The Endurance Training Volume Perplexity Problem
By Jeff Tweedy
February 14, 2021
One of the most frequent questions multisport athletes ask me is: ‘How much should I train?’
Right from the starter’s pistol we need to be careful to point out a misconception about training and various event distances. I use triathlon as the example sport here because I am most familiar with the physiological constraints specific to triathlon but there are many similarities with other multidisciplinary sports. My point is that a very long distance event such as Ironman distance triathlon is a very different sport than all the shorter distance triathlon events! The duration and pace is so different that the training methods and advice must be treated as a separate sport. You would never coach a sprinter or even a cross-country runner the same as you would a marathoner. The same holds true between the shorter distance triathlon athletes (including half-ironman or 70.3) and the full Ironman competitors. I trained for and successfully raced in Olympic distance and 70.3 races simultaneously but could never have finished a full Ironman race on that training program or anything like it.
Many asking the question “How much should I train?” are met with a short and sweet: ’Train smart not hard’, or ‘Quality over Quantity’, or ‘Follow a periodization plan and you’ll succeed in achieving your goals’. We all at some point hear this advice and eventually, through trial and error, learn first-hand that it makes sense and seems to be universally true. Yet we still wonder about this though. We may even have this thought stuck in the back of our mind: ‘If I could just find the time or energy to train more I could reach higher performance peaks’.
So, “How much should I train?” is a loaded question, and the answer can be complicated, but perhaps it can be boiled down with a little bit of realism and a touch of math.
The problem is two-fold, most difficult problems are. First, an athlete has a finite amount of time, energy, and capacity for recovery. Second, training for a lifestyle-multidisciplinary endurance sport such as triathlon requires a complex recipe incorporating science, passion, and support. Knowing this and using every bit of creativity and knowledge I could muster has always been central to the training plans I design for my athletes and it has always been the core guidance of my own training.
Most people have never made, and kept, a commitment to take on something like a triathlon training program. Consequently, what happens when a person pushes their body beyond about 7 hours of training activity per week is not commonly held knowledge. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people who exercise do so about 30-60 minutes a day 3-5 days a week. Life gets in the way and priorities shift and many people actually drop their routines altogether several times a year. Their motivations lack lustre. They participate in individual and group activity for their general health and well-being, and sometimes to prepare to join a friend or group at an enjoyable charity ride or walk/run once or twice a year. Sound familiar? We all know many people who exercise and many more that don’t.
In fact, our government here in Canada has tried to safely motivate the greatest number of Canadians possible to increase their fitness by making it look easy and achievable, but nothing good comes easy. They set the guidance at only 2-3 hours of moderate to vigorous activity per week plus ‘several hours’ per week of very light activity like ‘standing’, and an unspecified amount of muscle strengthening at least twice per week. I have no intention of debating this with participaction.com (they have their own challenging mission) because anyone training for triathlon or any other wonderful outdoor endurance sport has already come to know this will not be enough training to even finish a longer triathlon let alone have a chance at any podium finishes. Not everyone will want to strive for a podium spot but once they have experienced the warm welcome and camaraderie of their fellow competitors and the beauty of the outdoor venues though, most will be hooked for life.
People train for and compete in triathlons for many reasons and I happen to believe one of the most common reasons they do, is that the sport is mythically, magically inspiring and inclusive for everyone and at all ages. It’s not just for elite athletes or dreamers – most people can and should adopt the lifestyle changes and experience it for themselves. It can motivate a person to improve; mind and body, year after year, for a lifetime. I for one, think that is the greatest ‘health and wellness’ guidance in the world.
The Endurance Training Volume Clarification Project
We can set aside as fact, that at a certain training volume load there are diminishing returns for each hour spent training. Also, at some point no matter how much time and energy an athlete has, increasing training uncontrollably will at some point bring them to a training volume load that is counterproductive and will absolutely cause breakdown and injury.
In my decades of training, racing, and coaching I have observed an uncanny, predictable dependency between training volume and an athlete’s training support elements for that volume. Namely, these are everything that is needed to help the athlete participate in and recover from training and competition. The training support elements include in no particular order but are not limited to: nutrition, sleep, stress reduction, access to training facilities, training environment, coaching, technical support, safety, stress management, emotional support, financial support, passive recovery therapies, time for active recovery activities, physiological signal interpretation, massage therapy, past training, past fitness, injury risk awareness and mitigation, etc.
