How to Handle Volume, Part 1: Avoid 'Junk Mileage' to Maximize Gains

Quad at dawn (Illustration: B. Kitch) 
Without question, volume is an important aspect of aerobic development and training for a sport that requires significant endurance. Volume is necessary not only to build an endurance base for racing, but also to build a broader base for higher levels of training. The more aerobically fit the athlete is, the more the athlete can handle in a workout.

When you've built up a solid aerobic base, it manifests itself quite obviously. You can hold the same pace with less effort, and can also sustain that pace longer. Improved aerobic fitness can help you to improve because it allows you to train harder and handle more difficult workouts, as when your fitness level is higher, your recovery time improves–bottom line: you recover better during rest intervals. There is a significant difference between an athlete who is 'in shape' and one who is 'out of shape,' in terms of his/her ability to recover from a hard effort. Two athletes might be able to go the same speed in an all out effort for 2000 meters, but yet if they were to do a workout like 6 x 2k w/ 6 minutes rest, or 6 x 1k w/ 4 min rest, a more talented, less fit athlete might lose to someone who is in better shape even though he/she can match the less talented athlete for one all out 2k. This would be because the less fit athlete cannot recover during the rest period as well as someone who is 'in shape.' The better you recover, the harder you can work. You can do more quality reps at the desired speed/intensity and you can force yourself to do them with reduced rest. So, in other words, aerobic fitness can facilitate heavier training which can, in turn, allow you to get faster.

Depending on their experience level and what their body can handle, different athletes might have different needs in terms of what is required for them to reach their individual best. I would challenge coaches to try to think of creative ways to control volume for athletes depending on their (the athletes') level, which can be easy at the high school and college level when there are separate novice programs for the freshmen. But what about cases of sophomores, juniors and seniors in high school or college? Some sophomores might be ready for the same volume as a top senior, but are they all? At the same time, coaches should make a conscious effort not to hold back the athletes who can not only handle more, but who might need more training and volume than others to reach their maximum capabilities. This is a challenge, to be sure, for coaches with varying levels of skills and experience among their athletes, but there is a lot that can be gained from managing the training in this manner to find subtle ways to give every athlete what he or she needs, whether it is more, less, or just something different.

If you try to do too much volume as a young and inexperienced athlete, you're likely to injure yourself. It's important to lay a groundwork first, getting the body accustomed not only to the level of training, but also to the specific demands of the sport itself. For example, a novice rower at any level trying to do 200k a week of training would be susceptible to both overuse injuries as well as to injuries that arise from fatigued muscles and bad habits. Even if you could handle that volume, you might not need to do all of the volume to go as fast as you can go in a given training cycle/at a given point in your physiological development.

Let's break it down. For every athlete and every training cycle, there is a ceiling on performance that is  established partly by the training, and partly by the physiology of the athlete at the outset of the training. If, given the above parameters, an athlete has the potential to go 6:10 for 2k on 120k/week of training, and this is the maximum physiological potential of that athlete within that training cycle, then there is no need to do 160k per week. In fact, it may actually be detrimental if it leads to illness or injury. Put another way–don't do junk mileage, which means don't just add volume for the sake of adding mileage, do it because it will make you faster.

I find that once athletes discover the value that adding volume can have to aerobic development, some of them go overboard and end up logging too much mileage or mileage that is just too slow to be very beneficial. The focus should be on adding as much quality volume as can reasonably be added and only as much as is necessary to achieve maximum gains. Training is a process, and we can't just transform ourselves 'overnight' by cramming a bunch of volume into a short period. There needs to be a level of patience and understanding of the systematic process that is required to make improvements every year.

How to Handle Volume, Part 2: Intelligently Sculpting Your Aerobic Base, to be posted next Wednesday.

-Justin and the RR Team


  1. This is very hard to do well. I appreciate you have already mentioned that there are going to be different individual capabilities. But also that say you have your 610 athlete it's very hard to judge whether his max potential is 120k or 160k. If the athlete is near his max improvements are going to be very small which means that arriving at whether it's 120 or 160k will take a lot of training cycles to find out.

  2. Bryan - great article, I completely agree with the premise, but I think you've missed a really key point: I completely agree that junk miles are pointless and sometimes dangerous in terms of athlete health, but a very useful compromise it to still develop aerobically by having shorter, quality sessions on the water backed up by less "risky" cross training, like cycling or the... x-trainer. Thoughts?

  3. Verbatim: Thanks for the input! The proposed plan in the article is indeed difficult to implement, but that is part of the art and science of coaching. We think that a good coach will have a sense for a general range of possibilities having to do with both athlete and team performance–in other words, a good coach should be able to look at an athlete's results and determine goal for him/her that is fairly close. However, as you point out, when experienced athletes begin to approach their maximum physiological capabilities, the improvements become much more incremental, and determining the appropriate volume would be more based on experience, rather than intuition alone. We think that this is something that good coaches are able to do.

    Chiara: Nice to hear from you! I think you are correct to point out that 'less risky' cross-training activities can be a useful and safe way to broaden an aerobic base, but, speaking for Justin, I think what he intended to get across is that it is important for younger athletes to understand that the process of developing an aerobic base for endurance sports is quite a lengthy one–it will take most athletes many years of training to draw close to their endurance potential. So, rather than risking injury when a young athlete is first developing his/her physiology for an endurance sport by exceeding his/her physical limits, it is often better to limit the amount of training to what will effectively build a base given the physiological starting point. By way of example, if you are two years into the sport, it doesn't matter how many extra miles you log–someone who is seven years into intense aerobic/endurance training will have a more developed aerobic base. Given this, athletes should train according to their relative level–that is, the second year rower should not be using the same training plan as the seventh year rower. Also, one of the most often overlooked, but vitally important aspects of training is recovery–something that athletes at the outset of a career in endurance sports should keep in mind.

    1. Thanks for the detailed response Bryan! That's certainly something I agree with. I also agree with "Unknown"'s comments below - GB are going down this route of learning to row will first before going hard / long with their Start Programme, which seems to be working out fairly well for them.

      I think the combination of always prioritising recovery (because after all, that's when we get fit) and focussing on quality is crucial for achieving at the highest level.

      Look forward to reading more!

  4. The first part paragraph is stating that when fit, one can do more and harder work, and that this in turn makes you more fit - the 'law' of diminishing returns roughly, yeah?
    The second part seems a little less clear, it's part warning part explanation. Don't overtrain and learn how to create a program that works well for each person. I would say this is a round about way to talk about periodization and longer term development - when an athlete sees gains from work types a, b, and c then they presume just increasing the amount of a, b, and c will lead to greater gains. Coaches should be well educated about this sort of thing, year over year improvements are what's needed, not spurts of three months hard training followed by a break because of the unsustainability of the program. All good messages. I doubt that people add mileage for its own sake, people add it because they believe it will make improvements come faster, while it sometimes does do this in the sort term, in the long term it slows development. The prevalent north american attitude reflects 'bigger, faster, more' in rowing, if we're not going as hard as possible for as long as possible then we're wasting our efforts, during our daily workouts this seems doable, 'forcing improvement'. The German's give a good example of how other approaches work - they learn to row well before they learn about going as hard as possible, among other things.


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