How to Balance Your Training Volume

11 11 2011


By Matt Russ
USA Triathlon

When it comes to sleep, we all know individuals who require different amounts. Some can get by on just five hours, while the next person is a zombie after seven. If we know that sleep needs are individualized, why would training volume not be the same?

There are a great number of things that affect how much training volume a person can absorb in a given time period, including individual physiology, stress, lifestyle, nutrition, age, recovery technique, sleep amount and quality, and of course practicality.

If you are following a plan that requires a set number of weekly or monthly training hours, this may or may not align itself with how many hours you can actually profit from. More importantly, the right amount of training volume may be a moving target, changing weekly or even daily.

Training volume is a component of three things: frequency, intensity and duration. If your target is to complete 10 hours of training in a week, this really only addresses one facet: duration. You conceivably could complete all your training volume for the week in just two days–but this would not be an effective course of action. If your frequency goal is two workouts per day, one of which cuts several hours of needed sleep out of your life, you may benefit more from just one quality workout per day. Intensity is an overlooked element, but you may notice acute muscles soreness after a 5K race that took less than 25 minutes to complete. A one-hour time trial near lactate threshold may require 48 hours or more of recovery before any “build” workouts can be resumed. All three components of volume are equally important, and equal emphasis must be placed upon balancing them.

Very few people are able to train consistently without some sort of minor or major upset. Work, family or a sudden illness are just a few things that can interject themselves into a training program. Mental stress levels can affect workout quality to a high degree, and one of the most noted physiological responses to mental stress (rising cortisol levels) is the same as physical stress. Working multiple 10-hour days to complete a project may leave you as physically exhausted as a tough workout and unable to summon the energy to complete your training for the day–even though you have been sedentary at your desk.

Dr. Timothy Noakes has proposed the central governor theory to explain fatigue. In essence, the body has a central governor that gradually imposes itself during training and racing to shut the body down as physical stress load increases. Perhaps this central governor is active under high mental stress loads as well, or the brain perceives stress as simply stress no matter what the source. At any rate, failing to adapt training volume to rising stress levels may just be the kiss of death for your next race.

For this reason, systems have been created to help the athlete subjectively quantify stress so that adjustments can be made proactively to training volume. Training Peaks software has a daily interface to indicate such metrics as sleep quality and amount, fatigue, muscle soreness, stress and overall health. A banking system or “CNS Score” designed by coach Rick Crawford allows the athlete to apply a scoring system to stress (physical, emotional, mental) and recovery (sleep, rest/recovery, therapy) to help determine when training stress has become imbalanced with recovery. There are also objective algorithms that assign numeric value to training volume (i.e. distance and intensity) and allow comparison of ongoing training volume to stress/recovery balance.

Training Stress Score (TSS), Training Stress Balance (TSB) and Chronic Training Load (CTL) are objective vs. subjective metrics found in the WKO software. It is important to note that over-reliance on these metrics, or hitting a particular numeric goal, is not always a good process. These scores are very useful for evaluating how much training stress your body has handled in the past, and/or how stressful a particular workout was. In short, they are a big picture of ongoing training volume. These metrics are particularly useful to athletes that tend to over train. You must balance the subjective (how you are feeling) with the objective (how you are performing) in order to optimize your training volume.

Perhaps one of the best ways to evaluate whether or not you have tipped the stress/recovery scale too far in the wrong direction is the inability to complete a particular workout objective. If your training is general (i.e. run 6 miles), this will be difficult to qualify, as there is no particular performance goal to achieve. But your ability to hit a specific wattage target, pace, split or heart rate zone gives you something to hang your hat on. To slightly underperform will mean that either the bar was a bit too high or that you have too much residual fatigue built up to hit the mark.

If you are consistently missing your targets over several days, it is a clear indication that something is not working and needs to be adjusted. Be aware that the more you try to push through another mediocre workout, the more you are tipping the scale toward the need for greater recovery. String enough of these workouts together and you may peak too early or require multiple weeks or more of recovery/reduced volume in order to shake out the accumulated fatigue. The amount of time you have to train must align itself with your goals, or you are setting yourself up for failure. Training for an iron-distance race is not going to be possible on just 10 hours per week. It is important to examine your life in totality before signing up for an ultra-endurance event.

I have often said that the greatest value of a coach is to be the objective party that forces an athlete to recover– thus realizing fitness vs. degrading performance. A highly motivated, Type A athlete can be his or her own worst enemy. Training must be a fluid and adaptable process in order to be accurate. The communication between coach and athlete must also be of high quality in order to get the best performance out of the athlete. Too much emphasis can be placed on a set-in-stone training plan. The best plan is not only the one that addresses the athlete’s individual needs specifically, but one that is also flexible in adjusting volume based on how the athlete is responding. I often have several athletes training for the same race, yet their training plans are very different based on a variety of criteria.

Think of your body as a sponge. It will continue to absorb training volume until it reaches a saturation point. Once the sponge is saturated, it can no longer soak up volume; you are only wasting your energy, risking injury and further degrading your performance. You must let the sponge dry out before it will soak up more fitness and that will require time and patience. If you are following a pre-built plan, realize that this is somewhat of a hit or miss approach. If your goal is to simply complete a race, you are only training one fitness substrate–endurance–and it is a relatively simple process to build enough to get to the finish line. However, once you start shooting for a PR, the equation becomes a lot more sophisticated. You must monitor for signs of over-reaching/over-training and adjust your volume, even if your plan requires a certain amount of hours. If you have a high level of muscle soreness, fatigue, low motivation and are experiencing a lot of work stress, a day off may be more effective training than slogging through another mediocre “wet sponge” workout.

Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes up to the professional level, for over 15 years. He currently holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory and coaches athletes of all levels. He is also a freelance author, and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites. Visit for more information or email him at




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