Which Training Intensity Distribution is better?

A lot of the early data concerning Training Intensity Distributions is based on diaries of elite athletes rather than scientific studies. There are issues with comparing volumes in each zone between different athletes and also how accurately training is recorded. The data may simply show individual preferences, not what is optimal or applicable to other athletes in different sports. More recently research has tried to quantitatively compare various TIDs.

A study of 48 elite runners, cyclists, and cross-country skiers1 randomly assigned each athlete to one of four groups training over 9 weeks using High Volume Training (HVT), Threshold Training (THR), High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Polarized Training (POL). Each athlete was tested before and after the study. POL resulted in the greatest improvements in most key variables of endurance performance in already well-trained athletes. HIIT athletes showed greatest weight loss and also showed VO2max improvements for substantially lower training volumes than POL. THR or HVT did not lead to further improvements in performance related variables.

cross country skier

Esteve-Lanao2 published a randomized training study exploring the effects of increasing or decreasing the contribution of LIT vs. MIT on performance. During a 5-month period, a TID (TIZ-method) of 80% LIT, 12% MIT and 8% HIT (Pyramidal) elicited greater performance improvements than a program where time spent as MIT was doubled to 25%, while the amount of HIT was held constant (Threshold).

Billat and colleagues3 published research quantifying intensity distribution in elite Keynan marathoners and long-distance (5-10 km) runners. The marathoners distributed their training in a POL model (78/4/18). The 5-10 km runners were divided in groups based on different training patterns. The “high-speed” groups followed a POL model (84/7/9%) for men and (88/0/12%) for women. The “low-speed” group distributed their intensity in a Pyramidal (PYR) model (84/14/2%) and still produced outstanding results.

For elite athletes with lots of time to train it is clear that Polarized or Pyramidal TIDs are better but what about recreational athletes with time constraints?

A study by Neal et al4 took 12 male cyclists from local cycling clubs. They completed two training blocks using a randomized cross-over methodology divided into 6 weeks POL, 4 weeks detraining and 6 weeks THR. The cyclists had previously trained for more than 4 years at around 7 to 8 hours per week divided as (53/38/9%) so broadly THR, typical of club cyclists doing quite a bit of racing.

POL was 6.4 hours per week split as (80/0/20%) and THR 7.5 hours per week split (57/43/0%). The training volume was significantly higher for THR than POL due to the nature of the study which attempted to match the volume of training in zone 1 between POL and THR. During the study Z3 training sessions consisted of 6 intervals of 4 min duration with 2 min rest periods.

Both TIDs showed improvement for 40km TT but the effect was greater for POL despite the lower training volume. The study concluded a critical component for promoting adaptation is the incorporation of zone 3 sessions and reduction of zone 2 sessions, whilst maintaining the volume of low intensity (zone 1) sessions even at training volumes of around 6 hours per week in club level athletes.

On the other hand, an 11 week analysis of rowers5 divided them into POL and PYR groups. A SG/TIZ approach was used. 16 to 18h of training per week consisting of 6–8 rowing sessions per week with Z1 clamped to 93%. PYR including two to three Z2-sessions with not more than one session in Z3. POL included 2-3 sessions of Z3 training while avoiding Z2 as much as possible. Afterwards, a series of rowing ergometer tests using internationally recognized measures showed improvements for both TID models but no significant difference between them for national level athletes. The authors suggest that a great level of Z3 is necessary for POL to show superior results to Z2 but also noted studies that showed different findings for cyclists and runners.

A long term study6 of one of the most successful cross country skiers of all time, Marit Bjørgen, showed that over her career she increased her total annual training volume from 522 to 940 hours. That is from 10h to 18h per week. Her TID was polarized from 88/2/10 up to 27 years old but with higher volume the amount of LIT became more dominant: 92/3/5 from 430h to 800h at 35 years old. HIT/MIT volumes were constant at around 60h apart from a 5 year period from 23 to 28 which saw extensive HIT training in the GP phase. Another change after 30 years was an increase in strength training from 51h (43% core stabilization, 57% heavy strength training) to 90h (50/50) from 32-35. In XC Skiing frequency and intensity are as important as exercise volume.

A study of 16 Male and Female national level Cross Country Skiers during the GP period used polarized training7. That is 70–80% of the total amount of exercise at low intensity (HRmax 65–80%), 5–10% at middle intensity (HRmax 80~88%), and the remaining 15–20% at high intensity (HRmax 88~100%).

The study found that there was an improvement of body composition (fat) and athletic performance of all cross-country skiers. Polarized training had a better effect on cardiorespiratory function in male cross-country skiers than in female cross-country skiers. Conversely, the outcomes of the ski ergometer exercise factors were more effective in female athletes than in male athletes. When applying a polarized training program to athletes, it should be planned in detail by sex, exercise amount, intensity, and type of training. Is there a lower limit for POL and how does it apply to recreational athletes?

A comparison of POL (74/11/15%) And HIIT/Crossfit (48/8/44%) for recreational runners8 found that HIIT gave similar results to POL for much lower training volumes over 5km race distances but as above POL gave greater improvements in VO2 max. Lower initial baseline fitness may allow greater adaptive potential to HIIT and the lower volume of 3 to 5 hours per week reduces the likelihood of overtraining and running injuries from HIT. It is also possible to do more intensity with this volume of training because there are more rest days. As it is more time efficient it may be attractive to recreational athletes balancing training with other commitments.

1) Stöggl T, Sperlich B. Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training. Front Physiol. 2014 Feb

2) Esteve-Lanao J, Foster C, Seiler S, Lucia A. Impact of training intensity distribution on performance in endurance athletes. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2007

3) Billat V, Lepretre PM, Heugas AM, Laurence MH, Salim D, Koralsztein JP. Training and bioenergetic characteristics in elite male and female Kenyan runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Feb;35(2):297-304; discussion 305-6. doi: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000053556.59992.A9. PMID: 12569219.

4) Neal CM, Hunter AM, Brennan L, O'Sullivan A, Hamilton DL, De Vito G, Galloway SD. Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol 2013 Feb https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00652.2012

5) Treff, Gunnar; Winkert, Kay; Sareban, Mahdi; Steinacker, Jürgen M.; Becker, Martin; Sperlich, Billy; Eleven-Week Preparation Involving Polarized Intensity Distribution Is Not Superior to Pyramidal Distribution in National Elite Rowers, Frontiers in Physiology, 2017 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2017.00515

6) Solli, Guro & Tønnessen, Espen & Sandbakk, Oyvind. (2017). The Training Characteristics of the World's Most Successful Female Cross-Country Skier. Frontiers in Physiology.

7) Kim TH, Han JK, Lee JY, Choi YC. The Effect of Polarized Training on the Athletic Performance of Male and Female Cross-Country Skiers during the General Preparation Period. Healthcare (Basel). 2021 Jul

8) Carnes, Andrew & Mahoney, Sara. (2018). Polarized vs. High Intensity Multimodal Training in Recreational Runners. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 14. 1-28. 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0040.

⬅ Measuring Training Intensity Distribution | ⬆ Contents | Discussion ➡