Polarized training began as an observation of how elite endurance athletes train: 80% at low intensity, 20% at high intensity. But is polarized training better than pyramidal training for you? Let’s find out!

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Polarized training and pyramidal training have a different time distribution in the training zones. In two previous articles published by our partner AZUM, several ways to create such training zones are described. They specifically looked at the 3 zone model and the 5 zone model. We’ll use both these training models to describe and compare polarized training and pyramidal training.

What is Polarized Training ?

Polarized training is a training method in which you either train at low or at high intensities, while ignoring any intensity in between. Hence the term “polarized”.

In a 3 zone training model, polarized training comes down to training in zone I and III. In a 5 zone training model, the majority of time is spent in zone 1,2 and zone 4,5, with almost no time spent on zone 3 training.

When diving one layer deeper, there’s also a more specific time distribution between the polarized zones. Around 80-90% of the training is done in a low intensity range, while the remaining 10-20% of training is at a high intensity. Here’s how the coach of Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar determines the exercise intensity for 80% of Pogačar’s days in zone 2 training.

When you’re at rest, your lactate concentration is low. However, it’s not zero. This means that there is a small lactate production and a small lactate combustion (clearance).

Visualization of polarized training in a 3 zone model (left) and 5 zone model (right).
Visualization of polarized training in a 3 zone model (left) and 5 zone model (right).

When switching to the polarized training model, many athletes will experience that their easy days become easier and their hard days become harder. This emphasizes the term “polarized” again.

Visualization of the polarized training model in a continuous 3 zone model for an example athlete.
Visualization of the polarized training model in a continuous 3 zone model for an example athlete.

The idea behind the polarized training approach is to either focus on the benefits of long slow distance endurance training, or the benefits of HIIT training. The low intensity allows you to accumulate many training hours. It also allows to recover from the 20% at high-intensity.

What is Pyramidal training?

Pyramidal training is a training method at which you spend most of your time at low exercise intensities and gradually less at higher intensities.

Just as in the polarized training principle, most of the training is at low intensity 60-70%. Contrary to the polarized approach, a significant amount of time is spent at medium intensity 15-25% and only a small portion of the training is at high intensity 0-10%.

As the name already reveals, the time distribution in the training zones looks like a pyramid.

Visualization of training zones in a pyramidal time distribution.
Visualization of training zones in a pyramidal time distribution.

The theoretical definition of LT1 is clear, but in practice it can become challenging to determine LT1 based on a lactate curve. Here are example lactate curves. Where do you mark the LT1 intensity? Literature suggests to standardise the method of determining LT1. INSCYD does so for you, by defining LT1 as the intensity at which blood lactate concentration is 2 mmol/l.

The idea behind the pyramidal training approach is that you should first have a good foundation (base) before you can add higher intensity building blocks. In this metaphor, a small foundation with big blocks on it is unstable. Hence, it prescribes spending most of your time at the foundation and gradually more on higher intensities.

Watch our webinar – “Mistakes You Need to Avoid When Using a Training Method” presented by INSCYD and AZUM. Featuring an insightful discussion with renowned coaching experts, Sebastian Weber and Reinout Van Schuylenbergh, this webinar will equip you with practical tools to maximize your endurance training.

Immerse yourself in this comprehensive guide, which explains the nuances of both polarized and pyramidal training, and sheds light on why adapting to physiological changes is pivotal in modern training. 

Both training methods are based on a time distribution in training zones. Let’s have a closer look at those zones and compare a 3 zone model with a 5 zone model.

Usually, the more training zones you have, the smaller the intensity ranges become. This allows for a more specific training description. On the other hand: if you create too many training zones, you lose the idea of zones all together.

The 3 zone model is easier for beginners to understand and follow, but it often requires a coach to differentiate between training intensities within a zone. For example: run in the upper half of zone II.

The 5 zone model provides a more detailed approach to training by breaking down the intensity levels into smaller increments, but you can question the terms attached to it. For instance: zone 5 is named anaerobic power, but at this intensity the aerobic energy contribution can be much higher (see image below).

Energy system contribution expressed in a percentage of the total energy production
Energy system contribution expressed in a percentage of the total energy production. Training zone 5 (called “anaerobic power”) of this example athlete starts at 355 watts. The aerobic energy contribution is 85.9% at this intensity, while the anaerobic energy contribution is 14.1%.

If you want to train at an intensity with a high anaerobic energy contribution – like during the 20% of polarized training – it makes more sense to actually create a training zone based on this energy contribution. Here’s a screenshot of a training zone created with INSCYD Training Zone Builder. We set the target to 50% anaerobic energy contribution in a 60s interval, and it shows the exact corresponding intensity.

