Deep Dive – Polar Structured Training (Part 4 and conclusion)

Introduction

Now see the Vantage version of this post!

In this post we’ll follow on from part three where I discussed how Garmin does it, part two where I looked at Suunto and part one where I discussed the whole background of structured training. This time we’re looking at the Polar platform. As mentioned previously I used a Fenix 5/Forerunner 935, Spartan Trainer Wrist HR, and a Polar M430 for these posts. I believe all platforms are now relatively similar between models which support these features but will say sorry in advance if the detailed instructions don’t match with your device. I can’t check them all! Please comment if your device is significantly different to what I say here so others can help/be helped.

Polar

Now please bear in mind that I have the Polar M400. Technically a current watch, but about to be blown into the weeds by the Vantage M and the Vantage V. I’ll be getting one of the shiny new devices next month when they are available so will post another report when I can diving into them. There are various discussions about whether this functionality changes with the new watches. They are currently beta devices so right now very few people know what they’ll do at launch. Right now, we’ve got what we’ve got.

The Vantage updates page is at https://www.polar.com/en/vantage/updates and covers which features will be added and when. The comparison tool at https://www.polar.com/en/products/compare?product1=91059&product2=91092 shows what is currently in the launch firmware and what’s planned to arrive later.

Ad Hoc

Note: This functionality isn’t planned until December for the Vantage series.

Polar have quite a nice ad hoc system. It seems quite limited at first, but after some playing I think it may be the better implementation I’ve seen. You are able to quickly set up timers for intervals before starting a workout, but you’re also able to easily and quickly do so while already working out. This means you can do a warm-up before turning on ad-hoc intervals, or just decide to do some repeats while out running even if you hadn’t planned to.

To set up ad hoc workouts, press down until you hit Timers then enter.

Choose Interval Timer and then Set Timers.


Here you can only choose between time and distance, and you can either have one or two timers. This effectively means you’re either doing laps of a certain time/distance or you’re doing work and recovery.


After setting the first timer the unit asks if you’d like to set another timer, making it look like you can add as many as you like. Nope. Two. Dissapointing since there isn’t any more advanced functionality either. When you’re ready select start and press go.

Next you’ll choose your sport and hit go again.
You get the usual recording start screen.
Now you’ll see your timer countdown. This will alternate if you set two timers.As an alternative to the above, start a normal activity and hold the light key to bring up the menu. Scroll down to Interval Timer and you get the same menu as before. If you’d already set up your timers you just press go and the timer starts, but you can also edit them here if you’re able to while working out. To stop timers, go back to the same menu to turn them off. The activity continues on with no problems until you stop it in the normal way.Laps work fine throughout, and are separate to phases ending on Polar. This is nice because you have two different markers in the file. Third party support for phase markers may be limited, so this can be frustrating.

Structured Workouts

Note: This functionality is supposed to be in the Vantage series at launch and should work the same way as described below. I’ll confirm if/when I receive my device.

To create a structured workout with Polar you get the choice of using the app or using the website. While the app does have the ability to create “proper” structured workouts, it does lack some flexibility and limits you to a warmup, a single work/rest repeat cycle with multiple repeats and cool down. In the website though you’re able to add whatever phases you like and as many repeat phases as needed. Both have the same look and feel and translating from one to the other is very easy. I’m happy to accept some reduced functionality on a mobile app to keep it easy to use, although Garmin have managed it without making things complex. Ultimately though, you’ll probably create the more complex workouts on a real computer in advance.

To get going, log in to Polar Flow and go to your diary. This is one of my quibbles with this platform, there is no apparent way to just create a new favourite. I kind of get it because Polar are all about planning and executing so you’ll always do the workout at least once. But really? I just want to create my top 5 workouts as favourites. You can favourite your workouts once you’ve created them, and reuse as often as you like, but you don’t appear to be able to just add one without also scheduling it.

In your calendar, click a future date and then add. Choose training target to create a new one, or favourite if you already have one you’d like to schedule. You’ll then be confronted with the below screen.

Here you can choose a sport, give your workout a name, and choose what time and date you’ll be doing the workout on. If you just wanted to create a favourite you can later remove the scheduled workout. To make a favourite, just click the button. Next, choose a workout type. These are all here just to save you time, the end result is the same, a list of things you need to do. Even if that list has one item, such as in the duration and distance options. Here, I’ll look at phased since it’s the fully featured option. Next you can either use a template or start from a blank page. Either way you can then make any changes you need. I like that Polar give a little guidance here, but there’s only the one template and it’s very basic so I’ve never used it.

Polar new workout

Polar allow for a lot of options here. You can add as many phases as you want and have multiple different repeat settings. Each phase will be either distance or time based, no calories in the complex workouts but I don’t see a lot of need for that in this kind of workout. There is an option for a basic calorie based workout if you need that. Once you have a phase configured for a duration you’ll then optionally set targets for that phase. These can either be free (aka no targets, alerts or beeps), HR zones, or speed zones. I don’t see an option for power zones here which could be an issue. I don’t have a PM configured within any Polar device though, so this may be hidden. I also don’t see an option for cadence, which would be a big issue for many cyclists.

