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Is Pyramidal Sweet Spot Training Better than Polarized?

In this episode, Coach Frank Overton and Coach Christian Parrett discuss  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: 

Interventional Study/Brief discussion of limitations
  • 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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