Purpose: Elite endurance athletes may train in a polarized fashion, such that their training-intensity distribution preserves autonomic balance. However, field data supporting this are limited.
Methods: The authors examined the relationship between heart-rate variability and training-intensity distribution in 9 elite rowers during the 26-wk build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games (2 won gold and 2 won bronze medals). Weekly averaged log-transformed square root of the mean sum of the squared differences between R-R intervals (Ln rMSSD) was examined, with respect to changes in total training time (TTT) and training time below the first lactate threshold (<LT(1)), above the second lactate threshold (LT(2)), and between LT(1) and LT(2) (LT(1)-LT(2)).
Results: After substantial increases in training time in a particular training zone or load, standardized changes in Ln rMSSD were +0.13 (unclear) for TTT, +0.20 (51% chance increase) for time <LT(1), -0.02 (trivial) for time LT(1)-LT(2), and -0.20 (53% chance decrease) for time >LT(2). Correlations (± 90% confidence limits) for Ln rMSSD were small vs TTT (r = .37 ± .80), moderate vs time <LT(1) (r = .43 ± .10), unclear vs LT(1)-LT(2) (r = .01 ± .17), and small vs >LT2 (r = -.22 ± .50).
Conclusion: These data provide supportive rationale for the polarized model of training, showing that training phases with increased time spent at high intensity suppress parasympathetic activity, while low-intensity training preserves and increases it. As such, periodized low-intensity training may be beneficial for optimal training programming.