I like the presentation of the targets here, it’s very clear how wide the target zone is and what you’ll be doing. There isn’t a free entry of numbers though, so you’re fully zone dependent. This is fine though and easier to use because you don’t need to remember numbers. Pace and HR zones are configured in your profile, with sensible defaults as you’d expect.
Polar Workout

Here again is my “Killer K’s” workout above to compare to Garmin. Note the below screen though, which is a really, really nice touch to see your workout phases. This is where Polar really shines as a platform. Garmin lack this kind of finishing touch which I feel detracts a little from their user experience.
Polar Favourites

During the Workout

To start a workout, move down/up to Favorites and press enter
Choose your workout from the list of favourites
Press start to get to the activity screen and start again to get ready and find satelites
When you next press start the timer begins and it lets you know you’re in a workout
Then tells you what’s expected of you in the phase
You’ll then see a countdown timer and some stats about the phase
But you can move to other screens too
The buzzer leading up to end of lap is really nice. I mean really, really nice. It seems to start with a light buzz and lead up to stronger and stronger as the end of phase approached. It’s strong enough that you would definitely notice it. Compare to Garmin which does a single buzz which you may or may not notice and some really weak beeps and this shows Polar’s attention to detail for the athlete and platform in general.
The next phase starts with a phase summary to let you know what you’re about to do, you can see the rep counter at the top (1st of 2 here).

When you’re done, you’re done. The timer continues and you see this finish screen. The lap button continues to work and you can carry on working out if you like.

Scheduling

To schedule a workout you can use the diary in Polar Flow on the mobile app or online by selecting a date and adding a target. This can be a new one or a favourite as shown above. To start an activity on the watch or see what’s coming go down to the diary menu
Here you can browse your planned activities. Today will be underlined, and any day with an activity will show a square as shown here

Press enter and you’ll see the details for the day, with the date at the top. Press start again and you can begin the activity as detailed above

I really like this diary system. It’s front and centre in the device and makes it easy to see your schedule and what’s coming up.

Training Plans

Polar has a mixed bag on training plans. On the one hand, their solution is brilliant. It allows you to create a program based on start and end dates (event date) as well as some questions about your fitness and preferences. In this regard it’s like having a clever coach for free.

On the other hand, it only covers running and kind of obfuscates the whole thing. I’d like to see more sports and some standard programs here. If my goal is just to run 5km and I want a way to achieve that I shouldn’t need to know an end date.

Polar Conclusion

There are limits to flexibility on the Polar platform that’s for sure, the lack of cadence and power as target intensities is a big gap in capability. What is there is probably all you need to train with though, and I don’t see anything missing that I’d really push them to add in other than cadence and power. What they have done, and done really well is to polish the options they have. Everything feels like it flows well and leads me towards my goals. Even during exercise the phase warnings are just better than the competition and make the activity easier to follow. As mentioned this is about to become a legacy device so take this page with a pinch of salt. The Vantage line may differ and I’ll cover that as soon as I can, in the meantime I know someone who has one who confirmed my assumptions seem correct.

Overall Conclusion

Suunto watches watch you work out, they don’t really participate in your training at this point. For that reason, it’s just not something I could recommend for athletes wanting a structured workout. It also lacks that motivational edge for the couch potato. You can have all the accuracy in the world, but if the device does nothing to help you with your goals, it’s not a training watch.
Garmin and Polar did pretty well here. I find the Garmin platform to be the most complete from a feature perspective, but that’s not what this series was about. Quite the opposite in fact, the point here was to move away from ticking boxes. Polar and Garmin both adequately tick the ad hoc and the structure boxes and include enough functionality that you will comfortably be able to train with them. Garmin does offer nicer ad hoc options once you find them (they are well hidden!). Polar were a little limited here but certainly weren’t what I’d consider a limitation for training purposes, more a nuance in the watch.

Functionality wise they were even Stevens on the structured front. Polar though take a massive win here because they thought about the athlete more. It’s easy to plan and follow your workouts, and definitely more of a pleasure to do. Garmin are a bit…functional. They’ve added all the features they could which has led to a jumbled menu and difficulty finding features and using them. You can learn to use it, but shouldn’t really have to. Garmin do redeam themselves with options like power and cadence which for some may be justification enough to use their devices in spite of the poor interface.

As far as training programs go I really have to give the award to Garmin. They have so many programs available it’s hard to fault them, and all for free as far as I can tell. If Polar widen their option beyond running and offer standard programs such as couch to 5k they’d be good here too, but as of today Garmin are the hands down winner on supplying standard workout programs.

Both Garmin and Polar really support you in your workouts and add structure, which will ultimately be what helps you hit your goals. If you need training plans to be supplied for things other than running then Garmin is your friend. For pretty much everything else though, I just find Polar more polished, and I really like their training program generator it’s just a bit limited.

7 Comments

  1. Nice article. For me the possibility of selecting HR and pace upper and lower values in each phase is essential. With my V800 I found myself changing continuously the ranges of the zones making the saved sessions useless. Not user friendly at all in my view. An option for introducing them manually as in the old RS800CX should be added to make it a perfect training device.

    • Can you explain why you need to manually set these? It’s pretty well established to use zones for this purpose based on your max HR value and that maps quite well to maximum pace from what I can see.

      • HR zones are constant, no need to play with these.
        But pace zones: can’t overlap and they need to have certain minimal spread between low and high values. So in the days I had been trying to use pace zones I had to re-define them for every other workout. Anyway, the instant pace was too unstable so I wanted to go by average pace. But I could not mark laps at interval ends (Polar blocks them). The interval summary at the end does not give you avg pace either. Maybe avg HR, distance, time but not pace. So in the end I had no way but to ditch structured workouts.Now I’m back to manual lapping.

        • OK I see what you mean there. I think for me the system works well enough but I can understand how you find it limited and definitely good to mention here so people see that before investing. For me, my “normal” pace is 5:30/km so I’m happy that that would be the middle pace with 5:00-5:20 as my “fast” and 4:30-5:00 as sprint. Those are wide enough for me to use, but to be honest if I just label the interval as sprint, fast etc. I’m happy for speed training and ignore the pace part altogether. For longer purposes such as pacing a 10k the zones would be fine for me.

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