Pyramidal training: an interesting approach to prepare for an endurance or ultra-endurance event, by Karoly Spy

In endurance training, it is well established that aerobic core work including high volume low intensity training is a priority (Seiler, 2016). 

Another important factor in endurance training is to follow the distribution of training intensities (DIE). When we refer to DIE, we immediately think of the polarized method that has become a fashion in the world of training in endurance sports. 

"The concept of training intensity distribution (DIE) is defined as the exercise time that the athlete spends in different intensity zones of training."

As a reminder, the training bias consists of passing:

  • 75-80% in Z1 (
  • 5% in Z2 (between SV1 and SV2)
  • 15 to 20% in Z3 (> SV2)

According to this model, very little training time is devoted to moderate intensity work (Z2) between the 2 thresholds (SV1 & SV2). 

Like any model, we can legitimately ask the question of whether Polarized training is the best approach for all endurance disciplines and the different competition formats?

If we take a closer look at the various scientific studies dealing with training polarization, we can see that most of these studies have been carried out on elite athletes in sports where the running pace is higher than the second threshold (SV2) such as half distance, track pursuit or rowing.

Scientific studies on drive polarization often compare this approach with the so-called “threshold” method, which consists of: 

  • 55 to 60% in Z1 (
  • 40 to 45% in Z2 (between SV1 and SV2)
  • 0% in Z3 (> SV2)

2. Polarization vs Threshold

Comparative studies between the Polarized model and the threshold model have shown that the Z2 would produce less beneficial effects on improving performance, would lead to a strong accumulation of fatigue and therefore poor assimilation of the training load. . The various comparative studies therefore conclude that the threshold method is less effective and above all more risky than the polarized method for endurance athletes. Thus, the polarization of the training would allow a greater progression than the work at the threshold! The polarized method has therefore imposed itself over time among coaches and athletes who have abandoned work in Zone 2 in favor of Z1 and Z3.

But is this zone 2 really responsible for fatigue ?! Is it not rather the distribution of the intensities used in the threshold method which would be responsible for the development of deleterious fatigue which would not allow the athlete to assimilate the training load.

If we look at the training of Kenyan runners, we can see that they perform a large part of their training in Zone 2 with in parallel a large volume at low intensity, the famous "aerobic base". 

Here is an interesting element, the aerobic base is the central and priority factor in endurance training, it would be what would allow the body to assimilate the high intensity sessions to produce a progression. 

Therefore, it is perhaps not really the work in Z2 of the threshold method that poses a problem, but certainly the% distribution in each intensity zone. If we take the model at the threshold but replace the Z2 by the Z3, example:

  • 55 to 60% in Z1
  • 0% in Z2
  • 40 to 45% in Z3

There is a good chance that fatigue would be just as high or even higher. 

In the Polarized method, it is certainly the basic aerobic work (≈80% of the training time) that is important. 

We could very well envision a different EID model that would integrate a greater part of medium-intensity work (Z2), especially when we know the advantages that can be derived from it for: 

  • Pushing back the fatigue threshold
  • Build up lactate 
  • Or even increase cell signaling via the AMPK cell energy sensor.

Lactate is a central molecule for progress and performance in endurance sports:

Lactate is a major source of energy during exercise Lactate is the main precursor of gluconeogenesis (synthesis of glucose from a non-carbohydrate compound) Lactate is a signaling molecule that activates, among other things , PGC1-alpha (conductor of mitochondrial biogenesis).

3. Pyramid training for competitions> 4h

Polarized training is a good approach for elite cyclists since the time spent in Z1 is high during a race with passages made at high intensity at the end of the race to win. If we take the example of the Tour de France, this is exactly what happens, the leaders remain in the peloton in Z1 by a suction-shelter game before attacking in the last 15-30 minutes. The Polarized model is thus optimal for this category of competition. 

It has been demonstrated that the best cyclists are those able to produce a high intensity effort at the end of the race despite a strong pre-fatigue (Léo & al, 2020). It is therefore important to focus training on specific work to push back the fatigue threshold.

If we look at the marathon runners' side, a polarized training with low intensity (Z1) and high intensity (Z3) work would not make it possible to train specifically over a long period at a running pace (Z2) in order to generate metabolic and muscular adaptations conducive to performance in this type of event. For a marathon runner training 6 hours per week, the distribution of his training intensities would be as follows:

  • 4h30 'in Z1
  • 18 'in Z2
  • 1h12 'in Z3

We can immediately see that the time spent in Z2, specific intensity over a marathon, is very low (18 ') and will certainly not improve the economy of running at a marathon pace. At the same time, the duration in Z3 corresponds to 2 sessions of 6 * 6 'Z3 / r 3' Z1, which can expose the marathon runner to high risk of injury especially when we know the rate of injuries during a marathon preparation. 

An alternative model is increasingly put forward, it and used in endurance disciplines> 4h, it is training Pyramidal which consists in carrying out a significant part of the basic aerobic training at low intensity (60 to 80%) but this time with an accentuated volume in Z2 (15 to 30%) and a lower proportion at high intensity in Z3 (5 -10%). Pyramidal training would thus be more suited to the specificities and requirements of endurance and ultra-endurance races. 

"The Pyramidal model brings similar improvements to those of the polarized model (Treff et al., 2017)"

A scientific study (Selles-Perez & al., 2019) compared the training of 2 groups, for 20 weeks, preparing for a Half-Ironman distance triathlon. 

