Within the coaching community the question of how much volume is correct is a regular topic for debate or conversation. This maybe because – as with most things – there is no simple or one-size-fits-all answer, yet we seek to try to find one anyway.
What emerges are a few dominant philosophies, including: ‘The right amount of volume is as much as you can tolerate without getting injured’, or ‘More than you have done previously for 2-3 weeks before a recovery phase to avoid overtraining’, and principles such as defining correct volume based on your target event duration.
Is volume more easily measured than intensity?
Volume is more easily measured than intensity, quality, or even accurate performance progression, and, as a result, within the athlete community the idea that ‘more is better’ tends to pervade.
Unfortunately, for many this tends to manifest in a feeling of either ‘I’ve not done enough’ or ‘Everyone is doing more than me’. Both of which detract from the achievement of whatever has been done in training, impact on confidence when it comes to events, and diminish the general enjoyment or satisfaction athletes can (should) get from their endeavours.
Over the years I’ve seen athletes’ natural gravitation towards training volume as the definition of training success and fitness capacity (or performance potential) become damaging, both from a psychological and physiological point of view.
Why is training volume unhelpful?
But aside from the factors already mentioned, why else might volume of training be unhelpful?
Statistics and philosophies no matter how well researched, regarded or intended know nothing about YOU, so a key question to ask first is:
1. Do you need volume to be the central factor in your training?
This question can be answered by looking at what training you’ve done previously. In simple terms, if you have a significant amount of low-intensity endurance work behind you, the capacity for more endurance work to improve your performance will be less than for someone who has a history of less or no endurance work.
If you already have a diesel engine, doing more of this same type of training may yield far less benefit to you than a focus on other aspects of training you’ve spent less time on, such as technique, speed or strength.
I’ve seen many athletes get faster having reduced training volume but focus far more on these previously neglected aspects of their training. Once this question has been asked, the second might be:
2. Do you need volume for your event?
Whether you have a training history containing lots of endurance work or not, you need to consider how much might be needed for your target event.
A few years ago, I coached an athlete who’d spent most of the last decade training aerobically around 25-30hrs/week across swim, bike and run. They came to me looking to improve over sprint-distance drafting events, and while clearly they were able to complete the time demands of about one hour, and also had the ability to sit at threshold for that time, they simply didn’t have the speed to race at the level they were aiming for.
In this example, not only did they not need volume from a physiological perspective, but their event did not demand it. Do more volume than needed for the event and it might be unhelpful to your mission to improve.
Had the same athlete come to me asking for help preparing for an Ironman event then the answer would have been different – despite their training history, the event would still have dictated the work to be done.
If through these questions we find that a high (or higher) volume of training is right for you, we must then ask:
3. What intensity should you be training at?
Leading expert and author of Training and Racing with a Power Meter and Training Peaks advisor Dr Andrew Coggan, has written extensively on the evidence that specific adaptations occur at specific intensities.
Essentially, this means that if you train only in an aerobic zone, or if you train only with a focus on volume with intensity ambiguously spread over all zones, you’ll miss out on the specific aspects of fitness that you need to develop your physiology or prepare you for a particular event.
Not taking the time to assess what time should be spent at certain intestines could again hamper your athletic development. These are all key considerations, but one often over-looked question about volume might be the most important and most damaging if we get it wrong:
4. What time do you have to train?
Regardless of how appropreate volume of training is for you, it’s crucial to think about how much time you have to train. This relates to the first article in this series about goal setting.
Over the years I’ve had many athletes come to me having plucked events, challenges or aspirations out of the air that they simply do not have the time capacity to pursue. I was once asked at an event ‘Why do you only do short events?’, my answer was ‘Because I only have a limited time and I can get closer to my physical potential in that time at shorter events than longer ones’.
If I pursued longer event, I would not have time to do the physiological work needed, would be left knowing that I was underprepared, and would therefore feel more intimated and less enjoyment from my event.
Ask, how much volume can you complete? Then ask, what events will that volume allow me to prepare for in the way I want? Getting this wrong can have significant impacts: divorce rates in triathlon are high! Largely this is because people have not asked some of the questions here, and have obsessed about volume to the detriment of their families.
Triathlon can be a healthy pursuit for families to enjoy together and should never become more important than the relationships we have with those close to us. This imbalance can be avoided in part by moving our focus from volume alone to appropriate goals, intensity and quality of training.
One more question is worth mentioning:
5. Does pursuing ever greater training volume mean you enjoy your sport more or less?
This requires some honesty. In a world where more is seen to be better, does the never-ending chase for more volume than the week before actually give you more satisfaction or less?
There is a finite amount of training we can do, and too many times I’ve seen the futile pursuit of more damage athletes. Would you be better served spending less time, being more focussed on the areas you can improve most?
In summary, guru triathlon coach Joe Friel suggests that for many, more is to be gained from training at the right intensity than just through volume. In addition, frequency (rather than volume alone) is seen as better way to improve performance by giving the body more points of stimulus to adapt to.
So, do you need to lower volume to heighten performance and enjoyment of your sport?