Sunday, December 9, 2007

Volume vs Intensity

Which is more important for improving race performance in endurance athletes, the volume of training or the intensity of training? It’s obvious that both play a role in racing well. But athletes tend to place a lot of value on volume than on intensity. I’ve yet to hear an athlete when asked how training is going respond by talking about intensity. The answer is almost always based on volume (“I rode 200 miles last week.”) But given the choice, which should you place more emphasis on when making decisions about your training?

Before attempting to answer these questions let’s define the terms. Volume is the product of duration and frequency. Duration is how long a workout lasts. Frequency is how often workouts are done. Volume is usually expressed in terms of weekly, accumulated training time or mileage. Intensity for the purpose of this discussion refers to training done at or above the anaerobic threshold (also sometimes called lactate threshold, ventilatory threshold, or functional threshold). Assuming that you are preparing for an event that takes about one hour or less to complete at a maximum, sustainable effort, this intensity is about race intensity. For athletes competing in events that last longer than about one hour, training intensities at and above AT is more challenging than race effort. This is not to say that athletes training for longer events should not train above the AT. It is quite common, especially for elite and well-experienced athletes.

Let’s get back to the original question: Will volume or intensity have a greater impact on your race performances? There is very little research on this matter, but what there is seems to be in agreement. Let’s examine two of these for some insight.

In a German study 17 experienced runners steadily increased their volumes from their normal 50 miles per week to 105 miles per week over a four-week period (1). All of these runs were done at about marathon pace or slower (2mmol/L lactate) One year later they allowed the researchers to tinker with their training again. This time they nearly doubled the amount of time they trained at high intensity, over a four-week period again. With increased intensity they improved on four measures of performance from 5% to 17%. Increased volume produced no significant improvements in the same metrics.

In another study of swimmers conducted by David Costill, PhD at Ball State University it was found that increasing swim training volume from three hours per day to four per day and increasing swim weekly workouts from five to six sessions provided no greater benefits than training 60 to 90 minutes per day for five days per week (2).

Does this mean you should keep your training volume low while jacking up intensity year round? Not at all. When you have been training with low volume and low intensity for some period of time, as when in the season-ending “transition” period, gradually increasing the stress load by boosting volume is probably a wise move (3,4). This will help to prevent injury by fortifying soft tissues before commencing with higher-intensity training later.

During the Base period it is common in the classic/linear periodization model to increase the volume of training while also much more gradually increasing the intensity. In Base 1 I have my athletes training a considerable amount in zone 2. In Base 2 they add training volume in zone 3. And by Base 3 they are also training in zone 4. This is typical for all of my clients regardless of the events for which they are training. In the Build period the training becomes increasingly specific to the demands of their first A-priority race of the season, especially the intensity of those workouts.

So what’s the bottom line? The intensity of one’s training is a better predictor of performance than the volume of training although some mix of both is necessary for success.

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.
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.


At December 10, 2007 6:48 AM , Blogger Bahzob said...

Interested by this as it is a topic close to my heart at the moment. Last year my Base 1/2 followed advice but found this unsatisfying for a number of reasons:
- Number of hours training are limited and not sure low volume/low intensity brings any benefit at all if already fit.
- I find low intensity training boring.

Having a powermeter I was therefore interested to see articles recommending training in the sweetspot of 85%-95% FTP. I posted in a few forums and received postive feedback from people who had used this year round. Consequently this year I am, from base 1 onwards, biasing my training towards spending significant times in this "sweetspot" range.

Obviously needs some care to re recovery/overtraining (I use WKO to monitor this) and too early to judge effects but subjectively I enjoy my sessions more and feel I am making more use of my time.

At January 5, 2008 6:26 AM , Blogger rick said...

would seem to contradict papers by Steven Seiler
which show the amount of work at 70-90% of VO2Max is best for real endurance races, w/ nice examples from German rowers and kenyan runners...which show the majority of their training at low lactate levels and their resounding sucess.

again, talking about races more than an hour etc...

would love to hear Mr.Friel's thoughts , as I training for a three hour road cycling race

At January 7, 2008 5:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been having the hardest time trying to find any science supporting long hours. However, coming up with detractors has been no problem. The book “Base Building for Cyclists” suggests several physiological goals of base training. However, studies consistently show that intensity improves such things as efficiency, mitochondrial density, etc…of course without the long hours. And it appears that modern marathon record breakers mostly run less than an hour at a time. I just don’t understand how long days in the saddle can do anything but offset recovery from workouts that do count.

-Marshall Hance
Asheville, NC

At January 9, 2008 2:50 PM , Blogger rick said...

the problem is...alll the great riders do put long hours in

you just don't hear of riders doing great and saying, "well i don't really ride that much, I just train intensely"


At January 21, 2008 12:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main problem with finding science supporting long base training is that there just aren't any controlled studies on world class endurance athletes. It's a logistical problem to do with conducting the required study design, hence the lack of published scientific data shouldn't imply that 99% of the world's top endurance athletes and coaches have it all wrong ;-)

At February 7, 2008 12:14 PM , Blogger Taggert said...

I think an idea that would help the reader understand joe's point is what economists refer to the average/marginal problem. People might respond with their average hours for the week, but who thinks in terms of average intensity? The real research question joe is hinting at is at the margin, if I can make a small change in training, am I better off increasing my volume by an hour, or am I better off increasing the intensity of an hour of my training? Empirical identification of these separate effects is very difficult. And from my experience with sports science research, they do a VERY bad job of trying to address these issues. That said, what research is out there, does tend to indicate that for many people, on the margin more intensity would help. I would add this caveat, by adding intensity it means adding variance to the workout, hard efforts and recovery. Too often people hear the need more intensity and just go out and TT for a few hours. Not so helpful.

At May 25, 2008 4:12 PM , Blogger 53x12 said...

Interesting subject. I have your first book. I think I just overtrained myself as I notice most of the symptoms like a drop of performance levels and lower motivation levels. Unbelievable low performance levels since I couldnt keep up with the peloton justlast Sat. This is how I got here. I tried to increase my base or aerobic capacity by doing a lot(started Jan 08) of base riding keeping my wattage at between 150-200w. I also went thru the build period as I joined some races. During the build period I incorporated your build workouts to a sweetspot level of exertion. Due to this monotony, I think I hit a wall! I couldnt understand this since my efforts were easy so I felt it wasnt overtraining. I researched, and viola, most writers mention it. How long will it take for me to recover? 2 weeks? When can I go back to the build period? I have a priority race on Sep.

At May 26, 2008 9:23 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

53x12--I wish I could give you a straight answer but there is no way to predict a certain result. There is no question that you need rest when this happens, however. If you are indeed overtrained it could take several weeks if not months. One elite athlete who came to me years ago when he OT'ed himself told me later on he never returned to the performance levels he had previously. OT is nothing to be taken lightly. That's why I harp on rest and recovery so much in my books.

At February 26, 2010 9:48 AM , Blogger Mario Grgic said...

Doesn't Lance train 6 hours a day, every day (paced by motorcycle)? I don't think one can be near lactic threshold for 6 hours nor can one do individual time trial day in and day out.

If I had a choice between 6 hour ride at L2/L3 every day vs 1 hour ride at L4/L5 every day, I'd hedge my bets on 6 hour ride reaping better training results over 3 months.


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