Explaining polarized vs. sweet spot to your aunt

I teach environmental science to a lot of college freshmen, and the objective of many of my short writing assignments is to try to get the students to explain something in writing as if they were explaining it to someone with little to no experience with the topic.

I have read quite a bit and listened to hours of podcasts (this podcast, fascat, trainerroad, etc) on cycling training, and am I (like everyone one else, I guess!) trying to figure out the best and most sustainable way to ride/train to enjoy myself and get faster. So, just for kicks, this morning over coffee, I gave myself a writing assignment: See if you can articulate the sweet spot vs. polarized “debate” in an accurate way. But how do I grade my short essay? I can’t! That’s your job, dear friends. I know this is cursory and probably off-the-mark in technical aspects here and there. Maybe it gets most of it right, but maybe not. I would love to get an assessment of how well I understand this, though, so anyone who wants to be my professor and grade this essay (with feedback of course!), please do! Thanks a bunch, John

Sweet Sport vs. Polarized Approaches for Enthusiast-Level Cyclists

My rookie/amateur summary: You are an amateur/enthusiast level endurance cyclist, aiming to improve your aerobic fitness so that those gran fondos and gravel “races” are faster (and more fun), and (of course) so that you can continue to improve on your favorite local Strava segments and climb the ladder in those public rankings. So, no, you don’t race crits or cyclocross, you’re not “Cat” anything ranked, but – yes – you are damned well determined to see if you can become a faster cyclist. I think this is a fair description of a lot of cyclists out there. You have listened to enough podcasts and red enough forums to know two things: (1) structured training is the way to go to most efficiently raise your fitness/FTP; (2) there is lively debate over whether a polarized or more of a sweet-spot/threshold method would work best.

Your FTP is, say, 275. You have a power meter and you’ve ridden enough long (i.e., greater than 2 hour) rides to know that it is very difficult (and increasingly difficult the longer the rides are!) to average much over about 80% of FTP for the ride (which would be 220 watts average power for this rider this case). When you come back from those long rides and look at your power file, you see that you tend to spend a whole lot of time in a range between a little above average wattage and just above threshold, say between 240 and 290 or so watts. Intuitively, it feels like the best way to get faster for these (long, steady) rides would be to increase the amount of time you can spend above your current average power. Stated another way, get the fitness to ride with more power by incrementally riding longer with more power. And so, we arrive at the promise of sweet spot training plans, where you spend long intervals pushing ~90% or so of your FTP, in the hopes of gaining the ability to increase the amount of time you can ride in this zone over the course of a long ride. It certainly makes sense that this would work. (And, of course, improvements do come with this method. The question is: Can you get even better improvements with a polarized approach?) As such, sweet spot training falls into the “you’re good at what you do” approaches. You want to be able to ride longer at 250 watts? Ride more and longer around 250 watts! So, with sweet spot, what you are really trying to do is raise your FTP, under the assumption that your average power on long rides will be lifted with it. (e.g., If I can now ride for 3 hours at 220 watts, which is 80% of my FTP and I raise my FTP to 300, maybe I can then ride at 240 watts for 3 hours. Boom.)

The polarized advocate then chimes in and says, wait a minute, that may not be the best way to raise that endurance race-pace. A problem with the sweet spot approach is that (for the FTP 275 cyclist) training at 220 watts and 250 watts produce almost identical adaptations, i.e., aerobic improvements. Yet, the 220-watt training ride does so without producing nearly as much stress on the body, and is hence much easier and quicker to recover from. This allows for higher quality work on subsequent days (including high quality work on high-intensity interval days and on long-ride days), higher quality recovery, and more lasting adaptations. If you have the time (no small qualifier, and how much time is very much in debate) to put in meaningful truly endurance-level work (Z1 in the 3-zone model, or Z2 in the 5 zone), i.e., polarize your training, you can efficiently (and less painfully) raise that endurance floor from below (rather than the “lifting it from above” method that is sweet spot training). It may seem counterintuitive to think that the best way to get from 220W to 240W for a target average power for a very long ride is to ride more at 200-220W, rather than riding more and longer at 240 or 250 in the hopes of “getting better at what you do.” (Or, perhaps, spending most of your time riding as hard as you can currently ride for long periods [polarized] is likely a more efficient strategy than riding just a bit harder than that [sweet spot].) With polarized training, you may be able to build a bigger and more durable base while at the same time feeling less worn down by your training. As such, an added bonus for many cyclists to a polarized approach may be longer-term sustainability of training, and hence larger and most lasting gains).


Love it! Great article. I’ve been on board for ~ 2 years, and I wish it were longer!


@johnhintz - I’d say a B+. There’s a lot to read through and more than one point (at least for SS).

