What Is Polarized Training? Can It Improve My Running

Most of us who are runners are used to medium- or high-intensity training. After all, those higher-intensity runs leave you feeling satisfied and tired. It’s easy to think that high-intensity running is the best way to get faster and improve your running ability. Is there any point in practicing polarized training? And if there is, what is polarized training exactly?

Polarized training in running is the practice of opting for easy and extremely difficult runs rather than medium-intensity runs. Easy runs are designed to be extremely easy—so you aren’t sore afterward—and difficult runs test your limits. This style of training, which is implemented by many elite athletes, is believed to improve aerobic fitness and race times.

But is polarized training the right choice for you? Keep reading to learn more about what polarized training is, who it’s intended for and whether it will improve your run times in the long run.

What Is Polarized Training In Running?

To understand what polarized training is, it’s helpful to organize runs into one of three zones:

  • Zone One. These runs are slow and incredibly easy. You can hold a conversation with a running partner without having to catch your breath. For most runners, this category of running almost seems too easy. You’ll hover around 50-70% of your max heart rate when running in this zone.
  • Zone Two. These are moderate-intensity runs. Most runners fall into this category the majority of the time. You can talk in sentences to a running partner, but it’s labored. You’re breathing hard and you can feel your muscles working, but you’re not tapped out. Typically, you’ll be at about 70-80% of your max heart rate during these runs.
  • Zone Three. These are the most intense, difficult runs (and often the shortest distance). It’s near impossible to hold a conversation with someone when you’re exerting yourself this much. You’ll stay around 80-95% of your max heart rate when running in this zone. If your run is miserably hard—it’s probably a zone three-run!

Polarized training focuses on spending about 80% of your time training with zone one runs—slow and easy. The other 20% of your runs will be at the zone three-level, where you’re consistently pushing yourself and testing your limits.

This style of training is different from what the average runner will do naturally. In fact, most of us stay in zone two the majority of the time. When you’re running in zone two, you feel like you’re making more progress; you’re tired at the end of your run, you can feel the burn in your muscles, and your heart is pumping the whole time.

Polarized training, however, prefers to stay at an easy pace during most runs. While running races is about going as fast as possible, polarized training believes that becoming fast on race day means usually running slow during training.

Zone one runs allow your body to improve its aerobic fitness levels, build lean muscle, and gain speed, all while reducing the risk of injury. When you run in zone two consistently, it’s easy to overwork your body and injure yourself or lose your passion for running.

In addition to reducing the likelihood of injury, staying in zone one during most of your runs allows you to push yourself harder when it comes time for zone three runs. You’ll be rested up and ready to go fast; after several zone two runs, however, your mind and body will be tired and not able to fully exert themselves.

Related: 102 Training Tips For Beginner Half Marathoners

Pros Of Polarized Training

Polarized training offers many benefits. Here are a few of them:

  • S​tudies have shown that polarized training can improve your running times when implemented for several months.
  • It can improve your VO2 max, which is a highly-valued method of testing fitness levels.
  • You’re less likely to injure yourself by practicing polarized training. Because most of your workouts are low-intensity, your body experiences less wear and tear.
  • Only focusing on high-intensity workouts for a small portion of your training routine allows you to maximize those difficult runs. Because you aren’t tired from the last few medium-intensity runs, you’re better able to push yourself to new speeds without injuring yourself.

Cons Of Polarized Training

Of course, as with any training regimen, there are also some drawbacks to polarized training. Here are some:

  • Mostly running long, slow distances can be boring—you might not feel totally satisfied after each run.
  • Once you’re accustomed to low-intensity runs, switching to high-intensity runs from time to time can be overwhelming. It’s a big ask of your body to change from easy workouts to those you can barely handle!
  • Polarized training may be unnecessary for recreational runners. Practicing polarized training can help elite athletes to push to the next level, but recreational runners can still make improvements by going for medium-intensity runs.

Can Beginners Use Polarized Training?

Anyone can follow polarized training principles, but it’s important not to overdo it, especially in the very beginning. If your body isn’t accustomed to regular workouts, suddenly going for a high-intensity run can lead to exhaustion and a painful injury.

Instead, it’s best to stick to low-intensity runs until your fitness improves. Eventually, you can incorporate some medium-intensity runs into your routine. Only once you are relatively fit should you push yourself with high-intensity runs on a regular basis.

Of course, listening to what your body is telling you is extremely helpful and important. Making improvements to your fitness takes time and repetition; go slow for as long as it takes to grow in strength and stamina. You won’t regret those long, slow runs when you transition to higher-intensity workouts.

Related: Can I Run A Marathon? A Deep Dive Into What It Takes.

What Type Of Racing Is Polarized Training Best For?

Polarized training is typically used for endurance races. The reason for this is simple: polarized training not only helps you run faster but run faster for longer periods of time.

However, polarized training is helpful for all runners, regardless of race length. If your races are a mile or less, you’ll still see improvements in your time after following polarized training principles for months at a time. It may be different from normal short-distance race work, but it is effective.

A​re “Middle Distance” Runs Useful If You Use Polarized Training?

Even middle-distance runs can be helpful in your polarized training. The key is to keep your pace slow and easy, even on your medium-length runs. Running at a moderate-intensity pace during these runs will exhaust your body and disallow you from truly pushing yourself on your high-intensity run days.

Instead, keep your medium-distance runs leisurely so you can save your energy and strength for your short, high-intensity runs. Make sure you can hold a conversation with a partner for the entirety of your run.

Related: What Is A 13-Minute Mile?

Will Polarized Training Make Me Faster?

The research is clear: polarized training will make you faster. The problem for most people, however, is that it takes a long time to see the progress. We’re talking six months to a year before any noticeable changes; that’s a long time to commit to a program before seeing results. It’s easy to give up too soon and go back to regular moderate-intensity training, where progress feels more immediate.

Practicing polarized training—even though the slow runs can feel excruciatingly boring and long—will improve your aerobic fitness, ability to push yourself in your high-intensity runs, and at the end of the day, your race times.

Final Thoughts

While polarized training might not be the best choice for all runners, it can certainly improve your race times. By focusing on keeping your miles long and slow, you’ll increase the strength and speed of your body while reducing your risk of injury. Of course, it’s best to consult with your doctor before changing your exercise routine.




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