or below in the embedded links/player.

A few things struck me as I re-listened to the episode, as I engaged in a few online/offline discussions and as clients pondered how their zwifting/group-rides and well how their own daily training practices fit (or don’t fit) into this framework.

Ultimately I think the point that is missed is that in all systems of training (even sweet-spot) is that there are easier days, off days and also some type of intensity. For ‘working’ adults (most of us) we just can not go hard/moderate every day, even if we feel the need to compensate for less training time.

But let me explain a few thoughts further if you will:

You may just be riding bikes for exercise and that is ok

I have said (in this article) that for many (people newer to the sport or coming back to the sport), the frequency of getting out is the main thing to focus on the intensity/volume is less of a concern. There is also a very large portion of people who just want to ride bikes and have no goal (point b) and are very much happy with where they are (point a). It is very much ok and normal to be active and not be stressed about the optimal method to train bike riders for a certain goal! 

The often paraphrased quote is illustrative I think.

The Chesire Cat and Alice have an exchange:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

If you like or are seeing success with one method … why look elsewhere!?!?! but make sure you are doing that training.

Sweet spot or middle ground training requires a fair bit of work and focus. Generally, I see people say they like a sweet spot but doing the work and following a sweet spot plan is not ‘easy’. It is hard and monotonous work. Steve Neal has commented on our podcast (here) about his hesitation to have non-pro adults who work do much threshold since it takes such an effort/focus/recovery period to do so. 

Conversely, if you are a polarized fan then ensure you are actually doing low-intensity training and practicing what Seiler calls ‘intensity discipline’ by avoiding racing people in training (even people who pass you on a commuter bike). That means group rides, zwift rides, and even hilly or off-road rides will be quite challenging to do and stay within ‘the zone’.

The flip side of all of this ‘easy’ training with polarized is that you need to go hard and that takes mental energy and recovery and fueling. I will often see ‘polarized athletes’ with little to no intensity meaning they are often lacking speed, race-specific ability and have often plateaued without further stimulus.

Here I am reminded of one of my favorite Dan John sayings, “Everything works for 6 weeks” 

Dan John – Intervention (and most of his books!)

There is more than just the bike pedaling … but pedaling is pretty important.  

In Stephen Seiler’s Hierarchy of training needs (discussed in the episode) the extra 1% gadget, gizmos, camps, and hacks are what capture much of our time-limited attention/energy/money but forget the value of both volume and intensity as a strong base to our endurance needs.

In my article about ‘what training should you do‘ I give 3 divisions of ‘who’ you are and ‘what’ type of training might fit. In the 2nd category after you move from frequency is volume-limited (Novice/Intermediate/Most of us).

Generally, each system of training has variable intensity day to day, rarely is each day hard with max heart rate/effort/wattage hit daily or even that frequently since ‘maxing’ out daily would suggest you aren’t maxing out daily due to fatigue over time.

The trick is that we don’t have time to do a lot more than we are likely doing (again Seiler talks about this in the podcast) but I believe we have several tools such as improving our general health that augment the effects of the volume we can do. Considerations such as nutrition, stress, healthy aging. 

When you run out of time to train it is then important to optimize the other elements of wellness (social, psychological etc) so that you are best prepared to absorb training stress, be motivated to train/race and healthy to remain consistent for many years. I think wrapped up in this is a lot of lifestyle ‘stuff’ and also some thought towards the amount of hard/moderate and easy training you do regardless of the system of training that you are using currently.

so … just don’t try and go hard every day but do go hard (or even moderate) sometimes.

I suppose all this to say … polarized makes sense in that you shouldn’t generally push your limits every day, or even most days, but you do want a system that is sustainable and fun and that fits into a larger picture of health for you.


Thanks to those that have reached out about this re-released episode – hopefully, there are some ideas for you to ponder as you plan your next block of training.

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