Getting fitter follows an arc, whether a roadie is exercising for health and fitness or a pro contending to win the Tour de France. As a roadie rides more he gets fitter and he can handle a greater training load, i.e., more miles. As a rider gets fitter, he can also handle a harder training load, i.e., more hills and more intensity. At some point a rider plateaus, either he can’t handle more training or he doesn’t improve from more training. When a rider plateaus, with age the rider’s capacity to train may decline and his capacity to improve from training may decrease.
In general as we age, we need more recovery, which means we have less capacity to exercise. We can’t ride as many miles or climb as much. Optimal recovery will slow the rate of decline but not stop it. Because we have less capacity, it’s important to make optimal use of our capacity.
Your capacity in a given period of time isn’t fixed, but results from a combination of variables:
- How many days a week you ride.
- How long your rides are.
- How hard you ride.
- Your total volume.
Depending on your choices of number one through number four you can ride handle more or less in a week, month and year. One way to get more capacity is to ride more days a week but not quite as long each ride. This will produce more improvement than packing your riding into the weekend and doing little during the week. Another way to increase your capacity is to do polarized training.
For more see my column on Importance of Recovery in your 50s, 60s and Beyond: 9 Tips on Cycling Recovery
Using polarized training will increase your capacity.
In the early 2000s, Stephen Seiler, a sports scientist in Norway, analyzed the training habits of elite endurance athletes in rowing, cross-country skiing, cycling and running. He found they didn’t follow the common “no pain, no gain” approach to training.
The elite athletes in each of these sports polarized their training time. About 80% of their training was low intensity chatting with friends, enjoying the scenery and having fun. The other 20% wasn’t fun — it was hard. By polarizing their training they could increase total training volume without injury or burnout and still get the benefits of hard workouts.
Another study experimented with 30 runners randomly assigned to one of two training protocols: 1) polarized intensity or 2) moderate intensity. The study concluded “Polarized training can stimulate greater training effects in recreational runners.” [Does polarized training improve performance in recreational runners? PubMed]
The first study was observational looking at many athletes’ training programs. The second study was experimental testing two different training programs with a small number of runners. Because of the small sample size the second study wasn’t definitive but it is consistent with the large, observational study.
I wrote a column: Why ‘No Pain, No Gain’ is Wrong.
Using Polarized Training
Suppose you’re riding five days a week averaging 90 minutes a day for a total of 7:30 hours in the week. Polarizing your training four days (6 hours) could be at an easy conversational pace and one day could be a hard 90 minutes. A 90-minute hard ride is physically challenging and mentally demanding. A less demanding program would be to include 30 minutes of hard riding in three of the riding days.
When you’re using polarized training your total training volume should be less than if you just rode at a conversational pace. The American College of Sports Medicine’s minimal recommendation for aerobic fitness is 2:30 hours a week of moderate intensity exercise or 1:15 hours a week of high intensity exercise or a combination.
Essentially, the ACSM is saying X minutes of high intensity is as beneficial as 2X of moderate intensity. This oversimplifies the relationship but the principle is clear: if you include some intensity, you should do less total exercise than if you didn’t include any intensity. For example, you could do 2:00 hours of moderate and 0:15 of high intensity aerobic exercise (about a 90 / 10 ratio). Or you could do 1:30 hours of moderate and 0:30 of high intensity (about an 80 / 20 ratio).
For more see my column: Anti-Aging New Exercise Recommendations.
80 / 20 Exercise and Longevity
High intensity training (HIT) is a popular program with many variations. Research published in 2020 by a group of exercise scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology suggests that including high-intensity training (HIT) gives better protection against premature death than moderate workouts alone. In this study a HIT workout was four repeats of [4 minutes at 90% of max heart rate and 4 minutes of rest]. A moderate workout was a longer session of 50 minutes at 70% of max heart rate, corresponding to a brisk conversational ride. Both the HIT group and the moderate group worked out twice a week. You can read about the specifics of the Norwegian study in my column on Anti-Aging: Interval Training Increases Longevity.
The Norwegian study in the early 2000s suggests mostly moderate exercise plus some high intensity exercise is optimal for improving fitness. If you choose to do HIT workouts, with polarized training HIT should be about 20% of your total training time.
How Much Harder
And how much easier? To do polarized training effectively, about 80% should be at a conversational pace. If you can’t talk out loud in full sentences, you’re going too hard. Over 30 years of coaching most of my clients were riding too hard on their endurance rides — faster than a comfortable conversational pace — and doing either very little or the wrong kind(s) of intensity workout. I teach them to slow down to a true endurance pace.
You don’t have to hammer close to your max heart rate to get the benefit of intensity. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) says, “The important idea behind all forms of HIIT is providing an intense phase of exercise followed by a period of recovery. Each phase can range from a few seconds to a few minutes and is conducted across a range of intensities.” [Interval-based exercise: So many names, so many possibilities]
You don’t need to plan your riding miles or hours every week so 80% are endurance and 20% are intensity. Just adhere to the principle that most of your riding should be at a conversational pace.
My 41-page eBook Intensity Training: Using RPE, a HRM or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness explains in detail the benefits of hard workouts, how to do hard workouts, and gives you 65 different workouts at different intensities.
An 80 / 20 approach to training is psychologically easier. In general humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pushing yourself all the time isn’t fun — and if it isn’t fun, you’re more likely to avoid your workouts or even quit entirely. With the 80 / 20 approach most of your time is having fun with your friends. The other 20% is doing hard workouts. Contrast this with mostly riding with faster roadies. You’re going too hard to talk, not having much fun and but not hard enough for a real intensity workout.
“One important consideration around HIT is that it provides the exerciser the opportunity to experience the extra benefits of intense exercise without creating an experience that is negative or unpleasant.” [ACSM]
You can read more in these columns:
- Anti-Aging – Benefits of Training with Intensity
- 6 Kinds of Intensity Training: Which One Is Best for You?
- Why Increasing Intensity is Good for All Road Cyclists
- How Cyclists Should Approach Intensity Training for Maximum Benefit
- Intensity Done Correctly Produces Results
My four-article bundle Cycling Past 50 includes:
- Healthy Cycling Past 50 reviews the physiological changes that come with increasing maturity and describes the different types of exercise to slow the aging process. It includes three sample programs depending on your goals and how much time you have.
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- Healthy Nutrition Past 50 describes what kinds of foods you should eat for healthy nutrition, what your daily diet should be and details what you should eat on rides.
- Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 describes the benefits different modalities and how to do them in the winter: cycling outdoors, cycling indoors, cross-training and weight training. It includes two different 12-week plans and guidance on how to adapt each to your physical condition, time available and goals.
The 93-page bundleCycling Past 50 is $15.96, $4 less than the full price of all four articles.
My two-article Cycling Past 60 bundle includes:
- For Health gives you six different health maintenance objectives for different components of your physiology, including comprehensive fitness programs that address these objectives. It shows you how to measure your “Athletic Maturity” to assess your relative fitness in terms of all aspects of good health. This eArticle includes three balanced, full-body exercise programs for different cyclists of different athletic maturities. 24 pages
- For Recreation uses the concept of “Athletic Maturity” to design programs for riders of different athletic maturity. It includes six different structured workout programs, three each for Endurance and Performance cyclists, based on levels of athletic maturity. 23 pages
The 47-page Cycling Past 60 bundle is just $8.98.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes chapters on how to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations on aerobic, high intensity aerobic, strength training, weight-bearing exercises, balance and flexibility. I include sample weeks and months for different types and amounts of exercise. I give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I include a plan to increase over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. You can easily modify the plans for different annual amounts of riding. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.