  • Group 1 (POL) used the polarized method
  • Group 2 (PYR) used the pyramid method. 

 

What did we learn from this study ?

The PYR group was more efficient than the POL group during the competition, mainly during the pedestrian part. It was demonstrated that the PYR group could stay longer in Z2 than the POL group. Indeed, the speed improvement associated with SV2 in running  was statistically significant in the PYR group while it was not statistically significant in the POL group. 

Study results suggest that training time spent in Zone 2 is linked to better performance in a Half-Ironman race among amateur triathletes. They recommend focusing training on increasing power or speed associated with this Z2 intensity in long endurance events.

4. Is pyramid training effective for performance?

All the approaches to training can bring progress and be effective, it is especially important to know how to use them at the right times during preparation.

Take the example of Yannick MATEJICEK, triathlete specialist in long distance, whom I prepared with the Pyramidale method for his 1st Ironman in Vitoria which he won in 7:28:27 (swimming canceled | bike in 4:28 : 59 | marathon in 2:56:13).

As a reminder, an Ironman-format triathlon is an ultra-endurance event, several factors influence performance in this type of competition: 

  • Physiological
  • Nutritional
  • Energy cost 
  • Thermoregulation
  • Allure strategy
  • ... ... ... 

 

I will not present you the complete and detailed preparation of Yannick but concentrate on the analysis of the Ironman event and the last key sessions.

For the preparation of MI, I used exercise HRV via the DFA a1 index to estimate the SV1-SV2 thresholds, to monitor the level of fatigue and to analyze the sessions.

The HRV DFA alpha 1 index is used to monitor the regulation of the autonomic nervous system during endurance effort

There are 2 thresholds which delimit the exercise intensities: 0,75 to estimate SV1 (which we designate HRVT1) and 0,5 to estimate SV2 (which we designate HRVT2).

Let's start with the analysis of the IronMan : 

  • The bike part 

Yannick did most of the bike course slightly above SV2 with an average DFA a1 of 0,46 (0,50 being correlated to SV2). 

  • Marathon

The marathon was run at 4'15 '' / KM or 79,1% critical speed (CV). By analyzing more precisely, the 1st part (KM0 to KM21Km) was achieved at 81,91% CV vs 76,4% on the 2nd part (KM21 to KM42).

With an average DFA a1 index of 0,5, the marathon was run on average at SV2. 

It is interesting to see the regulation of SNA, with an increase in DFA a1, which reacted to the drop in speed especially during the last 10 KM.

This analysis of IM Vitoria shows that Yannick performed the test on average at the SV2.

Training volume during the last 5 weeks of training (excluding the race week) :

A stable training volume during the last 5 weeks of training before the sharpening phase. The choice being to have a volume KM 2x greater by bike and CàP than the distance of the IM. 

  • ≈70% of training time was spent on aerobic base (
  • ≈25% of the time was done in SV2 
  • ≈5% of training time> SV2. Zone 3 (106-110% critical intensity) was primarily performed by swimming and cycling to prevent injury. New promising sessions to push back the tolerance threshold were carried out by bike.

The latest key bike training sessions :

  • D-21: 180Km including 120Km Tempo + 15Km Z2 with an average DFA a1 index of 0,54 (with warm-up and recovery)
  • D-10: 150Km including 100Km Tempo with an average DFA a1 index of 0,49 (with warm-up and recovery)

The last Bike + CàP specific sequence session at Tempo was carried out on D-15, it included :

  • Bike 4h00 'including 2h30' at Tempo + 30 'Z2. The average DFA a1 is 0,54 but we can see a majority between SV1 and SV2 during the Tempo phase and a passage <0,50 (> SV2) during the block in Z2
  • The pedestrian part has validated the state of form with 15Km at 3'52 '' / KM or 87% CS so close to the 1st part of the marathon run at 81,91% CS but after 180Km of cycling against 138Km during the sequence of which 30Km at low intensity. 

Pyramid training with a lot of work done around SV2 to push the fatigue tolerance threshold and improve performance turned out to be an effective training strategy that allowed Yannick to perform on his 1st IronMan without suffering the race. .

What you must remember : 

  • The aerobic base is the most important training factor in all endurance and ultra-endurance disciplines. ≈70 to 80% of your training time should be devoted to low intensity work.
  • That medium intensity training (Z2) should not be neglected, it allows you to learn to maintain a high intensity over a long period by pushing the threshold of tolerance to fatigue. 
  • That high intensity training is interesting for taking an additional level of performance, especially in athletes who are already very trained
  • Depending on the period of the season, we can use the Polarized model in winter to slide towards the Pyramidal model when approaching the objective which is more conducive to use with more specific training sessions and a lot of work at race pace. 
  • The pyramid model is more suitable for athletes specializing in long duration events (> 4h). 
  • That it is essential to use the different training intensities especially since they all have a common purpose which is to increase signaling of PGC1 alpha, the conductor of the human body's energy machine
This article was written by Karoly Spy, trainer specializing in endurance sports.
  • Founder of KS-Training in 2007 to support athletes in their performance project
  • Founder of the GUTAÏ Training application (2016-2021)
  • Coach trainer
  • Technical Advisor for the Franche Comté Triathlon League (2005-2007) and for the Provence Alpes de Triathlon League (2007-2012)
  • Coach in athletics club (Vitrolles, OM Athlé, SCO) and in Triathlon club

Find his website: https://ksendurancetraining.com/ 

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