Last week I received an email from an athlete who was concerned about her training for the coming year. She had wisely decided that she needed to include a rest and recovery week every third week. But she was concerned that this would reduce her volume and therefore her race performance. That caused me to look back in my blog archives to see if I had a post on this topic. I did. That blog was originally posted December 9, 2007. While that’s a long time ago, very little has changed.
But back to the email…
Her concern about decreasing volume set off a couple of alarms in my head. There’s no question that taking one’s training volume very low will have a negative effect on race readiness. (Volume is the combination of workout duration and workout frequency.) If an athlete has been training with a volume of 10 hours per week, cutting that to 5 would certainly have negative consequences. Given unique physiologies and lifestyles, every athlete has a sweetspot when it comes to weekly hours or miles or kilometers. I have no way of knowing what that may be for the athlete who contacted me.
Here’s the first alarm: I’m not convinced that by reducing volume every third week that the reduction would significantly impact her race performance. I’d suggest that it may actually help performance when compared with no R&R in order to keep volume high.
It’s also important to mention here that an R&R “week” doesn’t mean it has to be 7 days long. In fact, it may only be 3 to 5 days of reduced training load as 7 are seldom necessary, I’ve found. When you honestly feel like the fatigue is gone following a break from the normal training routine it’s time to start back at it again. If the fatigue is only slight coming into the R&R week and, especially, if you normally recover quite quickly, then 3 days is probably adequate. On the other hand, if you’re really tired or if you tend to recover slowly then 5 days is likely to do the trick. With a day or two of testing following the R&R break you should be ready to get back to serious training.
Another alarm had to do with her emphasis on volume—with no apparent concern for intensity. Intensity wasn’t even mentioned despite the fact that reducing her training load in a R&R week also would reduce intensity. Nope, volume was her only concern. That’s quite typical. It’s rare to find an athlete, even a highly experienced one, who doesn’t also share that same worldview about the volume-intensity relationship when it comes to endurance training. They tend to believe that volume is the key to performance, in fact, the most important key. Why is that? There are a couple of reasons for this, I think.
First, in the early years of an athlete’s training it soon becomes apparent that increasing volume improves performance. There’s no doubt that it does, especially at that stage of experience. That mindset stays with the athlete for years.
Second, volume is easy to measure and talk about. Intensity doesn’t easily lend itself to weekly, cumulative measurement. Volume does. That doesn’t make volume more effective for race preparation, however. There are many research studies showing that intensity is at least as critical for race preparation as volume, and most found intensity is more important. You can find a list of such studies below (if you go to PubMed, copy and paste one of the references from below into the search function, you can read the abstract for yourself).
A good example of this high emphasis on volume in training takes me back to a runner I coached many years ago. If I scheduled a 45-minute run on mountain trails and she got back to her car in 42 minutes she’d run laps around it for 3 minutes. That’s a quite common mindset. Most athletes see workout duration, and therefore volume, as the golden chalice. It must be achieved at all costs.
So that’s what I think about volume. But what about intensity? For the purpose of this discussion I’m taking high-intensity training to mean doing workouts at race intensity or higher. If your race will take an hour or less then the average intensity will be quite high—probably near your anaerobic threshold. As the race gets longer the average intensity decreases. Road cycling, however, presents a slight contradiction to this rule. While the average intensity may not be higher than what would be common for a steadily paced event such as a running race, the bike race will typically have many brief episodes with extremely high peak intensities. Training for such a race means you must focus on these peak intensities. The race outcome will be determined by them.
The longer your event is the more likely I believe you’ll benefit, at least in the long term, from doing workouts near and above your anaerobic threshold. So, for example, if I were training a triathlete for an Ironman, even if it would take 12 or more hours to finish, I’d have them do a bit of anaerobic threshold interval training throughout the seasonal preparation. Because of this they would not only produce better results than if they only trained slowly, their fitness (VO2max, threshold, and economy) would be easier to maintain at high levels for several years to come. Otherwise, I would expect to see these physiological markers of fitness decline rather rapidly with age. (There was a nice study a few years ago on this topic that compared the race fitness of otherwise similar triathletes who focused on training for either Ironman- or Olympic-distance races, but I can’t seem to find it. If familiar with this please send it my way. Thanks.)
Also, the more your available time for training is constrained by career, family or other factors, the more important high-intensity training becomes. If you’re short on time, doing intervals will bring better results in the long term than doing short but relatively slow workouts. It just comes down to how often you do the short but hard sessions.
So how relatively important are volume and intensity for the advanced athlete (“advanced” meaning more than 3 years in the sport)? I’d suggest that on race day 60% of the athlete’s race readiness is determined by the intensity of their training. The remaining 40% is a result of volume. If volume was high but intensity was neglected then I wouldn’t expect a good race performance. However, if volume was low but intensity high I’d expect a better race performance. I’d rather err on the side of too little volume than too little intensity.
I should also point out here that when I'm promoting intensity as the more critical of the two variables when it comes to race performance, that doesn't mean that all of your workout intensities should be pushing your limits. There are times for high intensity and there are times for low intensity. That blend is entirely determined by your unique capacity for training.
So what’s the bottom line here? I’d suggest you do as much volume as possible so long as it doesn’t interfere with your readiness to do high-intensity workouts. If a regularly scheduled long workout or an emphasis on successive moderately long workouts leaves you too tired to do a subsequent high-intensity workout then I’d suggest cutting back on the long duration or the weekly volume and allowing for more recovery between sessions. This also includes frequent R&R weeks. Whatever you do, don’t place so much emphasis on volume that you are too tired to do intense training. That’s counterproductive.
I might also suggest here that the ultimate solution may be found in thinking about your training in terms of Training Stress Score—the combination of duration and intensity into a single number. It will change your training mindset for the better.
Costill, D.L., et al. 1991. Adaptations to swimming training: Influence of training volume. Med Sci Sports Exerc 23:371-377.
Gomes, P.S. and Y. Bhambhaniy. 1996. Time course changes and dissociation in VO2max at maximum and submaximum exercise levels as a result of training in males. Med Sci Sports Exerc 28(5):S81.
Fry, R.W., et al. 1992. Periodisation of training stress–a review. Can J Sport Sci 17:234-240.
Laursen, P.B. and D.G. Jenkins. 2002. The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: Optimizing training programmes and maximising performance in highly training endurance athletes. Sports Med 32(1):53-73.
Lehmann, M., et al. 1996. Unaccustomed high-mileage vs intensity training-related changes in performance and serum amino acid levels. Int J Sports Med 17(3):187-192.
Midgley, A.W., et al. 2006. Is there an optimal training intensity for enhancing the maximal oxygen uptake of distance runners?: Empirical research findings, current opinions, physiological rationale and practical recommendations. Sports Med 36(2):117-132.
Mujika, I., et al. 1995. Effects of training on performance in competitive swimming. Can J Appl Physiol 20(4):395-406.
Seiler, S., et al. 2009. Intervals, thresholds, and long slow distance: The role of intensity and duration in endurance training. Sportsci 13:32-53.