Time, effort, and volume budgets
The time required to get the right training in to get better is often the biggest linchpin in the whole process for most of us. We only have so much time available to spend training because we have other priorities and responsibilities that we need to take care of as well. Most of us can’t ditch work early every day to get a workout in. Nor can we just ignore making dinner for our kids. Quite frankly, most of us have bigger fish to fry than the “ideal” training, and that’s a good thing. We’re real people with lives, not just the miles we put in. So in order to maximize the time we do have to train, we need to make sure that every moment of exercise is spent getting something out of it. We simply can’t afford to waste training time on effort that doesn’t really get us anywhere. This is why knowing the purpose of a workout is so important, especially if your coach isn’t standing there to ensure you working at the right intensity or pull the plug if that’s what needs to happen.
Some people can handle harder workouts than others. Not all “speeds” are the same. What is race pace for one person may be an easy recovery pace for someone else. We need to make sure we’re working at the right intensity to get out of the workout what we’re trying to. Some of us can handle the impact forces of really high intensity training. Some folks have some kind of injury when they get in touch with me and it would be a really dumb idea to tell them to go do 400 meter repeats as hard as they can. The stronger and more resilient we are, the harder we can push without hurting ourselves. The trick is to push ourselves hard enough to get better without pushing so hard we get hurt or take so long to recover that we’ll have lost any gains we received from a workout.
Just like our time and effort budgets, we have a budget of how much total volume we can handle. So people can handle more volume than others. Volume is more than just the number of hours spent training. It is really a function of the total amount of time we put in times the effort level we were working at. Which is why speed and power athletes that might spend 5 or 10 minutes actually working over the course of a workout actually put in as much actual volume as the distance runner who is getting an easy long run in. As a general rule of thumb, the more volume we can safely do, the more fit we’ll become as endurance athletes. And this is where I see a lot of athletes get in trouble. It’s really common to see folks start pushing harder to get more fit, and all of a sudden they are over their total volume budget without realizing it and they get hurt.
The trick is to ensure that we’re balancing the workload appropriately among the various intensities that we work at, within the time constraints that we’re given. One of the more useful starting points is to rely on the 80-20 rule. This rule states that 80% of our “work” as endurance athletes needs to be at an easy intensity. There are two big reasons for this. First, we’re probably going to get better over the long term by continuing to develop the adaptations gained from easy efforts (i.e. cardiovascular capacity, metabolic endurance, capillary development, etc.). The second reason is that we can probably only handle that much “hard” work without getting injured. The harder efforts result in physical breakdown of tissues and strain on the endocrine and nervous systems that require recovery in order to actually get better. The easy effort is where this recovery takes place. We’re flushing the distressed tissues with the nutrients required to repair, rebuild, and strengthen them. By the time you figure in warming up, cooling down, recovery runs, and lower intensity long runs, the majority (roughly 80% of that total mileage budget) is probably used up. That isn’t to say we can’t sometimes dip our toe in the well and get in some extra speed work to sharpen up for a race, but it isn’t sustainable. If we’re not doing the maintenance and recovery work, we’re eventually going to get hurt.
The total amount of time we can spend training is often dictated by the rest of our lives, but we can structure the time we spend while training to get the most out of it. We’re going to improve more over the long term if we get in plenty of easy miles and work HARD on the hard days. The easy work improves our potential top end, the hard work gets us to that top end. Just remember, if the amount of hard work goes up, the amount of easy work that we do probably needs to increase as well. If we just work hard every day, we never get a chance to fully recover and we’re just beating ourselves up. We’ll never really get faster. Understanding this is one of the key parts of smarter training.
So pay attention to that total training volume budget. It is one of the best tools for improving our race performances and only requires us to pay attention to our training. Don't be afraid to pull the plug if you notice you've met the goal of a workout. Save those precious hard miles for the next workout when you'll get something out of them.