The definition of training volume load also needs to be clarified a little for our purposes here. There are many ways to define it and explain it. A popular version uses the formula: V = I X D where (V) is total training volume load (stress to body and mind), (I) is intensity and (D) is duration. Unfortunately, this is not very useful in the field day by day for assessing an athlete’s training volume load quantitatively without some kind of primer to base it on common terms and make it convenient to record or remember on the fly. So, I use a method that I find helpful in communicating real time measurement and easy to use on the fly even during a workout.
Importantly, a little bit of the realism is needed, as I mentioned in the beginning, so here it is. Training volume load needs to be tracked by the athlete and the coach in an easy and accessible way or in reality it isn’t useful except in hindsight. It can and must be approximated to a basic number which can be used to track your training stress daily. This then gives the athlete and coach valuable feedback and guidance in real time.
Now the touch of math I said we would need: each HR zone/effort category needs to be assigned a multiple to make things simpler and most importantly usable without a physics degree. We simplify down to a first approximation that we can live with but still gives us enough accurate data to work with. To name the categories I simply use the effort level related terms: EASY, MODERATE, HARD, and VERY HARD. Yes, they are subjective, but with some rules of thumb the coach and athlete are speaking the same language and understanding the data in similar ways (i.e. each discipline will have different HR zone details and effort level nuances that athlete and coach agree to). In this method there is necessarily a melding or alignment of individualized HR zone measurement and perceived exertion or RPE which athlete and coach can use a common scale. Typically Heart Rate Zone 1 (50%-60% of MAX HR) is not strictly active training. I consider it passive training or light recovery. On my scale, Zone 2 (60%-70% of MAX HR) is ‘EASY’, Zone 3 (70%-80% of MAX HR) is ‘MODERATE’, Zone 4 (80%-90% of MAX HR) is ‘HARD’, and Zone 5 (90%-100% of MAX HR) is ‘VERY HARD’.
How is this used? I estimate or review the minutes spent in a workout at each effort level and multiply that Duration by the Intensity multiplier.
For example, I go for an “easy 10k” run that takes me 62 minutes to complete - in reality it is only mostly ‘EASY’ but the terrain is a little rolling and the turnaround is at the top of a small but significant hill that takes about 90 seconds to climb, and then for the 9th km only, I like to pick up the pace by extending my stride for flexibility maintenance. So, in fact, the easy 10k run is actually 56 minutes of EASY running plus 1 minute of HARD running (the part of the hill climb when my heart rate rose quickly into Zone 4), and 5 minutes of MODERATE running (the majority of the 9th km of the run). I always round to the nearest minute for the duration of each effort-level.
Workouts are recorded using the notation: [Distance] [Theme] [Discipline] EASY minutes/MOD minutes/HARD minutes/VERY HARD minutes. So for the easy 10k run in this example it would be tempting to oversimplify the volume of training volume load as 1 hour at lowest intensity. If this kind of mistake is repeated several times a week there may be overtraining consequences and it will be hard even in hindsight to know what the root cause of the problem was. Instead the workout should be recorded as 10.1km Rolling Run 53/5/1/0. This is very easy to do but is so much more accurate! When the durations spent at each effort level are assigned simple multiples (EASYx1/MODx2/HARDx3/VERYHARDx4) to calculate training volume load using Volume = Intensity multiplier x D(minutes) we get (56 x 1) + (5 x 2) + (1 x 3) = 69 instead of 60 in the oversimplified method. That’s a 15% difference in volume! So you think you are being careful and following your periodized custom training program and you are recording 60minutes of easy running 3 times a week as your training volume builds in several other ways but before you know it you are totally breaking the 10-percent-rule! Your body and/or mind will slide into an over trained state and you won’t know why or even realize it until it’s too late. Don’t forget, this kind of mistake will stack across the other disciplines in your training program in several different ways.
