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Polarisation: the 80/20 principle

One of the cornerstones of any plan I write is a concept called polarisation. Sometimes known as the 80/20 rule, this principle involves completing the lion’s share (around 80%) of any given week’s training at a low intensity, or ‘easy’ pace. The remaining 20% of the week involves high intensity or ‘hard’ efforts. For elite athletes, multiple studies have shown that 80% vs 20% seems to be the right ratio of easy to hard, although the exact balance is individual to each athlete. Other studies have shown that the concept works as well for recreational and low-volume runners as it does for the Kipchoges of the world.

The polarisation approach is radically different from that adopted by many recreational athletes – I often speak to runners who do all of their training at the same, moderate to high intensity pace, or who believe that the only way to get faster is to do each run as hard as possible.

You will find multiple, lengthy articles online about why polarisation works, so do dig into these if you’re a sports science geek, and especially if you want to read about the studies and the data – but I’ve tried to save you some time here by outlining four reasons why this approach can and will help you run faster and further.

1. Running easy trains the aerobic system. This part can get complex, but essentially there are two main energy systems we use as distance runners – aerobic and lactate. The aerobic system is used at low intensities, and can use fat as fuel – good, because our bodies can store enough fat to run a very long way. At higher intensities, the body switches on the lactate system. This delivers energy faster, but can’t use fat as fuel, and produces lactate as a side product – so its use is time-limited. Distance runners need efficient aerobic systems. The faster we can run before the lactate system switches on, the further we’ll be able to go for less effort. If we keep training at moderate intensity, the body will become used to starting to use the lactate system immediately, and the aerobic system never gets trained. Running lots of miles at low intensity encourages the body to use the aerobic system, and it becomes more efficient as a result.

2. To run faster, we do need to train at high intensity too. Many runners have heard of VO2 max, which is a measure of our aerobic capacity – how efficiently our bodies can use oxygen during exercise. To train this, we need to run fast. This is usually done as short repeats, run very hard, with long recoveries. Crucially, we can only run this fast if most of our weekly load has been easy. Athletes who do most of their training at moderate intensities will be too fatigued to run at a pace which challenges their VO2 max.

3. Injury prevention. By keeping most of the week’s load at easy intensity, the chance of injury is decreased, meaning we can train more consistently. When my runners have big breakthroughs in pace or run PB races, it often follows a few months of really good consistency in training.

4. This is what every elite athlete in the world does! While we absolutely should not be adopting elite training protocols in their entirety, or even using individual workouts, this overall principle has been shown to be of benefit to recreational athletes too.

Switching to a polarised approach can be a bit of a leap of faith; it’s hard to understand how running slow will make you faster! I always feel very privileged when athletes I coach place their trust in me and make radical changes to the way they run – and of course we both are thrilled when it pays off, and they see their running improving. I’m always happy to chat to curious runners – so drop me a line if you want to understand more about how this would work for you. I’ve really only scratched the surface here!

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