Three wedges under a cleat to assist this rider in optimising proprioceptive responses.

Polarise Your Training

To recap, there is published data (Boston University, 2012-13) looking at world champion runners and cyclists that suggests that the athletes in these sports are engaging in what is referred to as polarised training – training at relatively easy aerobic intensities at one end of the spectrum, and at gut-busting high intensities at the other end, but spending very little in the anaerobic threshold zone where the two extremes overlap.  The evidence suggests that, for elite athletes at least, undertaking Goldilocks training (not too hard, not too easy) is not the best way to train for optimum performance.  With some minor modification we can apply this training system to the club racer, and get great results with minimal time investment.

For the sake of simplicity, we can divide training into three distinct zones:

1. A low lactate zone (low intensity endurance training, where very little lactate is produced [lactate

2. A lactate accommodation zone (no man’s land – significant lactate is produced but is rapidly removed [lactate 2-4 mmol/L]);

3. A lactate accumulation zone (high intensity interval training – lactate is produced more quickly than it can be removed [lactate >4mmol/L]).

You guessed it – we’re going to completely avoid Zone 2, spending about 80% of our time in Zone 1 and 20% in Zone 3.

Zone 2 workouts provide the feeling of having worked hard, but expose the rider to too much stress per unit gain (Matheny, 1995). This means you have worked hard enough to need to recover, but not really hard enough to have produced any discernable training result.

Zone 1 rides are ridiculously easy – just rolling the legs over, not really getting out of breath, never ever venturing into the dreaded red zone.

Zone 3 is where the hard work happens – these sessions are very brief, and are conducted at or near maximum effort. These efforts shouldn’t be ‘kind of hard’; they should be cripplingly, devastatingly hard.

OK, so we’ve established that we’re going to givepolarised traininga try. We now need to divide up the training month, distributing our workload between Zone 1 and Zone 3. If you have, say, 25 hours per month to dedicate to training on the bike, 20 of these hours will be spent riding at ultra-slow speeds, recovering from your Zone 3 training sessions and enjoying being out on your bike. That leaves just five hours per month for training in Zone 3, but those five hours are really going to count! 

Within the protocol of high intensity training there are two types:

The low-volume supra-maximal HIIT, which involves four to six repetitions of up to 30 seconds of all-out exercise (approximately four times greater than maximum aerobic exercise intensity) with recovery periods of around four minutes, and the low-volume maximal HIIT, which encompasses eight to 10 efforts of between 30 seconds and one minute performed at maximal aerobic exercise capacity, interspersed with 60-75 seconds of light recovery.

We’re going to use a combination of these two methods to deliver the most diverse and effective high intensity training plan possible.


Hill Charges

On a moderate incline, stand out of the saddle and charge up the hill as fast as possible for 30 seconds. Coast back to your starting point. Repeat six to eight times. Recover 10 minutes, then do another set. 


Build power and train your body to recover quickly between efforts for events that demand repeated surges. In a medium to large gear, push as hard as you can for 40 seconds; recover 20 seconds. Repeat 10 times. That’s one set. Do up to four, resting five minutes between sets. 

40 on – 50 off

Improve your power and recovery by smashing a 40-second effort as hard as you can, then spinning the legs for 50 seconds to recover. Do five 40-second max efforts, then reverse the order by going all-out for 50 seconds, with a 40-second recovery. Do another five efforts. 

One-minute Breakdowns

Go as hard as you can for 60 seconds, rest for 30 seconds. Go as hard as you can for 50 seconds, recover for 25 seconds. Go all-out for 40 seconds, rest for 20 seconds. Go all-out for 30 seconds, rest for 15 seconds then repeat the workout.

One-minute Murder

This doesn’t sound too hard, but it will leave you gasping. Go all-out, absolutely 100% for one minute, then rest for one minute. Repeat four times. What, that’s it? That’s right, it’s a workout that’s over in seven minutes, but if you genuinely go as hard as you can you’ll reap enormous fitness and strength benefits, improve your pedalling efficiency and increase your ability to recover between efforts.


Named after the Japanese exercise physiologist, these efforts will massively improve your leg strength and lung capacity. Go all-out for 20 seconds, coast for 10 seconds. Keep repeating for eight minutes, then build it up to 10 minutes if you can.



Just as we all know a local club or café rider who suffers from chronic cardio, going ‘kinda hard’ all the time, imagining somehow that every ride is a race and never improving, most of us can also identify with those riders who take high intensity training to a whole new level and smash themselves day after day, week after week, digging themselves deeper and deeper into a lactic-drenched hole.  These people, whilst perhaps reaping some early benefits, are likely to have cooked their autonomic nervous systems and are simply seeing the downstream consequences of this.

This is the most common error made during HIT training – to think, ‘Hey, I have all this time to train now – why not do an extra two or even three sessions this week? I’ll improve even faster!’

Wrong, wrong, wrong. This will destroy you – it will make you tired and slow and grumpy, so don’t do it!


The most important factor within this type of training regimen is the recovery. Make sure at least 80% of your dedicated training time is spent in Zone 1, just cruising along at a pace that you can comfortably speak at. If you can’t hold an animated conversation you’re going too fast!

HIT training works a whole lot better when you have a solid foundation of fitness behind you. It doesn’t really work as a short-cut to victory and glory, so if you’re doubtful about your current fitness level take a month or two of steady base-building mileage before you launch into HIT.

Prepare yourself mentally to suffer (albeit briefly) during your HIT efforts. Going into a session knowing you’re going to give it everything makes you much more likely to follow up on your commitment and go all-out for those brief blazing efforts. And during these efforts, go hard! Forty seconds at 100% means exactly that – a burst of pure energy that will just, maybe, get you to the 40-second mark. If you know that you could have gone for a minute at the same pace you didn’t go hard enough. If you don’t make it to the end – if you fail after 30 seconds or whatever – that’s OK. What’s not OK is to get to the end knowing you could have gone harder.

At some stage there will come a time when my recommendation is to ignore everything I’ve just written, and undertake some well-planned longer intervals (with even longer recoveries) plus some sub-threshold rides of three or four hours and long steady hill climbs. It might be that you’re just tired of smashing yourself, or it might be that you want to spend a month or two rebuilding your base fitness or undertake some cross-training. Either way, some time away from high intensity training feels nice, allows you to rebuild and regroup and tends to leave you feeling ready and pumped to go hard once again.


If you are mentally strong enough to go hard when you need to and slow when you should, this type of training plan has some solid merit. It’s time efficient, wind trainer-friendly and interesting (to a point) – I would definitely recommend it to those riders with a solid riding background looking to spice up their current training trends or save some time.


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Three wedges under a cleat to assist this rider in optimising proprioceptive responses.

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Three wedges under a cleat to assist this rider in optimising proprioceptive responses.

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