Here is my assignment, feel free to score me too:

Sweet Spot is the “comfortable” range. You’re going hard enough to make it feel like it’s hard work, but easy enough that you can complete the workout, or ride. You feel fast, and it feels good. To make it challenging, you make the intervals longer (duration), not harder (higher power). Because you’re working “below your limit” your average power for these workouts are +/- 90% of your FTP (Functional Threshold Power - which is 95% of the power you can hold for 20-minutes). To stay in this range, you need to keep a close eye on your power numbers to make sure you don’t go too hard or too easy; concentrate.

Polarised, is the “uncomfortable” range. You go really hard some days (2 out of 10) and super easy on most other days (8 workouts of out of 10). The hard efforts are really hard, and is “above your limit”, and you can’t sustain the efforts for very long; it feels uncomfortable. The easy efforts are really easy and just doesn’t feel right; feels like you are wasting your time because it’s so slow. You don’t need to use a power meter for this ride, but rather keep your heart rate below 75-85% of the maximum heart you’ve ever seen.

When comfortable, one becomes complacent, and will require stimulation to get out of the “rut”. Polarised is the stimulation.

Thanks, @geraldm24 ! Good summaries, I would say.

My larger question was whether I was interpreting the fundamental advantage of polarized over sweet spot correctly. i.e., Both “sweet spot” and polarized zone 1 workouts produce basically the same (aerobic) adaptations, but the lower intensity workouts do so while putting less stress on the body, making it possible to ride longer, recover faster, and be primed to really nail the (infrequent) high-intensity workouts, optimizing the adaptations gained from them as well. That is my understanding that I would like verified or corrected.

I am not sure why I made that point/question so unnecessarily long in my initial post.


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@johnhintz I am totally with your description. Good work. I too would like to make myself write essays btw, but rarely have the discipline.

There are only a few energy systems in the body. So all types of training, be it sweet spot, polarized, all HIT/HIIT attempt to somehow maximize these systems. Or at least those choosing one method to train seriously in an organized manner would have reached that conclusion. But the real question is do they effectively train those systems in a way that maximizes long term progress/fitness/performance.

The HIT analogy as icing on the cake is a good one. If you have not baked the cake 1st, you are only eating frosting. Maybe tasty. Not filling. I like the idea of sweet spot and think it is relevant. There are multiple approaches needed at different point in training. This is so key to a sport as dynamic as cycling, as opposed to say swimming, track running, xc skiing where athletes have a set distance and complete against those with similar performance characteristics.

We now long races/events require lots of sub-threshold work. 1) So there is something there, particularly for those racing less yet desiring to compete in long events. 2) Often ignored is that the most successful endurance athletes have steadily improved and maintained high LT1 (AT or whatever) both absolutely and relative to LT2/threshold. The best have a small gap between LT1 & LT2. SO in a 3 zone system, zone 2 get smaller and moves to the right. This is why defining training zone individually and by physiology makes the most sense. As @johnhintz and others mention, the avg power for long event might be 0.8 FTP. But at that percent, or say 0.84, some athletes are working aerobically, while the less trained are more anaerobic taxed. In other words, over/under intervals comprise a much smaller wattage jump…

Remember that explaining to your aunt is different to trying to explain it, in simple terms, to someone who knows a lot more.

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@johnhintz, great description in your original post. After reading it, I would fully agree with you. I look at SS as a training strategy that has a few key expected outcomes:

  1. Heavy aerobic training load to promote adaptations to that system
  2. Large increase in CTL/fitness/whatever metric you want to use for the “blue line”
  3. Improvements in FTP

In terms of Polarized, we can see basically the same improvements depending on available time, but would also argue that we could expect additional improvements in areas such as repeatability, VO2 max, and glycolytic enzyme regulation, to name a few (i.e., top end stuff).

In terms of your question of understanding the fundamental advantage of Polarized over SS, I would agree that it comes down to the strain put on the body. They will both show improvements in endurance, etc. but at what cost? If you have a new rider doing 6 hours per week and 4-5 of those hours are spent in tempo or sweet spot, that may be a short-lived run that this cyclist would have with fitness. Switch to a rider doing 15 hours per week, and yeah, 4-5 hours of sweet spot may be an effective approach to increase the strain on the body for a block or two.

My personal feeling is that both approaches can be utilized throughout the year as a tactic to get you to another place in your training. I generally do not take a hard stance for or against either approach. We tried to get there in Podcast Episode 14 (wow, that was a long time ago!), but Frank and I ended up showing how we both find a middle ground as coaches even though we might be painted with the SS or Polarized “label.” Personally, I love the fact that we weren’t arguing for or against these ideas and enjoyed seeing how someone like Frank utilizes Polarized principles in his training, even as “the sweet spot guy.”

