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  • Paddle Monster coach, Larry Cain

Polarize Your Training

As I explained in my last post, If you’re going to get maximal benefit out of the time you spend training and perform at a high level at an event like Chattajack then it is imperative to periodize your training according to some coherent plan. But in tandem with that it is becoming increasingly evident to coaches, exercise physiologist and sport scientists that a polarized training program as part of the periodized plan is the most effective way to achieve performance gains.

There are a few different approaches to training that athletes (and coaches writing programs for athletes) in endurance sports can take. To summarize they are:

1. High Volume Training (HVT): This is training performed at low intensity for long periods of time such as long, steady paddles or long intervals with low amounts of rest (high work to rest ratio). This is the type of training that is traditionally done when developing an aerobic base early in the paddling season or early in a training block.

2. Threshold Training (THRT): This is training where the majority of the work is done at or close to anaerobic threshold. Anaerobic threshold is the point where the body can no longer meet the demands that working muscles have for oxygen and the muscles must turn to anaerobic energy systems to make all the ATP necessary to sustain muscle contractions. It has always been believed that by working close to threshold it is possible to raise the threshold, thus allowing an athlete to continue to work aerobically at a higher level of performance.

3. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): This is training in which the main focus is completion of work done above anaerobic threshold. Of course since it is so demanding and uses primarily anaerobic energy systems it is performed for shorter periods of time so intervals look more like 10 x 1 to 2 minutes with 2 minutes of more of rest. This work isn’t performed every day, but forms the backbone of the training program based on HIIT.

4. Polarized Training (POLT): This is training based on a combination of HVT and HIIT, according to a ratio of approximately 80% HVT to 20% HIIT. In many programs there is virtually no, or at least minimal, time spent doing THRT. The theory behind this is that physiological adaptations that support increased aerobic capacity can be developed effectively at lower intensities while the stimulus for greatest performance gains comes from maximal efforts. While doing low intensity work between HIIT workouts has a beneficial training effect, it also ensures that the athlete’s central nervous system is sufficiently rested and the athlete is prepared to perform at a true maximal effort in the high intensity sessions. The theory also suggests that repeated training close to threshold in THRT has a cumulative fatiguing effect that diminishes the athlete’s ability to perform at that true maximal effort in the HIIT sessions, thus preventing the athlete from getting the necessary stimulus required to achieve maximal gains.

There have been numerous studies performed in recent years with athletes training for 9 to 12 week blocks on programs based on each of the above approaches. Some of the studies have been crossover studies in which the athletes switch from one training approach to another at the end of each training block. This allows for an even better comparison of the effects of each type of training philosophy.

In each of the studies the group training on a polarized program has had the best performance gains. In one study ( the polarized training group had VO2 max gains of 1.7%, time to exhaustion gains of 17.4%, and peak velocity and power gains of 5.1%. Interestingly, the peak velocity/power at anaerobic threshold increased by 8.1% even though the participants in the polarized program never trained at threshold! The groups based on HIIT and HVT training achieved substantially less improvement, and the THRT group showed no notable changes in physiology or performance.

What are the implications of this for SUP paddlers? If you are an experienced trainer with a good level of fitness and are training daily, you’ll stand to gain more from polarizing your program than you will if you don’t. If you’re new to paddling or not really very fit to start with, you’ll probably get very good gains just performing high volume training, however as you get fitter and more experienced then you’ll probably want to add in enough HIIT to make your program polarized.

If you’re only training a couple of days a week, I’d still suggest some type of polarized approach, for example I’d suggest on a three days/week schedule doing two HVT sessions and one HIIT session.

A few seasons ago I was finding that my training was excellent early in the year but I felt the effectiveness tapered off the deeper into the paddling season I got. I believe this was attributable to a couple of things. First, I think I could have done a better job of maintaining strength through the paddling season. You’ve probably heard me say before that SUP paddling requires a lot of strength simply because of the shape of the board and the amount of paddle shaft beneath your bottom hand. Early in the season I had lots of strength to apply to my paddling after a winter of effective strength training. But as the season progressed I felt my strength diminished, and with it my ability to move my board as effectively. To remedy this I have been much more diligent doing quality work in the gym to maintain strength and power, even if it means I am spending time in the gym at the expense of time on the water a couple of times a week.

I believe the second thing that contributed to less effective training the deeper I got into the paddling season was doing too much threshold and/or high intensity work. I have a pretty good training group at home in the summer and also we have had some weeks in which we have lots of good downwind conditions. In our group training we often get quite competitive and in downwind sessions it frequently turns into an informal race. While the key to successful downwinding is to relax and rest as much as possible, if you’re trying to link waves and even jump waves you’re doing a lot of short, intense sprints. It’s HIIT training and you can’t do it everyday without eventually dealing with significant cumulative fatigue. I believe the result of training at threshold too frequently on the flats and doing high intensity intervals so much was that eventually I felt flat and somewhat run down, and then I couldn’t properly perform the high intensity work that provides the best stimulus for improvement.

Since then I’ve made a concerted effort to polarize my training and have used a heart rate monitor regularly to ensure that I stay within the proper training zone and am not training too close to threshold on a regular basis. This training has still allowed me to experience the adaptations at the level of the muscle fiber that result in improved aerobic performance without getting too fatigued and having a negative impact on my ability to do high intensity work. My level of performance has been very high, while at the same time I have felt less cumulative fatigue and have had better command of my technique on a daily basis. So far, the polarized approach to training has proven quite effective for me.

I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I am not advocating dropping threshold training from your program entirely. I usually end up doing one session per week at threshold and will probably continue that. There are lots of reasons why I think threshold training makes sense for a SUP paddler. Some of those have to do with pacing and technique, as you can only really develop mastery of them at threshold pace by actually doing that training. And let’s face it, there are going to be important chunks of our races in this sport that are performed at or close to threshold. Make no mistake. Threshold training is not bad for you. The take home for anyone reading this should be that threshold training performed too frequently in a training program is not going to lead to performance improvements. In fact in a worst-case scenario it might lead to over reaching in training or even a state of over training. At best you’ll just be working incredibly hard for little or no likelihood of improved performance.

In contrast, setting your program to a balance of approximately 80% volume training and 20% high intensity training will increase your chances of seeing notable performance improvements and diminish the risk of over training. Adding in a threshold training workout into that 80:20 ratio isn’t going to hurt, but I’d suggest it be well spaced out from the high intensity work you do.

There’s no one program that works ideally for everyone. We’re all individuals and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. The idea is to experiment with your program and find out what structure works best for you. You can start by reflecting on the structure of your current program. If you’re not doing one or two high intensity interval type workouts per week you can add them. They’re hard but they’re fun. If you’re hammering all the time close to threshold, understand that it’s okay to go slower regularly in your training. You’ll actually improve. And while you shouldn’t ever be afraid of training at threshold, if you’re doing it all the time it’s a problem.

In order to help you better understand the intensity of your training, it is worth looking at training zones. Here is a chart with basic explanations of 5 training zones to help you better understand how to use heart rate to control intensity and ensure that you’re getting the right balance of work in your program. If you’ve got a heart rate monitor you have all you need to ensure you’re training at the right level when you’re doing your work. You’ll want to be spending most of your time in level 2 and 3 with a couple of workouts each week at level 5, particularly in training phases where intensity is the focus.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your training program and give polarized training a try. You’re likely to see benefits as you prepare for this year’s Chattajack. Or consider giving Paddle Monster a try where polarized training is a big part of our periodized training plan.


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