Why following a volume approach works?

On my previous post “What is Training Load?” I talked about training load and why it is important for our training. On this 2nd post I’ll continue on the training load subject but I’ll focus on the volume side of the equation and explain why it works.

Many times we hear athletes stating that they are only doing base training or coaches advising to focus on base training for a certain time but in most cases this concept will have a different definition depending on who you are talking to or asking. You can read my post “What Exactly Is Base Training” to learn my thoughts on that, but the point is that many people equate base training with low intensity training and to me that is just half the story at best and inaccurate at worst. Base training shouldn’t be exclusively limited to lower training intensities unless your main focus is to increase your total training load via volume, still following this approach the athlete could certainly manage different training intensities as long as the duration is not excessive.

Why Volume works?
By placing more emphasis on volume for our training it can allow athletes from different levels to perform a greater training loads while keeping the strain imposed on the body relatively lower by performing the majority of the training a lower intensities. Hence it should allow athletes to recover faster from session to session as they get fitter and allow certain training adaptations take place.

Andrew Coggan presented a table on his article “Power Training Levels” in which different training intensities, recovery times and adaptations are presented in great detail. In this table it is specified in general how long the recovery time can be from training intensities such as endurance (56 to 75% of LT) and tempo (76 to 90% of LT) which usually is accomplish within 24 hours and one of the main reasons to do more volume at lower intensities*. But in order for this approach to be effective and provide us with positive training adaptations we have to do more training.

Let’s say Jorge is running on average 4x a week for a total of 20 miles or 3 hrs (9 min/mile, which is his endurance pace) per week and decides that he wants to double that (increase the total training load) via volume over the next 5-6 weeks. To accomplish that the majority of his sessions should be perform at lower intensities to allow him doing more duration/distance and to be able recovery form session to session, hence making training consistent.

Specifically he should gradually increase the load over the next weeks, as an example he could go to:
5x a week 25 Mi, 3:45hrs (9 min/mile pace)
6x a week 30 Mi 4:35hrs (9:10 min/mile pace)
7x week 35 Mi 5:24 hrs (9:15 min/mile pace)
7x a week 40 Mi 6:10 hrs (9:15 min/mile)

Notice in this example how Jorge’s pace per mile increases but the total load (miles/hrs) is now greater than 4 weeks ago. This is why some people state that to go fast you have to slow down but again that’s half of the story. Initially it seems that we give up speed in order to get more load but we are adjusting our training intensity to make sure we can get all the work done. And once the athlete adapts to the new load then the pace begins to get back to normal as now the athlete can complete the load at the same intensity but faster pace.

In Jorge’s example on wk 4 he averaged 7x a week 40 mi/6:10 hrs, let’s assume he then repeats the same load/intensity on week5-6 to ensure his body is adaptation to the total load and he noticed that at the end of wk6 the load seems easier and the pace somehow slow. Hence to continue experiencing positive training adaptations his the load must go up, but assuming 6-6:15 hrs a week is the most time Jorge can spend running he then could repeat the same load but start running a bit faster

i.e. he could run 7x a week same distance 40 mi but bring the pace back down to 9:10 min/mile for a total of 6:05 hrs OR run 7x a week same time 6:15 hrs @ 9:10 min/mile pace which will result in almost 41 miles. In both cases the total load will be greater and as he continues to adapt for another 5-7 weeks cycle, the pace will keep coming down to the original 9 min/mile pace or faster while running the total distance go up all within the same available time he has for training. Tudor Bompa better know for his book on periodization nicely illustrates this point with his statement:

“There are no shortcuts; athletic performance improves only by constant physiological adaptation to incrementally greater training volume. As athletes adapt to higher volumes of training, they experience better recovery between sets and sessions. This, in turn, results in more work per training session and per cycle and further increases in training volume.”

When volume doesn’t work?
Using the same example, Jorge’s has so much time available for training per week and many Age Groupers might don’t have as much time as he does and this might represent the biggest problem with the volume approach. For some people to train more than ‘x’ hrs a week might be out of the question for whatever reason (job, family, friends, etc) and that’s ok. For those people following this approach might be impossible or not the best way to tackle training in hopes to produce the greatest training adaptation in a given time.

In many tri-forums I can’t help to cringe when I see athletes logging low training load weeks yet the majority of their training is perform at low intensities and all because that’s how base training is suppose to work. There are many reasons for beginners in particular to begin a training program with low volume and intensity; however as I have stated in previous posts: the optimal training plan for any athlete will consider his/her specific needs, current fitness level, goals, time availability, etc. For that reason some of those athletes doing ‘base training’ are doing nothing more than producing minimal to non training adaptations.

For those with time constraints following an approach with more intensity (the 2nd part of the training load equation) might be a good option and that’s what I’ll discuss on my next post; but before you use this as an excuse to skip the volume part and start hammering your legs away in the next session, please keep in mind that managing load via intensity can be tricky, it can be risky if the athlete is not prepared and while you might notice faster results in the short term, in the long term it will become more difficult to experience bigger gains.

Enjoy and train smart!

Disclaimer #1 Just because you can’t follow a volume approach most of the time it doesn’t mean you won’t have to spend more than a few weeks logging big volume weeks during your annual training plan in particular when focusing on IronMan distance

Disclaimer # 2 I prefer to follow an approach using the right training load mix. Depending on the training phase and the athlete some will place more emphasis on ether volume or intensity but in general, most of the plans I design follow a progression in which the majority of the load is achieved via volume. To learn more about that you’ll have to wait until “the right training load mix” post!

* - Although the table was created for cycling, it can also be applied for S/R as well.

1. Periodization Training for Sports - Page 64 by Tudor O. Bompa

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