Polarization is Killed By Its Creator; 7 Zones are back in vogue

There has been a TON of talk about training zones and possibly going backwards to 3 zones because of the craze with polarized training. I wrote a couple of blogs about Polarized Training in Cycling here and here, and while I have never been a fan, there were a few good things about it, the main one being, “don’t make the easy workouts too hard, and the hard workouts not hard enough.”

You can’t always be out smashing, or you’ll never TRULY BE SMASHING.

It was amazing to hear the creator, Steven Seiler, tell us that he created this new paradigm because he’s talked to so many amateurs that are doing just that: riding too hard when they shouldn’t be, and not understanding the basics of training and getting faster.

In order to help cyclists take a step back and hone in their training, he broke the zones down to just 3, so people would go really easy or really hard. This is extremely oversimplified in our eyes, and we were left scratching our heads when we read on blogs that this was the “new thing to do” and “a bunch of pros are doing it”.

No they aren’t. While I’m sure there are random cases where this works, it’s a step backwards for many, and not something we’d recommend.

I found it to be a really interesting podcast and there are some fantastic, easily digestible points, that are key to training properly. There’s a lot of basic information in this podcast with some of the biggest hitters when it comes to training with power: Dr. Andy Coggan, Dr. Stephen McGregor, and Hunter Allen.

Why Are There Seven Training Zones

What are the anchor points? Metabolic fitness is at the heart of these zones/ranges/regions/levels.

If there were 15 levels, it better reflects the physiological continuum, but this is not really useable, as it would be extremely difficult to hit the right zones and there would be too many of them.

On the other end of the spectrum, polarized training only has three zones. Do you believe that everything should be 65% of VO2Max and below, or really hard? If so, 3 zones will work for you. Do we think polarized training would work? If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’ll probably see why we don’t agree with polarization as the main paradigm for your training.

It’s too simple.

Seven zones was the minimum number that Coggan felt like could be used to separate everything out and really accomplish the goal of creating zones that could be used to indicate what intensity riders should be riding at.

Connor likes the polarized zone model because it is all based on physiological thresholds, but points out that there really are 4 zones in polarization which was skimmed over in a previous podcast. Polarization stops at VO2Max, but there are intensities with power beyond that. Polarization’s 3 zone approach ignores that.

The Classic Levels are great because they have actual names, and not just level numbers.

Active Recovery

Endurance

Tempo

Lactate Threshold

VO2Max

Anaerobic Capacity

Neuromuscular Power

The names really aid in communication: why are you training at this intensity?

Is Polarized Training Based On Physiology?

Seiler says that’s the entire point of it: using “the two” physiological breakpoints with lactate.

Coggan pushes back on the claim that a three zone model is entirely grounded in physiology. The whole notion of a lactate threshold is as arbitrary as the creation of zones. The blood lactate response to exercise happens on a continuum, and it’s a mental convenience for us to say that there is a breakpoint.

There is no way to sum up a person in one breakpoint.

You need to look at all the points on the curve, so polarization has gray areas as well.

There is a close correlation across the data for a large number of individuals that shows that the exercise intensity that elicits a blood lactate concentration of 4 mmol/L, will correlate with the exercise intensity that elicits 2.5mmol, or 3, or 6, or whatever number you are looking to compare

To say that there are two thresholds is a mental convenience. There is a continuum and the effect of exercise is to shift that entire curve around.

Connor brings up this study from 2009 where Faude and Meyer look at the validity of threshold concepts. They detail the two breakpoint model and even say that it’s an old model; there is no distinct shift from aerobic to anaerobic!

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19453206

Let’s back up and realize there are over 30 definitions from threshold. They’re all varied. There is a lack of communication on this front.

The Reason For Functional Threshold Power

Taking the physiology out of everything, FTP was created so that we could all talk about the science in a way that we apply it: riding a bike. Threshold: when does the gorilla start to climb on our back?

Right now, everyone knows what you’re talking about when you mention threshold power, or FTP. With Lactate Threshold, the meaning was not standardized.

Coaches don’t need to know a ton about exercise physiology unless they are trying to make ground breaking discoveries. Coggan stresses the number of hats that a coach wears in order to get their athletes to reach their goals: motivation, tactics, bike handling, race experience, nutrition, a focused plan, etc. etc., the list goes on and on depending on the athlete’s needs.

The whole point of FTP is to take the science out of it and make it something that we can all understand and discuss; it makes communication possible.

What is the exercise intensity that you can sustain without the gorilla jumping on your back? If you go a little harder than that, he comes even sooner! This is how athletes pace themselves in time trials; respond to your own sensations, and this is what FTP accomplishes.

