Most people are advised either to do high intensity interval training or steady state cardio. However, this is not how professional and Olympic athletes train. There’s also reason to believe that this isn’t how cavemen “exercised.”
You’ll frequently see exercise intensity organized into 5 or more zones. However, these zones don’t actually correspond to underlying physiological events. A better way to look at intensity has to do with lactate production. The aerobic threshold (VT1, LT1 in the chart) is when blood lactate begins to increase. The anaerobic threshold (VT2, LT2 in the chart) is when lactate is being produced faster than it’s removed. So, intensity can be more accurately categorized as low (below the aerobic threshold), moderate (between the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds) and high (above the anaerobic threshold.
Retroactive studies of gold medal winning cyclists, and world-class cyclists and rowers found that they typically train 75% of the time at low intensities, 5% to 10% of the time at moderate intensities, 15% to 20% of the time at high intensities.
A number of studies have recently been conducted to test whether this polarized distribution is, in fact, the optimal way to train. One study had cyclists complete a polarized training program (80% low intensity, 0% moderate intensity, and 20% high intensity) and a “threshold” program (57% low intensity, 43% moderate intensity and 0% high intensity). The polarized group improved peak power output, their lactic threshold and high intensity exercise capacity significantly more than the threshold group. Another study had competitive cross-country skiers, cyclists, triathletes, runners either do high intensity interval training, low intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio or, polarized training. The researcher found that the polarized training group had the greatest increases in VO2peak, time to exhaustion and peak velocity/ power.
Why Does This Work?:
Why does this combination of light intensity activity with bursts of intense activity work so well? One theory is that this pattern most closely mirrors the activity pattern of our ancestors, from which our bodies are adapted.
Our ancestors would engage in many light intensity activities like walking, making tools and preparing shelters. But they also had brief high intensity spurts when hunting, for example. One research said,
Hunting could be broken down into various activities such as searching for and pursuing animals, throwing, sprinting, and carrying the game after taking the prey. Overall, such a pattern could be interpreted in terms of a polarized intensity distribution, with the predominance of prolonged low-intensity activities interspersed with some energy bursts of explosiveness in a predictable sequence in most cases.
So, try polarized training. Short of going to a laboratory to get exact measurements, a study found that self-rated exercise difficulty corresponds to heart rate measures 92% of the time. Low intensity is rated a 4 (out of 10) or below; moderate intensity is rated a 4.5 to a 6.5 and high intensity is rated a 7 or above. See what training like a caveman can do for you!
Boullosa, Daniel A., et al. “Do olympic athletes train as in the Paleolithic era?.”Sports medicine 43.10 (2013): 909-917.
Neal, Craig M., et al. “Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists.” Journal of Applied Physiology 114.4 (2013): 461-471.
Seiler, K. Stephen, and Glenn Øvrevik Kjerland. “Quantifying training intensity distribution in elite endurance athletes: is there evidence for an “optimal” distribution?.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 16.1 (2006): 49-56.
Stöggl, Thomas, and Billy Sperlich. “Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training.”Frontiers in physiology 5 (2014).