Boost your running with Polarized Cardio Training

heart beatThere are many running programs out there to help get you through your race at different distances. They typically contain a short run to medium run, of roughly 3-5 miles, a single speed work day, and a long run. There might be a tempo run or threshold mixed in as well. What does the latest science say though is the best way to improve your fitness and aerobic conditioning? Could you benefit from running fewer miles and adding tough intervals and more of a focus on quality over quantity?

Recently there has been a wealth of research done on just this very topic. As most of you who have strength trained know, with any strength training program there should be periodization. Periodization is defined by the National Academy of Sports Science as the “division of a training program into smaller, progressive stages.”

“The traditional threshold, high volume, and high-intensity training models have displayed limited improvement in actual race pace in (highly) trained individuals while frequently resulting in overreaching or overtraining (physical injury and psychological burnout).”

So what exactly is the best way to train then to maximize performance? Based on the studies done on this topic, they all point in the same direction. They suggest using a type of periodization called undulating periodization. While there are different types of periodization, for our purposes we will focus solely on undulating periodization. With this type of workout structure the intensity can vary from workout to workout. This is a great option for any level runner, as there are times when life gets in the way of our training, or we might feel under the weather or just a bit lethargic from a previous workout.

As stated in the study linked above, a polarized aerobic training program would be “characterized by an undulating nonlinear periodization model with nearly all the training time spent at a “light” (≤13) and “very hard” (≥17) pace with very limited time at “hard” (14-16) or race pace (6-20 Rating of Perceived Exertion [RPE] scale). To accomplish this, the polarization training model has specific high-intensity workouts separated by one or more long slow distance workouts, with the exercise intensity remaining below ventilatory threshold (VT) 1 and/or blood lactate of less than 2 mM (A.K.A. below race pace).”

I have been incorporating polarized aerobic training without even knowing it until I came across this study. I have been training by feel more than by structure. I have 2-3 key workouts to get in each week. One of which is a long run every other week, followed by two days of speedwork, and a day of fartleks, or a recovery run on the day I strength train. I also have one day where I strength train only.

So my typical two week training block looks like this:

Week #1

  • Monday AM: Strength train   PM:Recovery run or fartlek run
  • Tuesday Medium run 4-5 miles
  • Wednesday Speedwork
  • Thursday Strength training only
  • Friday Off
  • Saturday Speed work (skip if sore or feeling oveetrained)
  • Sunday Speedwork

Week #2

  • Monday AM: Strength PM:Recovery run or fartlek run
  • Tuesday: Long run 60-70 minutes plus striders and some foot turnover drills
  • Wednesday: Speedwork
  • Thursday: Strength training only
  • Friday: off
  • Saturday: Speedwork
  • Sunday: Speedwork

As you can see there is some flexibility here. If it rains or is snowy and icy, I could swap my strength only day with a running day, or I could opt to do an easy run on a speedwork day. As long as I got the work in that week I hit my training goals. This seems to be working for me so far.  According to Hydren & Cohen “A runner trying to incorporate this into their own training might be going easy on long slow distance workouts, avoiding “race pace” and getting after it during interval workouts.”

If you want to read more about polarized cardio training here are a few other studies:

Polarized training improve performance in recreational runners?

Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training.

Current Scientific Evidence for a Polarized Cardiovascular Endurance Training Model