Know the feel of the watts. Learn what tempo feels like; learn what VO2Max feels like, learn what Active Recovery feels like. Know thyself and know how to ride.

Connor brings up the importance that FTP is more than just 1 hour power or a 20 minute test. More on that in a future post!

Why 3 Zones For Polarization - Steven Seiler

To recap the previous blogs, the few things I like about Polarization are:

1) The training regimen has a massive emphasis on cyclists improving their aerobic capacity.

2) Highlighting that athletes make the easy too hard, and the hard not hard enough

3) The training highlights the downside of group rides, and how it doesn’t move your training forward.

Seiler goes on to discuss that he wants to help athletes avoid scenarios that have high probability of happen with significant consequences, and the most common is that they train too hard on the easy days. This is where the zones come into play.

While this is a great idea and thing that you want to achieve, to set out a whole paradigm of training zones to make that one point seems a bit ridiculous to me. If you can’t expect an athlete to grasp the concept, and you can’t convince them, that going too hard on the easy days is a sure fire way to hamper your training, creating a whole other training paradigm will not change that either!

Polarization is just a band aid.

Instead, show them how to ride in the proper manner, they will see the results, and make the change themselves. I’ve seen this time and time again, even with some athletes that I only point in the right direction with a free Power File Analysis. I get a message two months down the road: “Holy crap, the rest, and less intensity, WORKS!”

Cyclists that truly want to boost their performance need to understand WHY the easy days need to be easy, and why the hard days need to get the respect they deserve and TRULY be hard days. The hard days are days that you don’t want to do because they will hurt.

Seiler goes back to physiology, while Coggan disputed that before.

So, end of the day, cyclists: Don’t overestimate your FTP if you want to get as fast as you possibly can, and don’t make the easy days too hard.

One last shocker: Seiler doesn’t have a power meter on his outdoor bikes.

Seiler agrees that a 5, 7 or 9 zone model is the way to go once we graduate past the 3 zone model.


I like his good heartedness, but I feel like he misled cyclists that are mentally beyond a 3 zone model. Educating and disciplining athletes doesn’t mean making a whole new, but inferior, model to the current standard.

VO2Max vs Threshold Based Levels

Without getting into the nitty gritty of this conversation (listen to the full podcast if you like), Sebastian Weber makes some great points about VO2Max workouts if you base all the levels off of FTP: since athletes may have VO2Max power at different percentages of FTP, each cyclist may be incurring different intensities at “125% FTP”. This standardization is doing the cyclist a disservice.

This tilts a nod to what Pearce said earlier, doing this off perceived exertion then. Just go really hard for the duration.

Coggan says that it is clear since the 1980s that muscular metabolic fitness, and not VO2Max, is the biggest determinant and therefore makes the most sense to base levels off of FTP.

Since there isn’t a unique fingerprint of VO2Max on exercise intensity-duration relationship, we should utilize FTP, since as many assumptions don’t need to be made.

Once you get out of the lab, VO2Max isn’t tested and known, so it’s not very applicable.

This tees up the new idea of WKO4 iLevels. When do we differentiate time durations and zones above threshold?

WKO4 iLevels

There is a big difference amongst athletes when it comes to suprathreshold efforts.

We can say that 120% FTP is VO2Max, but for those that are exceptional at suprathreshold efforts, they can hammer 150%. The diesels, or those that don’t train above FTP might struggle to do 6 x 5m at 110% FTP. So it was these suprathreshold variabilities that iLevels was intended to address by leveraging the Power Duration Model.

Coggan even thinks that iLevels could be an issue because now there are 9 levels, and that is getting to be a lot! It’s getting complex, and to be honest, we don’t even lay this out to 95% of our athletes; it’s too much. Even Coggan forgot how many levels there were now!

Let’s keep things simple to help athletes work the energy system that they need to work in order to get faster and reach their goals.

The great thing about the new levels is that they have the updated names to include FRC and PMax, and they blend the levels so that we aren’t visually seeing such a hard breakpoint between levels like FTP and VO2Max, but now we can see a blended FTP/FRC; a great reminder that the training is happening on a continuum.

Colby Pearce added some great feedback that his endurance track athletes don’t have great crossover between the classic zones to the new iLevels. Coggan is very FTP based, and this model works really well for the bell curve of athletes, and the track athletes may fall outside of these limits.

Conclusion

  • Three Zones is too simple

  • Training happens on a continuum

  • There aren’t hard stopped physiological breakpoints; those are a mental convenience for our own understanding

  • Use Functional Threshold Power: it allows us all to communicate effectively

  • iLevels is a great help to hone our Suprathreshold efforts

  • Work All The Systems!

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