As coaches, one of the most common mistakes that we see in new athletes is poorly scheduled training. Often, a desire to “crush” workouts manifests as back-to-back-to-back medium-effort workout days (even though they may feel hard!). This is great if you exercise primarily for physical and mental health benefits – movement is good! However, if your goals are performance-based, a more effective, disciplined, structured schedule including days that are very hard cycled with other that are nice and easy will allow you to reap the benefits of your hard physical labor. This style of training, called polarized training, allows your body to be broken down with high intensity workouts and then built back even stronger with recovery. Polarized training schedules are used by most, if not all, high performance (varsity, professional, and Olympic) endurance athletes for one clear reason – they work!!
The fundamental principal of polarized training is that hard (“workout”) days should be quite difficult and easy (“recovery”) days should be easy, allowing you to rebound well enough to push HARD again the next time a challenging session comes around. In a typical polarized training schedule, 80% or more of endurance training is categorized as “easy”, with the remainder being moderate or hard.
A very common mistake athletes make is to “hammer” recovery runs, performing them too fast. This layers on fatigue without any additional training benefit – these runs are too hard to optimize recovery but too slow to provide an intense training stimulus. What a waste! The extra fatigue from non-recovery-recovery runs then prevents the athlete from running their “hard” days to their full capacity, again muting the training effect. This is called training in the “grey” zone, where training efforts just don’t translate into the most optimal fitness gains.
In a culture where “ No Pain No Gain” and “More is Better” sentiments rule, it can be difficult to believe in the benefit of easier recovery days. Fitness gains actually don’t happen during hard workouts specifically, but during recovery from hard workouts. Recovery days allow these gains to be maximized which is very important if you have performance goals!
What do “easy” and “hard” days look like?
Easy days should be kept below your aerobic threshold. A simple way to assess this is the Talk Test- you should be able to easily carry on a conversation with a running buddy. Hard days, on the other hand, should be an 7-9/10 effort, depending on the session (assuming a race is 10/10 effort).
Structuring your training week with purpose can help you take your training to a new level! Smash the hard days, embrace the easy, and watch your fitness flourish!