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

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