Polarization Of Intensity

Polarization of Intensity - ALTIS Programming


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Taken from the ALTIS Foundation Course, this excerpt - written by Derek Evely and PJ Vazel - explores the increasingly popular topic of polarized training.

In the next two minutes, you'll get a clear introduction to the concept, then delve into real-world application with comprehensive case studies showcasing how polarized training has benefited three different athletes.



When determining how to load an athlete, it is not enough to only consider the instantaneous allocation of volumes and intensities. One must also consider the distribution of loads and how zones of intensity relate to one another.

Polarization of intensity refers to the modern approach of load distribution, focusing on the use of high intensity specific workloads in conjunction with low intensity, general workloads.

Generally speaking, polarized loads are loads that focus upon one end of the intensity spectrum. A key component of this relies on volumes being allocated in such a way that no two zones of intensity compete with each other for specific resources within the body’s systems.

For endurance sports this translates to a focus upon a high volume of low intensity activity, used in conjunction with relatively low volumes of high intensity workloads. Middle intensity loads still exist in endurance schemes, however, they occupy even less of a percentage than that of high intensity loads.

In speed-power sports, polarized workloads are those that focus upon opposite ends of the intensity spectrum. Work is prescribed in a way that targets very specific and highly intensive loading, usually alongside general loads that exist below an intensity that would compete with specific resources. These general loads may actually take up far more volume than the specific loads, however, they do not interfere with the development of specific abilities. Middle zone intensities occupy very little space within the prescription of specific training.

This polarization of intensity approach isn’t just unique to Track & Field – many other sports are coming to realize this polarized method works. One notable study of training distribution in speed skaters, for example, explored the evolution of the distribution of training loads and intensities over a 40 year period, and found a shift to polarized workloads had gradually occurred in this sport.

When determining how to load an athlete, it is not enough to only consider the instantaneous allocation of volumes and intensities.



The key concept in polarized methodology is that individual, separate zones of intensity do not compete for specific resources. However, this does not preclude middle zone intensive training.

Middle intensity loads can work as a bridge or progression to highly intensive workloads. However, one does not want to focus upon this type of loading for too long, because it is not specific enough to create the necessary adaptations for the competitive event.

Middle intensity loads can also be used to foster technical learning in certain circumstances. The reduced intensities can enable skill acquisition – and yet are still intensive enough to be relevant.

Olympic Weightlifting – Case Study


Our first case study looks at Greek weightlifters Pyrros Dimas and Kakhi Kakhiashvili, who won Olympic golds in 1992, 1996 and 2000 in their respective weight categories. Although they shared equivalent success in the same sport, the two lifters took very different paths to get there. While most of Greek team during this time adopted the high intensity training method that was introduced by Bulgarian coach – Ivan Abadzhiev – Kakhi Kakhiashvili, who was born a Georgian in the former Soviet Union, continued to follow the training methodology that he was taught as a developing athlete. This included a significant portion of training in the middle zone intensities. This different methodology was not the norm for that demographic, or the system in place at the time, but it still secured him Olympic Gold. (Source: Interview, L’Équipe Magazine, July 1996).

Sprinting – Case Study


Italian sprinter Pierfrancesco Pavoni was the fastest European junior sprinter in 1982. His training at the time was based on that of Pietro Mennea – the then World Record holder in the 200m. However, Pavoni decided to change his approach to training, and started to focus instead on a small volume of faster and shorter sprints. The reason for the change was prompted by discovery – via muscle biopsies – that he had a completely different make-up that of his former training partner. His make up was 22% slow twitch fibers, 9% fast twitch type IIa and 69% of super fast twitch type IIb. Training partner – Mennea had 40%, 50% and 10% of the respective fibers. This meant that while Mennea could tolerate a large volume of lactic workouts, Pavoni’s physiology was more suited to short bursts of running.

Following his change in approach, with his new personalized training he became the only sprinter to reach both 100m and 200m finals at the 1987 world championships. (Source).


Distance running – Case Study


As a last anecdote, Norwegian distance runners Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen both held the Marathon World Records during the eighties, yet their training had significant differences: Kristiansen (the only runner – female or male – to hold simultaneously the 5000m, 10000m and marathon World Records), was known to have poor basic speed and extremely high aerobic capacities. She followed a high volume / low intensity model, which is seen as a common approach for endurance sports – especially in men. In comparison, Waitz (who set 6 World Records at the 3000m and Marathon) leaned more towards a low volume / high intensity model – a type of training she used early in her career when she was a middle distance specialist. She was a more explosive athlete than Kristiansen, and she even competed in the high jump in her youth! (Source: Tjelta & al. A case study of the Training of Nine Times New York Marathon winner Grete Waitz, Int J of Sport Science & Coaching, Vol 9 n1, 2014).




Whether one decides to use polarized methods or not, the key consideration must be the competition for specific resources. Be aware however, that it is not one size fits all answers approach. There must be nuance for individual responses, as outlined in the case studies above:

Some athletes do not thrive on polarized workloads and need to focus upon higher volumes of middle zone intensities. If you are dealing with one of these outliers, be aware that these same athletes cannot also perform high volumes of high intensity loads.

As with many things regarding training methodology, we must understand the rules before we can break them: General rules are efficient for a large majority of athletes, but may not apply to outliers.



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