Polar Data Reveals Training 'Harder' Isn’t Always Smarter


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Many athletes sacrifice efficiency for intensity; Polar’s guided Running Program can increase running efficiency and VO2max, resulting in bigger gains

KEMPELE, FINLAND – June 6, 2018 – Polar, the leader in wearable sports and fitness technology for over 40 years, unveils global data that spans as many as 45 million runs and proves that runners who receive and adhere to training guidance experience a significant improvement in their performance. Polar data, ranging from April 2017 through March 2018, demonstrates that even frequent runners have the potential to achieve significantly higher levels of fitness and performance with no increase in training volume, by simply incorporating a heart rate-based training program. Runners who utilized training guidance from Polar Running Program became significantly more efficient runners, experiencing up to a 5 point increase in Running Index improvement. A change this significant in running efficiency and VO2max can make the difference between a 4:02 marathon finish or a 3:40 marathon finish.

Understanding the Benefits of Heart Rate Training

Polar data points to a distinct difference between groups of runners who understand the benefits of heart rate training and those who are still learning:

  • Ambitious: The most ambitious training group includes professional runners, who train for an average of nine hours each week. During an average running exercise, they spend the bulk of training time in zone three (31%), and nearly equal time in zones two (23%) and four (25%). These athletes spend the highest percentage of their total training time in lower HR zones, building an endurance base that makes them the most efficient runners.
  • Regular: Regular runners train an average of four hours per week. They run less frequently than the pros but show some understanding of the benefits of heart rate training. During an average running exercise, regular runners spend the bulk of time in heart rate zones three and four (31%) and zone two (19%).
  • Intensive: Intensive runners also train four hours a week, the same as Regular runners, but spend the bulk of their time in zones four (37%) and five (33%) during an average running exercise. Their pace is nearly a minute faster on average than the pace of regular runners. Although intensive runners train as often as regular runners, they train at disproportionately higher intensities, with little or no aerobic base and very limited recovery in their routines. They likely experience injury or fatigue because they aren’t spending enough time building endurance in lower zones. Importantly, despite their more intense work load, they actually are less efficient runners than the Regulars.

Running Smarter Doesn’t Always Mean Running Faster or Harder

To make running efficiency and VO2max easier to understand, Polar developed a Running Index score, which is calculated using heart rate and speed data. A higher score indicates a person can run faster with less effort. Polar uses Running Index to estimate race finish times. Polar data supports that incorporating effective heart rate training results in better running efficiency:

  • Ambitious: The average running index score for ambitious athletes is 54. It comes as no surprise that, given their much higher weekly volume, Ambitious runners get the top score for Running Index. However, these more dedicated runners also spend a dramatically higher percentage of their running time in zones 1, 2 and 3 than do the Regulars and Intensives.
  • Regular: Regular runners have an average score of 50, four points better than Intensives. The key difference is that Regulars spend significantly less training time in zones 4 and 5 and significantly more time in zones 2 and 3.
  • Intensive: Intensive runners have an average score of 46, supporting the notion that although they train as often as regular runners, they do not experience the same benefits.While it may seem non-intuitive, these runners, who push themselves significantly harder than the Regulars, under-achieve when it comes to Running Index score.

This data shows Regular and Intensive runners are training at the same volume, but are experiencing very different results. Regular runners are training at lower intensities and slower paces, but are developing a better Running Index, even though Intensives seem to be working “harder.” This indicates a major difference on race day: the Regular runners can perform significantly better with less effort than the Intensive runners, simply by incorporating data-based heart rate guidance.

All Levels of Runners Benefit from a Structured Training Program

Polar Running Program enables users to set a goal, and then builds a customized and adaptive training plan that includes heart rate training to help runners meet that goal. Data supports that more than half of runners who train with a structured program experience an increase in their Running Index.

  • 5K Runners: Runners who used Running Program to train for and complete a 5K experienced up to a 13 point running index increase. Thirty-five percent of runners experienced a three or more point running index increase. Novice 5K runners with a five-point increase improved their finish times by approximately 6 minutes, 20 seconds.
  • 10K Runners: Runners who trained for and completed a 10K experienced up to a 14-point increase in their running efficiency. Forty percent experienced a three or more point running index increase. Novice 10K runners with a five-point increase shortened their finish time by approximately 6 minutes.
  • Half Marathon Runners: Runners who trained for and completed a half-marathon increased their Running Index by up to 12 points. Forty three percent of runners increased their Running Index by three or more points. For novice runners with a five-point increase, half-marathon finish times were approximately 23 minutes shorter.
  • Marathon Runners: Runners who trained for and completed a marathon gained up to 13 Running Index points. Forty-one percent of runners experienced an increase of three or more Running Index. For novice runners experiencing a five point increase, marathon finish times were approximately 45 minutes shorter.
  • Frequency of Training: Runners who trained with Running Program for 8-12 weeks increased their Running Index up to 5 points, with more than half of runners experiencing at least a two-point increase.

“For me, working backwards from race day is key,” says Tim Don, world-record holder in Ironman triathlon. “To get that best race day performance, I have to check every box and hit almost all my sessions in my training plan, so the data I get from Polar is incredibly helpful. Working the correct zones is very important; working in zone 1 and zone 2 is just as important as the harder sessions in zone 5, to achieve constant improvement. Polar offers a wholistic approach to balancing my training, so there is less chance of over training and injury, more consistency in training, and an even more rewarding, fun and optimal performance come race day. Consistency is King.”

Polar guides athletes at all levels to better use and understand heart rate during their workouts to help them reach goals successfully. Polar Running Program enables users to set a goal, and then builds a customized and adaptive training plan that includes heart rate training to help runners meet their goal. Users can upload easy-to-follow adaptive running training plans to Polar watches such as Polar M430, Polar A370 and Polar V800 and receive live heart rate guidance during training. Get started with Polar’s personalized and adaptive Running Program here.

To see more highlights from Polar’s running data, check out this blog post.

About Polar:

Polar is the innovator in heart rate monitoring, activity and sleep tracking and GPS sports training solutions for elite athletes, coaches and active fitness enthusiasts. For over 40 years, we have helped athletes understand, track and improve their performance. Our award-winning product range includes pioneering sports wearables that work elegantly with Polar training apps and cloud services.

Headquartered in Finland, Polar is a privately held company that operates in more than 80 countries. Polar products are sold through over 35,000 retailers globally. For more information, please visit polar.com.


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