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Polarized training: an approach for experienced runners

Polarized training for advanced running

Some days I wish I could go back to the beginning. I think one of the reasons I fell in love with running was because I improved so much relatively quickly and easily. Back then, every new race distance was an automatic PR. And as I got in better shape, new PRs just continued to come my way. No fancy training program needed.

Now, I’m long past the days where PRs just happen by chance. I’m running the New York City Marathon this fall and it’s my goal to PR. While the race is still more than seven months away, I’m already pouring over training plans and wondering what I can do differently to make this my sub-4:00 hour race.

The answer may be polarized training, at least according to a new study that says it yields the best results for veteran runners.

Polarized training: 101
Polarized training is an approach of training extremes, where almost all workouts are run at a very easy or very hard effort. Very few runs are done at the pace in between (i.e., a tempo run pace).

Runners are known for pushing it way too hard on easy days – and sometimes not hard enough on hard days – meaning that the majority of our training is usually somewhere in the middle ground.

Polarized training in practice
Pace goals
Easy runs: In polarized training, runners significantly slow down their easy run pace. If your typical easy pace is between an 8:00-8:30 minute/mile, polarized training says you should aim for 9:30-10:00 minute/miles instead. Doing so will allow you to stay healthy throughout training and it will help you push the pace harder on hard days.

Hard runs: For hard workouts in polarized training, say 800m repeats, you would aim to run each one 5 seconds slower than the previous instead of having the same time goal for each repeat.

Dividing up the workouts
Experts say elite runners who use polarized training follow a 75- 10-15 approach:

  • 75% of runs are easy
  • 10% of runs are at tempo pace
  • 15% of runs are hard

How well does it work?
Earlier studies support polarized training for runners, and the newest research agrees. For the study, published in Frontiers of Physiology, a group of veteran runners were assigned to follow one of four 9-week training plans: polarized training, high-intensity training, tempo training, or high volume/ slow training.

At the end of the nine weeks, the polarized training group had the biggest improvement in VO2 max and time to exhaustion. The high-intensity training group also produced significant results – the other training approaches did not – but polarized training yielded much better results.

What do you guys think about polarized training? I have reservations about it and I’m sure I’m not alone – I just couldn’t imagine doing 75 percent of my workouts at such a slow pace! Still, the research is there to back it up. Maybe I’ll give it a try. Maybe

Written by Jen Matz.


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