Example (as someone who generally utilizes a primarily Polarized structure): I did a large sweet spot block leading up to a multi-day bikepacking tour a couple years ago. The training goal was simple:

  1. Ride a lot
  2. When you do ride, go as hard as you can in zone 3 or 4 (5-zone model) with the time available. Some days were structured, and other days were whatever the terrain gave me.
  3. When you don’t have the legs for Z3/4, ride easy
  4. Take regular off days to support the recovery

This worked perfectly well. Training load went up as the body took on more strain. Performance at sub-threshold efforts improved dramatically. I would even say that durability was improved based on how easy each day felt on the bike. 30 miles of dirt and trail was just the start, getting to that day’s end point felt like a warm-up. The downside was that this was short-lived. Long enough to generate good fitness for a trip where sleep and fueling would not be perfect, and I would be operating at some level of fatigue day after day because you’re traveling on your bike in the wilderness and not going to a cozy, warm bed every night.

But moving from that into a longer-term approach and planning to do future events on that type of training would not have worked for me. This is where Polarized comes back into the discussion - rest up, dial the intensity down to a more manageable level, and then you’ll find that you have really good days that start showing up. These sensations were generally not present during the SS phase, but returned once the level of strain declined to a better level for my body. (e.g., a really good day during the SS phase would have been the ability to ride hard at a higher %FTP, but I wasn’t going to win any sprints on that fitness).

So to tie it up, I think you have a great understanding of the fundamental advantage of Polarized over SS, and I would add that SS can exert an advantage over Polarized in some cases, provided you have the ability to understand how your body takes on and responds to the load, what the expected outcomes are, can prioritize recovery, and not expect this to be a season-long level of fitness or approach. It’s just another arrow in your quiver - you can take it out and shoot it, but there are other arrows in there too, so don’t run out of options by only sticking to one strategy.


Sorry if I missed your “larger question” about the fundamental advantage of polarized over sweet spot correctly. Got caught up in describing the two in words that a lay person might understand, and missed a key point.

I’m a bit biased towards Polarized training purely because I’ve seen better performances improvements after 2 training blocks compared to a more traditional approach where gains a minimal. I got my friends I ride (and coach) with, to try it out and give their feedback; they felt the same. The hard workouts are easier to get through at the planned intensity/duration. Not all workouts are above threshold, as some are threshold based, i.e. in the range of 90-105% for varying duration and number of sets. The progression comes from adding an interval or two, or adding time to each set. Even the recovery duration would decrease from 1:1 to 2:1 and eventually 4:1 (work to recovery).

After a few blocks of sweet spot training earlier this year, it felt it was a case of adding fatigue, but not enough to warrant a rest day the day before the sessions (VO2 or Theshold power). I found myself skipping a workout in favour of rest (labeled it unplanned rest) to be able to complete the harder efforts the next day. Friends were complaining that they struggled to keep up on rides that they previously were able too.

In terms of the aerobic benefit, the Power/HR value is a good metric on a workout under the same conditions. It could be coincidence, but the HR was lower for the same power on the two polarized blocks compared to the sweet spot blocks. That would speak to the “chronic-type” fatigue we were feeling from doing a sweet spot type plan.

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you can dissect more about this 2 blocks you did of polarized approuch VS SS ? I ask because i want to change more to SS

@ryan: great post, especially point three in your numbered list to do it easy if your legs are fatigued

Have you ever tried to precede the z4 session in SS with a test day?
This is what is did in my COPID experiment. I do recognize the chronic fatigued, but i also noticed that if that load can be recovered from within 1 day, a proper z4 session or race is possible.
It was difficult to determine that load though. In polarized you will get to point of being recovered without the need for a rest day.

I my case where i am limited to roughly six hours a week, polarized felt boring as i could do 1 hard session and all of the rest was slow, and not long enough for benefits.

You can skip through the bit in italics, as it puts the reason into context on why I did 2 blocks of SS and then 2 blocks of Polarized training:

Due to Covid, many races I would normally do were cancelled or pushed out to Q4-2021. As a result I wasn’t interested in trying to peak for an event that might, or might not happen, so I used the time to experiment. Unfortunately, the SS block was up first as I wasn’t interested in the Polarized approach at the time. Perhaps the benefits of doing SS has made Polarized easier.

Even though I’ve raced at our national championship level, it doesn’t imply I’m an expert rider. In fact, I’m a participant at this level, and happy to be able to finish with the peloton; a win in my books. The same can be said for races; my goal is to enjoy my riding/racing based on the time I have available, without worrying about other factors, like diet, sleep, missing workouts, etc.

