It’s easy to get fitter and faster when you’re a beginning runner. More kilometres, hills, tempo runs, speedwork – they’ll all do the trick.
It’s much more difficult to improve when you’re a veteran, hard-training athlete. If you keep doing the same-old same-old, you’ll likely stay stuck in place. But what should you be doing instead?
A new study of national class Austrian runners, triathletes, cyclists and nordic skiiers may provide an answer: polarised training. The term isn’t used frequently by runners, but essentially it means a workout program that includes many easy runs, a number of quite hard ones, and little in between (i.e., tempo running).
Simply enrolling top competitors in a training experiment often proves a challenge. “You have to convince both the athletes and their coaches to follow a specific training regimen that might not be their normal routine,” head author Thomas Stoggl told Runner’s World. “This isn’t easy.”
Nonetheless, Stoggl managed to get 41 athletes to complete one of four 9-week training programs. The programs focussed on polarised training (POL), high intensity training (HIT), tempo training (TEMP) or high volume (slow) training (VOL). The athletes in each program were equally matched fitness-wise, and accustomed to completing 10 to 20 hours of workouts per week.
The following table shows the four different training programs. Note in particular the percentages of training done in the three common training intensities: low intensity, tempo pace and high intensity.
After following these training systems for 9 weeks, the POL training group clearly showed the greatest improvement in vo2 max (+ 11.7%) and time to exhaustion (+17.4%). The HIT group placed second, with vo2 max climbing 4.8% and time to exhaustion 8.8%. The other two training regimens produced lesser and insignificant improvements.
Another important result: The HIT athletes lost 3.8% of their starting body weight, while the other training programs produced no change in body weight. Some might regard this 3.8% weight loss as a benefit of HIT training, but Stoggl doesn’t believe that’s the case with serious, veteran athletes. Instead, it’s more likely that they were overtrained and suffering from lowered immunity.
“These results show that tempo training and volume training don’t lead to additional adaptations among veteran athletes,” Stoggl said. “Also, too much high-intensity training leads to a catabolic [muscle-wasting] state. I was surprised to see such enormous gains by the polarised trainers even though they were used to doing tons of training already. The message seems to be that veteran athletes should focus their training on a mix of long, slow training combined with high-intensity workouts. So train in the extremes, and avoid the middle-intensity zone.”