Train like a pro; polarized training

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Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or the anaerobic tipping point is often seen as the indicator of your level. FTP is the maximum power a person can hold for an hour. You can test, train and above all improve your FTP. The power or your heart rate at your anaerobic threshold is used to determine your training zones. Many cyclists aspire to a higher FTP in order to ride harder, further and less tired and then recover even faster to become a more all-round rider. For these reasons, a higher FTP is the ultimate goal for many cyclists. So, how do you do it?

How to improve your FTP

In the first respect it seems logical to train a lot on your FTP when you want to improve this value. Just training on your FTP is not the only and certainly not the best way to improve your FTP. To explain this we first need to go back to a few basic principles from the training theory.
When the intensity of a workout increases, more use is made of the anaerobic system. This is because the aerobic system cannot release enough energy to kick the increasing power. More lactate is produced. Two lactate thresholds are lowered. The first point is not your FTP, but a point where your lactate concentration is clearly above your resting value (often around 2 mmol lactate). This point is called the aerobic threshold. The second threshold is your FTP or anaerobic threshold. At this second point the production and degradation of lactate is in precise balance. In theory, this is the maximum intensity you can hold for 60 minutes. In reality this is not entirely true and there are large individual differences in how long you can ride on your anaerobic threshold. We don’t want to make it too complicated right now and assume for now that FTP is a good estimation of your anaerobic threshold.

3-zone model

Based on these two values you can determine the 3-zone model. This model is often used in scientific studies to index the intensity. For example, the zones ‘below aerobic threshold’, ‘between aerobic and anaerobic threshold’ and ‘above anaerobic threshold’ are often used.

80-20 line

In several (retrospective) studies, something remarkable was then found. Many elite endurance athletes (cyclists, runners, swimmers, rowers and cross-country skiers) do not often train on or around their FTP, i.e. the second zone. Instead, pros often train according to a ‘polarized training distribution’. In other words, the pros train a lot below their aerobic threshold (zone 1) and above their anaerobic threshold (zone 3). So there is almost no training between the aerobic and anaerobic threshold. Almost 80% of the training was at low intensity (below the aerobic threshold) and 10 to 20% of the training was above the anaerobic threshold in the form of interval training. This does not mean that 10% to 20% of the total training time was cycled in zone 3, but 10% to 20% of the number of training sessions contained zone 3 intervals.
As a result of these results a lot of research has been done into this way of classifying training and its effectiveness. This was done for many different sports on all kinds of levels. This yielded interesting results. Recreational cyclists also showed the most improvement in their FTP when they trained 6 hours per week in a polarised way compared to more training between the aerobic and anaerobic threshold.

Background

How this happened may not even be that complicated. Training on your anaerobic threshold is very exhausting but you don’t use all your muscle groups at this intensity and you don’t get the maximum out of your heart/lung system. So you do get quite tired, but the training stimulus is less intensive than (shorter) cycling above your anaerobic threshold. That’s why it’s better to make sure you put a maximum load on the whole system and build up less fatigue, so you can do that more often.
So, if you want to improve your FTP, it is very important that you look at the intensity of your workouts. Most recreational cyclists ride their quiet rides too intensively and their heavy rides are not intensive enough because they are often tired from the too heavy quiet rides. So train like a pro by polarised training!

How to get better?

Getting better is all about timing. There are actually not good or bad workouts. There is only a bad combination or the wrong workout on the wrong time. The path of progression is therefore a training plan with the right training stimulus according to your level, goal and available time. To help you with that we developed an algorithm in the JOIN Cycling application. It provides you with a highly flexible training plan to makes sure you get the most out of your rides. You can download JOIN in the App Store and Play store. Or check this page for more info.