Hard/slack training

The secret to successful endurance training might be to slacken off in some sessions so you
can train insanely hard in others, according to the new “polarised training” method.

When exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler was observing some elite Norwegian cross-country skiers train a few years ago, he noticed something strange: they would attack the course with ferocious intensity, then suddenly stop and walk for a large part of it.

To Seiler, it seemed like they were undoing their hard work by regularly dropping their intensity to the point of slacking off. When one went past him again he yelled out smugly: “No pain, no gain.”

When he investigated whether this hard/slack method was a uniquely Norwegian way of training, Seiler discovered that it was a pattern favoured by some elite endurance athletes. It’s called “polarised training”, and much to his surprise it was the winners or place-getters that tended to train this way.

“The overriding rule is to train easy enough on easy days so that you can train hard enough on hard days,” one of Australia’s top exercise physiologists and fitness trainer, Tony Boutagy, told Fitness First magazine.

“Middle intensity zones, also called ‘black hole zones’, often tax your body without delivering the performance results you’d expect from the prodigious amounts of training that’s performed by athletes,” Boutagy said.

“The premise is simple: 80% of your training volume should be performed at lower intensities, the so-called zone 1 or 2, corresponding to 70-78% of maximal heart rate,” he explained.

“The remaining 20% should be performed at a high intensity in zone 4 to 5, or above 91% of maximal heart rate. Middle training intensities, corresponding to zone 3 or 80-90% of maximal heart rate, are minimised in this periodisation model.”

Boutagy advised that polarised training wasn’t relevant for most Fitness First members, who would be better off mixing up their ratio of high-, middle- and low-intensity training and keeping it interesting with different exercise modes and training methods, such as group classes.

It’s also not for those who lift weights, he said, as their training split and frequency should allow for sufficient recovery time between sessions so that performance would improve over time.

But it would make a difference to anyone undergoing intense aerobic endurance training of at least an hour a day. “Distributing the right balance of low intensity to high intensity becomes critical, especially as doing too much ‘top end’ work often results in staleness, injuries and a plateau in performance,” he said.