Is Pyramidal Sweet Spot Training Better than Polarized?
Coach Christian Parrett discusses pyramidal training: what it is, research studies from world tour athletes that support its use, real-world examples of how pyramidal training differs from polarized training, and why the 'Polarized versus Sweet Spot Training' is a false debate.
What is Polarized Training? What is Pyramidal Training?
- Discuss three-zone model.
- Remind people where these concepts come from: studies into TID of elite athletes (IOW this isn’t hard science, it’s just breaking open training diaries).
- Polarized: Lots of time in Zone 1, focused work in Zone 3, almost no time in Zone 2
- Pyramidal: Lots of time in Zone 1, plenty of time in Zone 2, a bit of time in Zone 3, and ratios may change throughout the season.
- Evidence of both in elite athletes but in cyclists it’s almost always pyramidal.
Chart to explain three-zone model
Studies to Discuss:
As we mentioned earlier, studies into the TID of cyclists seem to strongly indicate a pyramidal intensity distribution. We’re going to discuss a few below that we found interesting, but there are certainly more out there:
- Evolution of physiological and hematological parameters with training load in elite male road cyclists: a longitudinal study
- Study of Spanish Elite U23 Cyclists
- Intensity distribution is below: (Pre-season period was shorter than in-season which is why hours are higher in the second period)
- Worth mentioning that First and Second Thresholds+v02max didn’t really change in the second period with the extra intensity, case for ‘building your base’
- Training Characteristics of Male and Female Professional Road Cyclists: A Four-Year Retrospective Analysis
- Distribution charts are on page 18 of downloaded PDF
- Power Zones are Coggan Zones with the exception that everything above 105% of FTP is Zone 5 (so Z5 and 6 are combined)
- “Pyramidal”distribution with a ton of time in Zones 1 and 2 (lots of racing) but more time in Z3 than Z4, and more than in Z5. Impossible to say how much of the Z4 was below FTP and how much was above, but there’s definitely substantially more time in Z3 and the lower portion of Z4 (Sweet Spot) than above threshold
- The women do substantially less time in Z1 and Z2-perhaps an important point for non world-tour athletes (IOW they don’t do less Z1 and Z2 because they’re women, they do it because the races are shorter).
- Training Characteristics and Power Profile of Professional U23 Cyclists throughout a Competitive Season
- Recent study into the training habits of U23 cyclists on a UCI Continental team.
- Polarized and Pyramidal Training Intensity Distribution: Relationship with a Half-Ironman Distance Triathlon Competition
- The average distribution across the entire season was 17.4–19.4% in Time <VT1, 50.8–62.5% in Time VT1–2 and 8.0–9.3% in Time >VT2 and could thus be classiﬁed as a threshold training intensity distribution.
- This group spent a massive amount of time in the ‘middle’ zone, aka sweet spot!
- This is an oddly large time in that zone; my theory is the team is probably made up mostly of riders who live in the mountains and thus even their endurance rides include a lot of climbing at tempo.
- We should briefly mention there’s some actual interventional studies into this, so no one throws a ‘but look at this study’ in our face.
- Not much agreement: studies that show polarized athletes do better, studies that show pyramidal do better, studies that show no difference.
- Lots of issues with study length and design: many studies are too short, in other studies the non-polarized group is doing sort of silly stuff with their training.
- Overall there’s not much data in these studies that seems too compelling other than to possibly support a polarized approach during a taper/peak period.
Anecdotes/Real World Experience
I was thinking after discussing some of these studies we could discuss some real world anecdotes:
- Allie had a great point on our last podcast. In her pre-season she did a ton of sweet spot, in the season her training became more polarized during race season. Probably worth mentioning racing contains a lot of sweet spot so her race days probably let her maintain.
- Common sense anecdotes about pro cyclists: Why would pro cyclists do mountain training camps if sweet spot were bad? Or live in the mountains?
- I’m sure you have some anecdotes from working with pros!
My favorite example is how Timmy Duggan worked for Peter Sagan in the Tour of CA and then won USPRO. Ian Boswell Sweet Spots (podcast June, 2021)
Conclusion: Why is ‘Polarized vs Sweet Spot’ a false debate
Lately, with the popularity of polarized training, we see a lot of ‘polarized vs sweet spot’ debates, and we even get asked about it.
We think this is a bit silly! Now that we’ve explained a bit what polarized training and pyramidal training are, we can explain why:
“Polarized Training” is an intensity distribution: it’s the sum of all the training sessions you do over a training block, season, or career.
“Sweet Spot Training” is a type of workout or a training zone. It’s not an intensity distribution, and no one would seriously suggest doing ONLY sweet spot. So “Polarized vs Sweet Spot” is like saying “Polarized vs tabata intervals” or “Polarized vs weight training.”
A more real debate would be “Pyramidal vs Polarized,” with sweet spot training forming an important part of a pyramidal training plan, as we discussed above.
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