So, onto the actual details of the SS blocks.
Friday’s are my rest days. It might seem a bit odd, but I train in the afternoons in the week and do my weekend rides from 05:00 onwards. If I do a Friday afternoon session and then another Saturday morning ride/race, then it’s a recipe for disaster. So I train the other 6 days a week, and only use a Friday if work/family keeps me off the bike to two days in a row. Sunday morning to Monday evening is a good 30-36 hour break between Sunday’s endurance and Monday’s HIT.

  • Mon - 60-90m VO2 range
  • Tue - 60-90m endurance
  • Wed - 60-90m Threshold range
  • Thu - 60-90m endurance
  • Fri - Rest
  • Sat - 3-4h endurance, with over/unders in the final hour
  • Sun - 60-90m endurance

The 60-min workout would be in the first few weeks, and the 90-mins in the final weeks of the block. In between could be 75-mins, with progression mostly coming from increasing the duration of the intervals, or adding another set.

Monday 30/15s, VO2: (3.5m between sets)
Wk1: 4 sets (30s at 106-110%, 15s at 60%)
Wk2: 5 sets (30 at 110-114%, 15s at 60%)
Wk3: 6 sets (30 at 114-120%, 15s at 60%)
Wk4: recovery week - no HIT
Wk 5: 5 sets (30s at 110-114%, 15s at 60%)
Wk 6: 6 sets (30s at 110-114%, 15s at 60%)
Wk 7: 6 sets (30s at 114-120%, 15s at 60%)
Wk 8: recovery week - no HIT

Wednesday (Threshold) (2:1 work : rest ratio)
Wk1: 3x 12m (4m at 90-95%, 4m at 95-99%, 4m at 90-95%) - 1m between each 4m step
Wk2: 3x 12m (6m at 92-95%, 6m 95-98%) -1m recovery between each 6m step
Wk3: 3x 12m all at 95-99%)
Wk4: recovery week - no HIT
Wk1: 4x 10m (3m at 90-95%, 4m at 95-99%, 3m at 90-95%) - 1m between each step
Wk2: 4x 10m (5m at 92-95%, 5m 95-98%) - 1m between each step
Wk3: 4x 10m (all at 95-99%)
Wk 8: recovery week - no HIT

Saturday (Club ride) - endurance, with over/unders in the last hour of the ride
Wk1: 4x 2m 95%, 1m 105%, 6m RI
Wk2: 4x 2m 95%, 1m 105%, 6m RI
Wk3: 5x 2m 95%, 1m 105%, 6m RI
Wk4: recovery week - no HIT
Wk1: 5x 2m 95%, 1m 105%, 6m RI
Wk2: 6x 2m 95%, 1m 105%, 6m RI
Wk3: 6x 2m 95%, 1m 105%, 6m RI
Wk 8: recovery week - no HIT

As you can see, three days per week were at threshold or above, and 3 days of endurance. The second block was the same, but at the new FTP (5.5% increase). The FTP at the end of the second block was a 2% increase. It showed an improvement, but the cost was too much fatigue.


ow thanks! better than expected! you give me great insights

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Can VLamax help to decide which arrow would be most appropriate for a base period?

Hearing that (low cadence) sweet spot is one tool to lower VLamax or bring FTP closer to VO2max power - which would be desirable for a Gran Fondo rider.

Which type of Gran Fondo rider would you consider yourself? Someone really challenging themself and stronger for their age?


Looking to be near the top of the age group or podium?

The plan is not pure sweet spot, but rather a mix of pyramidal or threshold training depending on how much low intensity you do.

Pyramidal is most of time spent in low intensity (Z1-2), less time at moderate intensities (Z3-4), and the least amount of time spent at high intensity (Z5-7), whereas the threshold is more in Z3-4, then less in Z1-2 and even less in Z5-7.

If I look back at most of my training over the years, it was close to pyramidal.

I’m not strong enough for podium or age-group pointy end. So it’s about becoming stronger and doing the best I can.

With 5min max power of 390 and 1h of 300 it looks like my sustained capabilities are lagging behind (having read that 1h power/5min power would have to be around 85% or higher to consider vo2max the limiter).

Not sure if avoiding sweet spot would be helpful.

What would be a good progression rate for sweet spot intervals (or time per workout) for a already good trained athlete?

My starting point i think i’m gonna go with 40 minutes (4x10) per workout and build up that total time to let’s say 90 minutes.
Should there also be a progression during one week from workout to workout (for example 40, 45, 50minutes or something), or just from week to week and stay at 40minutes the whole week and the next week do 50minutes?

Also intervals should get longer… from 4x10 to 2x20 or from 4x15 to 3x20 to 2x30min… end up with 3x30, 2x45, even maybe 1x90minutes.

But don’t know what a good progression should look like, is it 10minutes per week or is it less/more… any ideas or suggestions?

Thanks in advance :slight_smile: