What Type of Program Should I follow?
As a coach I need to stay on top of the latest research in sports science. Human performance continues to improve. The sub two-hour marathon has been done when many believed it was impossible. As a result, sports scientists across the World continue to do studies into how people achieve such results.
The studies that are conducted often involve both elite and non-elite athletes. This is important in that while elite athletes demonstrate greater natural genetic abilities and can train more, non- elite athletes still follow the same scientific training principles but generally train less. This helps to give context to the non-elite amateur athletes that must balance their sport with the rest of their life.
Within this research there has been much debate on the best type of training for endurance sports. The common training methods are:
- High Volume Low Intensity Training (Long slow distance): Training composed mostly of long, low-intensity workouts; often associated with base training.
- Threshold Training (THR):Training primarily occurring at moderate intensities, not to be confused with the Threshold Power Zone or Threshold intervals (these are actually high-intensity efforts)
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Training mostly composed of short, hard efforts at high intensity and low volume
- Pyramidal Training (PYR):Training at a mix of intensities, with the most time spent at low intensity, less time at moderate intensities, and the least time spent at high intensity.
- Polarized Training (POL):Training mostly at high or low intensity, with little to no time spent training at moderate intensity.
The context of this article is towards amateur endurance athletes. The weekend warriors that love their sport, but it doesn’t put food on their table. For most of my coaching career these have been the type of people I have worked with.
The first point I will make is the best type of training program to follow is the one you can sustain consistently. Regardless of the type of program you follow unless you can do it consistently then it is pointless. All of the above programs have demonstrated success for different people, but every athlete needs to find one they can do consistently and one that will work for them.
As an athlete myself I have tried all of these programs at different times. Depending on what I was training for and how much time I had to train would influence the program I used. And I have always like using myself as an experiment to see what works.
For me I did respond very well to HIIT and THR models. The downside however is I battled numerous injuries. Whilst I was able to produce some fast times ultimately it wasn’t successful because I couldn’t follow it consistently. The program for the most part that has worked for me is especially as I have got older is the POL model. And for most amateur athletes that I have worked with this has been the program that has delivered long term sustainable results.
The key word here is sustainable. With a POL model approximately 80% of your total training time is at an easy aerobic level. When training at this intensity there is less stress placed on the body from a metabolic perspective, your body becomes more efficient, and the risk of injury is less. Additionally, it is often a lot more enjoyable so therefore in my experience becomes more sustainable.
I have seen many athletes achieve some great results in a short period of time by following the HIIT and THR models but burn out never to be seen again. Not just from injuries but from a loss of enjoyment in training.
In this study from 2014 it concluded (PDF) Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training (researchgate.net) . Additionally another study (PDF) What is Best Practice for Training Intensity and Duration Distribution in Endurance Athletes? (researchgate.net) concluded that a POL model was best practice for endurance athletes.
Within these contexts however some athletes will respond better to the HIIT part of a POL model while others will respond better to the lower intensity. In that situation the intensity distribution may change from an 80/20 to an 80/15 depending on the athlete. HIIT delivers fantastic adaptations however, recovery is crucial due to the extra stress it places on your muscular skeletal and central nervous systems.
In a previous article I wrote about the importance of having a solid aerobic base for triathlon Aerobic Base - How To Make Ensure Your Foundation Is Rock Solid (worldmultisport.com) Any event over 75 seconds means the energy system we rely on the most is our aerobic energy system. Science has proven that to develop your aerobic energy system you must stimulate in frequently through training.
While both low intensity and high intensity training improve your aerobic energy system it is getting the balance right between both. Getting the right amount of recovery from the stress and then being able to perform consistent training.
I know many athletes research and read about the different types of programs. They’ll speak to other athletes about the type of training they do. You’ll probably get five different answers if you speak to five different people about their training program. And they may have all had some level of success, but it is simply one that you can follow consistently. For me that it is the POL model.