Is Polarized Training Right for You?

I’ve mentioned this before, but when I started running there was no “plan” in place; I just thought I would go out, run different distances and feel my way to the right pace. Unfortunately, when I started running 5K’s and 10K’s I was never able to improve my speed and, when I ran longer distances, I noticed fatigue setting in towards the end.

Finally, after diving into the research on this it became apparent I was running almost 100% of my time in the “threshold” level; just enough effort to feel the workout, but not in the right zone to either enhance my aerobic system (to allow me to run longer) or my lactate or cardio-pulmonary system (to help me run faster). I was getting in good exercise, my weight and overall fitness seemed to be improving but I was neither getting faster or able to sustain a pace for longer periods of time.

One amazing study I looked at broke a group of runners, cyclists, triathletes and cross-country skiers and broke them into four different training methods, including:

  • Low Intensity training – easy pace
  • Medium Intensity – threshold pace
  • High intensity training – race pace
  • Polarized training – mix of Low Intensity (70%), Medium Intensity (5%) and High Intensity (25%)

The most interesting thing found in this study is that those who trained in the Medium Intensity or “Threshold” levels, which is where most recreational runners train, actually saw a 4% DECREASE in their aerobic capacity (VO2 Max) while only gaining slightly over 1% in speed. This was, by far, the worst performance of the 4 training groups.

Interestingly, the Low Intensity group, which ran almost all its miles at an easy pace saw negligible improvements in both their aerobic capacity and speed.

The High Intensity Group did well, with a 4% improvement in aerobic capacity and a 5% improvement in speed, but it was the Polarized training group that really knocked it out of the park. They showed a 12% improvement in aerobic capacity and an 8% improvement in speed; essentially, DOUBLE the improvement over the next best training method.

What is Low Intensity Training?

Low intensity training will make up most of your training, typically 70% of your miles; but what is low intensity training? Low intensity training focuses your efforts on building your aerobic system almost exclusively, and has the following characteristics:

  • Low intensity runs are typically defined as “easy effort” or “long slow distance” runs
  • Your effort should be such that, when you are finished with the run you feel like you could keep running and running
  • If you run with a heart rate monitor, your low intensity training will be below 80% of your max heart rate and generally in the 70 – 75% range

A word of warning from my experience is that training at low intensity can be difficult because it just doesn’t feel like you’re running fast enough; you may get passed on the road or trail, you may feel the effort isn’t producing any improvement. The “no pain, no gain” mantra just isn’t correct here, you will achieve significant gain with these low intensity runs as your aerobic capacity increases especially on longer runs/races.

Medium Intensity Training

This is actually where most recreational runners spend the vast majority of the time but, in reality, is where you should be spending the least amount of your training miles. A medium intensity run is just intense enough to make you feel you’ve accomplished something with your run but not so intense it keeps you off your feet for a day or two. Medium intensity training has the following characteristics:

  • Medium intensity runs are typically defined as “threshold runs” or “tempo runs”
  • Your effort is moderately hard to hard, and your body feels like it has been through a workout
  • Your heart rate during a medium intensity run will typically be around 80 – 85% of your max heart rate

Resist the urge to spend the majority of your time with the threshold runs, as they straddle between aerobic and non-aerobic effort but do not benefit you as much as keeping your effort at either aerobic or non-aerobic levels.

High Intensity Training

High intensity training is an area most recreational runners neglect; in general, the high intensity run is of much shorter distance than either long runs, tempo runs or base runs so runners feel like they haven’t “done enough”. But, done right, your high intensity runs can benefit both your ability to run longer and to run faster and typically have the following characteristics:

  • High intensity runs are typically interval runs, hill repeats, fartleks, etc.
  • Your effort is very hard, and you feel you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time at this level
  • Your heart rate during a hard intensity run should be significantly over 85% of your max heart rate

Summary of Low, Medium and High Intensity Training 


Heart Rate Calculator


Types of Runs

 In our 8 Types of Training Runs blog, we mentioned the different types of run and characterized them as those that will increase stamina (low intensity runs); those that ill increase speed (high intensity runs) as well as those that do both (medium intensity runs). Below is a breakdown of these types of runs and where they fit in your polarized training.

  • Low Intensity Runs
    • Base Run
    • Long Run
    • Recovery Run
  • High Intensity Runs
    • Intervals
    • Fartlek
    • Hill Repeats
  • Medium Intensity Runs
    • Tempo Runs
    • Progression Runs

4 Week Polarized Training Program

Below is sample 4-week training program that will help you get familiarized with polarized training; give it a shot and see if polarized training is for you.


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