The most important thing to learn is the importance of balance. If you stress your body or mind you must recover sufficiently before more stress threatens structural and chemical breakdown. It happens on its own in time but you want to do everything you can to speed that recovery. The training support elements needed to counterbalance a certain training volume load don’t seem significant at smaller loads of around an hour a day (around 800 weekly training volume load, depending on intensity). What I learned the hard way over time is that as the training volume load increases the sheer quantity of the time required by the support elements exponentially! So an athlete training 5 hours a week (usually about a 600 training volume load) is happy about their slightly improved well-being and almost shocked at how easy it is to fit in the workouts and not have to readjust much in their lives. The athlete who has stepped it up to 10 hours of solid training per week (approx. 1100 training volume load) starts to notice the soreness and fatigue and is either able to figure it out on their own or is told by a friend or coach about active and passive recovery techniques and the learning and improvement begins. These recovery activities and techniques a.k.a. training support elements all require time out of the day though. Time out of the fixed amount of time a person has in a week. If the average person sleeps an average of 8 hours per night (including fixed time spent preparing to sleep and then preparing for the day) then the remainder available for everything they do in their lives is 112 hours per week. An athlete who wants to compete at the higher levels must add even more training volume load (substantially more at certain times in an annual cycle) to the point where the time they spend on training support elements is greater than active training time! For instance, as training time increases to 20, 25, and 30 hours per week the amount of ‘extra’ sleep, active and passive recovery activities and timing of nutritional fueling, etc., all add greater and greater numbers of hours per day to the athletes required daily agenda needed just to successfully support their training load and protect them from imploding physically, mentally, and emotionally under the pressure.
As 2003 began I was preparing for my first pro season in triathlon. I worked full time for a company that generously supported my athletic dream of racing as an elite competitor in triathlon. January’s daily swim practices and back to back spinning studio sessions and long snowy trail runs gave way to February’s two hour swim/bike workouts before work every day, group running workouts after work most days, and long spinning sessions on Saturday mornings and long winter mountain bike adventures on Sundays. Then came March and time to ramp up the training to the maximum my body, mind, soul, and support system could manage. I was my own case study in what ‘Maximum training support actually means’. By late March I had slowly and carefully pushed up my weekly time to 33 hours (weekly training volume load was almost 4000!). Fitting it all into my week meant leaving the house every weekday at 5:30am on my bike, riding 30km to the pool for a 3,000m swim workout, then riding the last 6km to work. I ate perfectly timed meals at my desk every morning and every afternoon to fuel my daily workouts. We had a fully loaded fitness centre in our office building so I was out the door at noon sharp for a quick 8-10k tempo run then shower and back to work. At the end of the workday I would hop back on my bike and take the long way home depending on wind and weather 35-75km. Thursday night was speed brick workout with the world class tri club which included some past and future Olympians. Saturday long run day would mean a 120-150minute run at about 4:30min/km average. Sunday was fun day: 4-6 hours solo on the aluminum tri bike out on the country roads, mostly holding aero position in the aero bars for about 120-180km with only a couple refueling stops. What doesn’t stand out in the story no matter how I tell it, is the extra 3 hours of sleep I needed EVERY night (including a nap when I could sneak it), the extra nutritious meals I needed to prepare and eat, the painful therapeutic active muscle release massages I needed to travel to and endure twice a week, and among other things there was the extra hour spent stretching daily and the paddling around in a pool for an extra 20 minutes most days just so that I could walk when I got to work or got home. It was all a fine balance that I was able to hold for many weeks before tapering it down. It led to a very successful two season podium streak. I learned what maxing out meant and how close I came to breaking. I also learned how impossible it would have been if I hadn’t had an amazing support system around me.
The chart below is an illustration of how quickly a modest increase in weekly training volume or load can overwhelm an athlete’s available time due to the increasingly time intensive training support elements.
The answer to the problem of how to determine your proper training volume load can be found in your ability to balance the stress and the recovery with healthy lifestyle, mindfulness, and quality training that maximizes synergies wherever possible and encourages supercompensation in your body as timely as possible in conjunction with the frequency and specificity of related training sessions.
Set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.
Then reassess, reset, and redo.
Jeff is a triathlon coach and Process Improvement Consultant for TriFitFix.com and TCS Inc.
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