Pyramidal Training

Hey FasCats - here is a podcast I recorded with Coach @Christian about Pyramidal Training.

Even I learned something from this one!


I’m just popping in to say…juicy! I look forward to listening.


Frank, Christian,

Great podcast. Really appreciate you pointing out that Sweet Spot is a training zone and Pyramidal and Polarized are training approaches that use different combinations of training zone workouts. And further, that, unless you’ve got 20+ hours/week to train, it really isn’t about choosing Pyramidal or Polarized it’s about doing both Pyramidal and Polarized. Pyramidal during the base/build phase of the season and Polarized as you go from base to race. Hope I got that right. That’s what I took from it.

But the best part of the pod was listening to Frank, the Greek God of Cycling Training, speaking from Mount Boulder with that authoritative echo in his voice :grinning: Thanks.


you got it right!

Yea, twas a little echo-y unfortunately and sorry about that. Darn technology!

Frank & Christian I just listened to the podcast and I thought it was great. Well researched and thoughtful. Out of the entire podcast I think the most important things said came near the end. To paraphrase “…after 6-8 weeks any type of training stagnates…”. This is true and something that everyone should keep in mind, variety throughout a training year is critically important. To “avoid” any specific energy system or intensity is foolish.

Also, I think you are correct in saying that polarized vs SS is a false debate. I am reasonably certain that Dr. Seiler would agree that elite athletes and coaches are very smart and tend to self-select to what works and what doesn’t. Based on your (Frank) pedigree and athletes, you certainly fall into the category of elite coach. I feel your analysis was also correct that most of the original research was done on relatively short duration event’s such as rowing and XC skiing - though some xc ski events do go as long as 4-6+ hours in the longer loppet events but these are the exception. Marathon runners did also fall into some of the original research and even for the very fastest runners these events are over 2 hours. So short in duration comparison to a 12 hour gravel race but not short in the grand scheme. The part that many people miss when it comes to “SS vs polarized” is that the original research was based on the “goal target intensity” of a workout. What Seiler found was that most (+/-80%) workouts were well below race intensity, very few were at race intensity and some were at or above race intensity for elite athletes. So the original research had nothing to do with HR or power distribution over the course of a training camp, a season or a year it was all about workout goals. I am sure I am missing some of the details but I think that is the gist of it.

I am personally a proponent of the polarized method of training intensity distribution as a “best practice” for training and coaching. This is based on personal experience as well as scientific evidence. The devil as they say is in the details. As I implied previously, I do not avoid prescribing SS training, it serves important purposes. I use SS workouts are judiciously and with purpose which is how FasCat uses them I believe. I am just less liberal with them.

My concerns are, in particular for the self coached athlete, are intensity discipline and accurate thresholds. I’ll explain what I mean by the latter first. Yes, a 20 minute FTP test is a reasonably accurate method of determining one’s FTP. However the data can be misinterpreted or there can be other factors at play that con greatly influence how one’s FTP is set. For example a 2019 study (Lillo-Bevia et al.) showed that 0.91 (vs. 0.95) appeared to be a better factor to use for the 20 minute power test to estimate MLSS. Granted MLSS is not the same as FTP but my understanding is they are very similar in well trained athletes. Even for less well trained or beginner athletes, there can be a substantial anaerobic/glycolytic contribution to a 20 minute test that can lead to an overestimation of one’s FTP. Particularly if an athlete has a relatively high type II fiber composition and/or type II fibers that are not yet trained sufficiently to operate well as oxidative fibers.

My point here is, if there is an athlete for whom 0.95 is a substantial overestimation of FTP, it can turn a SS workout into a threshold (even over threshold) workout very easily. It is my experience that this is where athletes can get themselves in trouble. Doing SS workouts 3x/week is do-able, trying to do 3 threshold (possibly suprathreshold) workouts a week could be a recipe for over training. For those athletes that are early in their training life the time to exhaustion (TTE) at FTP is also not that long. So now if we have an athlete that has an over estimated FTP and does not have a long TTE at FTP then we can easily turn a SS workout into something with much greater physiological strain.

