In part 2 of this mini-series, we explored how cyclists can use blood lactate to their advantage. One of the outcomes of this understanding could be represented in a ‘polarised’ approach to training.

Polarised training essentially uses a 3 zone system. Zone 1 describes intensities up to lactate threshold, Zone 3 starts at Lactate Turnpoint and Zone 2 falls in-between. In a polarised model, 75-80% of training time would be spent in Zone 1, 15-20% in Zone 3 with less than 10% typically spent in Zone 2 – typical ‘threshold intensity’. This distribution is in stark contrast to a typical threshold model of training (the approach which most cyclists follow), where most time would be spent in zone 2.

Polarised Training

“Elite endurance athletes train surprisingly little at the lactate threshold intensity”. Seiler, KS & Kjerland, GO. (2006)

A number of studies have found that periods of polarising training intensity can result in significant improvements in endurance performance. Esteve-Lanao, J et al. (2007). Interestingly, research has also suggested that the training programmes of some of the world’s top endurance are characterised by a polarised intensity distribution. We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, many pro cyclists and coaches have been telling us “make the easy rides easy and the hard rides hard” for years. Unfortunately, many cyclists fall into the trap of riding at moderate intensities most of the time, never really improving.

Why Does Polarised Training Seem To Work?

“Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training.” Stöggl & Sperlich, (2014) 

So why does this polarised approach seem to be so effective? It may be related to the powerful signalling role of the lactate molecule. In a polarised approach, the athlete benefits from the well documented adaptations to relatively large volumes of low-intensity (zone 1/up to lactate threshold) training. However, this kind of training does not result in too much fatigue (Seiler, 2010). Consequently, the athlete is fresh enough to tackle very high-intensity training (zone 3/Lactate Turnpoint and above) which results in a ‘loud signal’; a potent stimulus which influences many beneficial adaptations in both aerobic and anaerobic energy metabolism.

Lactate profile chalkboard

Should Everyone Polarise Their Training?

The temptation is to believe that everyone should polarise their training, all the time. Let’s dump threshold work and all ride really easy or really hard, all of the time, right? Unfortunately, training the human body to be good at cycling is a little more complex than that. Personally, I believe that most cyclists would benefit from carrying out periods of polarised training in their programme. However, it’s also important to take into account individual response to exercise and specificity.

If you’re new to cycling, you may struggle to reach the high intensities prescribed in a polarised programme in the first couple of years of your ‘cycling career’. Consequently, new and/or young cyclists may benefit from a more rounded approach. Also, some cyclists simply do not seem to respond well to a polarised approach. Finally, even if you do respond well to polarised training, a programme should becoming increasingly specific in the lead up to a target event. Consequently, riders who are competing in events which require them to ride for long periods at relatively low-intensity interspersed with very high-intensity efforts, such as in many professional road races, may find that a polarised programme works very well. However, a sportive rider who needs to ride at moderate steady-state for long periods, with few bursts, may benefit from a polarised approach earlier on in their training programme, but will likely benefit from some threshold work, perhaps simulating long-steady climbs, as the event approaches.

How Can An Everyday Cyclist Use Blood Lactate To Improve Performance?

So if you’ve got access to a lab or portable blood lactate analyser, have lots of time and are willing to experiment with polarising your riding, there are obviously some great benefits to using blood lactate to inform your training. But what about the rest of us? To conclude, here are some practical ways that you can use an understanding of blood lactate to enhance your cycling performance:

1.Use training zones as a practical estimate of blood lactate response

Researching blood lactate response has helped us to understand how the body responds in relation to increasing exercise intensity and training zones provide a practical way to plan your training and target particular energy systems. You can find out more about how to calculate your training zones, here.

2.Experiment with a period of ‘polarised training’

If you want to experiment and provide your body with a new stimulus by polarising your training, establish your training zones then try to spend most of your training time at less than 75% of your best 60 minute power output (Critical Power) or less than 70% of your maximum heart rate (depending on what you’re using to measure intensity). As a guideline, at this intensity, you should be able to speak in complete sentences without taking a breath. Once or twice a week, include an interval session that targets high-intensity (greater than 106% of Critical Power or 89% of your maximum heart rate).

3.Include high-intensity intervals which result in relatively high concentrations of blood lactate

Now we know that blood lactate is powerful signaller, influencing many beneficial adaptation which should result in improved cycling performance, aim to build up to the point that you can carry out an interval session where you accumulate around 18 minutes of work at a minimum of 106% of your Critical Power, or greater than 89% of your maximum heart rate. As long as the interval intensity is at least 106%, experiment with varying work periods and recovery between intervals. As a starting point, see how many 3 minute intervals you can complete at 120% of Critical Power with 3 minutes recovery in-between.

4.Test yourself regularly

Even if you don’t have access to the equipment or facilities to test blood lactate, you can still train specifically and test yourself regularly to see if your performance is changing. Blood lactate helps us to understand the physiological changes in response to training, but you only really need to worry about the results – how much power are you producing and how fast are you going! Set up your bike on a turbo-trainer with a bike computer which measures speed and distance and use power meter (if you have one). Attempt your best efforts over 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes. Set up a simple spreadsheet to record the average power (or distance covered if you don’t have a power meter) for each time period. Re-test yourself at regular intervals through the season and see if you’re results are improving. If you’re getting better, your average power and distance covered should increase. If it’s not, try to adjust your training to address the time period which is lagging.

Lactate Is Your Friend!

Hopefully these posts have helped to dispel some of the myths around blood lactate and provided some useful pointers to inform your training. I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you’ve used an understanding of blood lactate to improve your cycling performance!

In case you missed them, you can find the preceding two posts in this series here:

Part 1: The Blood Lactate Story

Part 2: How Can Understanding Blood Lactate Improve Performance?

10 Tips To Improve Cycling Performance