INSCYD Training Zone Builder
Click to enlarge

The same is true when using low intensity training zones, which are dominant in both the polarized and the pyramidal training method. You could just go for zone I or II, but why? Is it because you want to train at a high fat combustion rate? Or because you want to keep carbohydrate combustion low because you’re doing a fasted training session? Why not use these parameters to create effective training zones?!

Here are two training zones, created in the Training Zone Builder. The first is a FatMax zone, which shows the intensity at which our example athlete needs to exercise to reach a maximal fat combustion. The second is a training zone in which the athlete keeps the carbohydrate combustion rate low: 40 grams of carbs per hour.

INSCYD Training Zone Builder
Click to enlarge

These examples show that the foundation of both polarized training and pyramidal training, namely their training zones, is suboptimal. However, it also shows that you can implement the idea of polarized training or pyramidal training by simply creating more evidence-based training zones with the INSCYD Training Zone Builder.

With INSCYD’s Training Zone Builder, you have the ability to create customized, evidence-based training zones. Say goodbye to generic training programs and hello to personalized, optimized, and effective plans. The competition is already making the switch, don’t get left behind.

Book your free call with an INSCYD expert to explore the potential of our Training Zone Builder in your language. Dive into the science and precision of advanced sports training.

Athletes, are you still following a one-size-fits-all training plan? Don’t sell yourself short. Discover the power of personalized training zones tailored to your physiology and goals. With an INSCYD certified coach or lab, you can take full advantage of the Training Zone Builder for more effective workouts. 

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Polarized vs Pyramidal: which one is better?

Polarized training vs Pyramidal training

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. Whether you should implement polarized training or pyramidal training depends on your current “fitness” and your goal.

The biggest difference between the two is that polarized training does not prescribe training in the mid-intensity or sweetspot range. We know that this training intensity, that is part of the pyramidal training method, is a strategy that lowers your anaerobic power (VLamax).

Whether that’s a good or a bad thing again depends on your current metabolic profile and the goal you have in mind. It’s also only 1 of 5 training tips to decrease VLamax, so other factors can and will play a role too.

In the end, you can read a lot of scientific literature and collect anecdotal information of other coaches and athletes, but why not test it yourself? If you implement a polarized or pyramidal training method and do regular performance testing, you can quickly see how training affects your (athlete’s) metabolic profile. This allows you to try a training method yourself and adjust whenever you’re not happy with the results.

INSCYD allows you to test more often and get a full 360 overview of your physiological metrics, without necessarily entering a lab. In fact, you can simply do a remote power only or GPS only test (Power Performance Decoder) to get your VO2maxVLamaxFatMax and many more.

INSCYD 360 Profile

Whether you’re interested in polarized training, pyramidal training, or trying to decide which approach is best for you, INSCYD provides sports coaches and labs with the tools they need to personalize and optimize athletes’ training

INSCYD’s comprehensive performance tools reveal how different training methods impact your athlete’s unique metabolic profile. Monitor changes in athlete VO2max, VLamax, FatMax and more, all from the comfort of your own environment. No lab needed.

Don’t let geographic location limit the impact you can make on your athletes’ performance. Book a free call with an INSCYD expert now. Learn how our advanced remote and lactate testing can enhance your coaching or lab services. This is your chance to stay ahead of the curve.

And athletes, you can find an INSCYD-certified coach or lab that can help interpret your results and guide your training, basing their strategies on hard data, not just guesswork.

Continuing learning from Olympic mountain biking coach Filip François. He shares how he uses these regular performance tests to analyze whether his athletes are getting closer to the ideal metabolic profile for their goal.

Want to dive deep into training methods? Watch our exclusive webinar, “Mistakes You Need to Avoid When Using a Training Method“, hosted by INSCYD and AZUM. With our expert-guided agenda, you’ll depart with applicable knowledge to immediately elevate your coaching game. 

For coaches and labs

Watch Inscyd in action

With INSCYD, you can tailor training programs with unparalleled precision, ensuring your athletes achieve their peak performance faster and more efficiently.

Don’t let your athletes settle for anything less than their absolute best. Book a Free Demo with INSCYD today and experience firsthand how you can elevate your coaching game.

For ATHLETES

IMPROVE YOUR PERFORMANCE

Athletes why train with generic plans when you can have a program tailored to your unique physiology? INSCYD is the key to unlocking your full potential. Find your dedicated INSCYD coach or lab here. 

Already have a coach? Experience INSCYD in action with your coach and redefine your training approach.

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