Conversely, if we have an athlete that is very well trained and the power zones are set well, it is very possible that even at SS the heart rates and lactate values are very much highly aerobic with little anaerobic contribution. Possibly even at or slightly the aerobic threshold (LT1) using HR. For this athlete, a SS workout has a relatively low physiological cost. For this athlete, SS workouts provide an excellent variety of training during base season with little increase in internal strain compared to a z2 (Coggan) aerobic ride.

The critical part of any training intensity distribution (TID) prescription is that the athlete has intensity discipline. Without adequate discipline it is impossible to make the hard workouts hard, and I would consider a SS workout hard for the most part, depending on duration of course. My concern then with SS based training, is that athletes will fall into the trap of enjoying then feeling of fatigue and “having done a hard effort” following a SS workout then wanting all of their workouts to feel that way including their aerobic/z2 rides.

I could go on but I will leave it there and see where the conversation leads

Good points. Aside from debates on TID, following good intensity discipline and understanding the goals of each session is a massive part of good training/coaching.

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Thanks for the response. In reading over my comment I realize the phrase “original research” is too dogmatic and not what I had intended. I really appreciate Dr. Seiler as well. I appreciate that he recognizes what successful athletes and coaches have done and his relaxed clear communication style. I have heard Dr. Seiler talk about studies reviewing the training logs of marathoners (Moroccan I think?) and some of the champion Norwegian skiers of the late 90s and early 2000s where the training sessions were put into “buckets” of low, medium and high intensity (Z1, Z2 and Z3). I have seen the data in presentations and I am fairly certain it was in those studies that he coined the phrase “polarized training”. I’ll be damned if I can find the studies though. I’ll look again later.

I am familiar with the u23 cyclist study that you mentioned in the podcast as well as Seiler’s comments on them, though I admit I haven’t looked closely at it. I won’t discount the relative success of these athletes, clearly whatever they are doing works. And there are plenty of successful athletes and coaches that use many different training distributions. There does seem to be a common theme of a large amount of “easy” aerobic training with some higher intensity work. Whether the abundance of easy training is 70% or 85% it still forms the basis of endurance training I think, and probably depends on the time of year as you suggest.

I also agree that an athlete that is training only 6 hours/week or less is going to have a TID that is far more pyramidal or even rectangular in shape - you mention this in the podcast and I know there are training plans directed at these athletes from FasCat. In the case of these athletes I would try to find some more time in the week to add more aerobic volume. It could be as simply as adding 15 minutes of aerobic work to the end of a SS workout. A “training camp” approach can be very effective in building aerobic volume where once a month there are three or four days maybe a week when the volume is significantly increased and other obligations take a backseat. This can expand the base of the pyramid if you will

My concerns regarding the overestimation of FTP is based on my own experience and those of some athletes I know. I also know the habit of many men, who just want the biggest FTP number possible even when this doesn’t reflect reality. This overestimation can and does lead to problems with burnout, how common it is I can’t say, but I do know it happens not infrequently.

You raise a good point with the day-to-day variation of FTP, or just training zones in general really. It is for this reason why I don’t consider 95% of FTP to be SS, it is within the margin of day-to-day variation in my, perhaps not so humble, opinion. I think this matters because, as I understand it, FTP represents a point at which lactate is beginning to accumulate significantly, whereas SS is supposed to be below this point and therefore have a lower physiological strain and easier to recover from. For this reason I prefer to keep SS workouts at the lower end of the range.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, so I would appreciate hearing anyone’s thoughts on my statements.

By its nature, sweet spot training (“SST”) is going to entail longer sustained efforts and because of that, riders gravitating to SST and likely profiting most from it will be other than fast-twitch predominant types. Consequently, there is a certain amount of self-selection and horses for courses going on in undertaking certain types of training as well as the profit thereby. However, all riders (even pure TT specialists) will stagnate using a one-note approach and will short their own abilities if they fail to round-out their training.