Risks of increasing volume v increasing intensity

In my recent post on base-building, muscle damage and adaptation, I had reported evidence demonstrating that there is are multiple paths to success in training.  Both anecdotal evidence about the training of world record holders and also the evidence from scientific studies suggest that both high volume programs and also high intensity programs can produce an increase in aerobic fitness and enhance performance. 


On the other hand, I also suggested that there are likely to be multiple paths to stunted growth, frustration or outright failure.  My own experience and also the comments of Rick and Ewen in response to that posting, suggest that the risks of ‘stunted growth, frustration and outright failure’ might be greater with high intensity training.  Certainly my own experience confirms that an increase in training intensity increases the risk of overt muscle injuriy.


A study of training and over-training

However, it is salutary to examine the results of the study which I regard as perhaps the most thorough comparison of the risks associated with a major increase in training volume, with the risks associated with a major increase in training intensity.  This was a study conducted almost 20 years ago by Lehmann and colleagues at the University Hospital of Freiberg and reported in a series of papers published in the 1990’s.  (The key papers are:  Int J Sports Med. Vol 12(5):pp 444-52, 1991; Br J Sports Med. Vol 26(4):pp 233-42, 1992; Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. Vol 70(5):pp 457-61, 1995).


The ITV and ITI programs

It should be noted at the outset that the intention of the investigators was to induce over-training, so the training regimes should not be regarded as typical of sensible training programs.  In the first year, 8 experienced middle or long distance runners took part in a brief Increased Training Volume (ITV) program that entailed a 101% increase is training volume over a three week period, from a baseline of 85.9 Km in week 1, up to 176.6 km in week 4.  Training occurred on 6 days per week.  Virtually all of this training (96-98% of training volume) was performed as long-distance runs at an estimated mean oxygen utilization at 67% of maximum capacity.   This pace corresponds quite closely to Molvar’s interpretation of Lydiard’s 1/4 effort. A year later, 9 experience runners (including 7 of those who took part in the ITV program in the first year) took part in an Increased Training Intensity (ITI) program.  Speed endurance, high-speed and interval runs averaging 9 km at baseline in week 1, increased to 22.7 km in week 4, and the total volume increased from 61.6 to 84.7 km, during ITI.  Thus both programs might be regarded as injudicious, but nonetheless, provide the chance to compare the results of injudicious increase in volume with the results of what appears to be at least an equally injudicious increase in intensity, in almost exactly the same group of athletes a year later.


The consequences of increased volume

During the increased volume program, there was stagnation in endurance performance capacity (running velocity at the aerobic-anaerobic transition range – a key indicator of middle and long distance performance) together with a decrease in maximum working capacity in 6, and a stagnation in 2 of the 8 runners.  Total running distance during an incremental treadmill test decreased from 4719 +/- 912 m to 4361 + /-788 m.  There was an increase in levels of creatine phosphokinase (a marker of muscle damage) and a decrease in neuromuscular excitability (which the investigators regard as a peripheral measure of good muscle function rather than a measure of neural signaling from the brain).  In the subsequent competitive season, these athletes failed to reach their previous personal best levels.


The consequences of increased intensity

In contrast, during the increased intensity program a year later, performance at the aerobic-anaerobic transition (i,e. at lactate level 4 mmol) and also total running distance during the incremental treadmill test improved steadily during the 4 weeks, and there was no significant evidence of muscle damage.



This study does not prove that judicious high volume training is dangerous.  However it does demonstrate that increasing training volume by around 33% per week for three weeks,at moderate aerobic paces (well short of lactate threshold) has a very high probability of producing muscle damage and reduced performance, both during treadmill testing and during the subsequent competitive season. 


The failure to improve performance in competition cannot be attributed to the athletes having already reached their peak, as an increase in high intensity training the following year, which at first sight appeared even more injudicious, resulted in a steady improvement in performance.  This improvement during high intensity training in experienced runners would of course be very unlikely to have occurred in novice runners.  It is almost certain that all of the runners recruited to this study already had a substantial aerobic base before entering the study. 


For runners who already have at least a moderate aerobic base, a ‘crash program’ of high intensity training might be expected to produce greater improvement in performance and less risk of damage, than a ‘crash program’ of increased volume.  The benefits of high volume training are more likely to come from a sustained, long-term program.


4 Responses to “Risks of increasing volume v increasing intensity”

  1. Ewen Says:

    That’s a very interesting study, but I’d love to have it performed ‘judiciously’, with the mileage gradually increased over a period of 5 to 6 months. If done that way I wonder if there’d be evidence of muscle damage?

    It’s not surprising that the ITI program produced improved performance, but I also wonder how long this performance could be maintained. Can performance be improved upon the following year?

    With the ITV program, was the mileage dropped when the competitive season commenced? Usually mileage needs to be maintained if races are ‘trained through’. Also the 4 weeks of high volume is very small (and not likely to be absorbed well because of the dramatic ramp-up). As a minimum, 6 weeks of ‘building up’ followed by 6 weeks of higher mileage may have resulted in performance gains.

    I’m reminded of something Nate Jenkins wrote when advising a high school senior about high mileage and double running. He said something like ‘start running 100 miles per week and for a year you won’t race any better than you are now (doing lots of intervals/intensity), however next year you’ll be untouchable’.

  2. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, I agree it would be great if this study had been done using judicious training programs. I think the major practical conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that a rapid increase in volume is very risky. It is noteworthy that Hadd recommended that his client Joe should make increases in volume the range 15-20% per week in the first three weeks, while this study by Lehmann made increases of around 33% per week. Joe did well, whereas all athletes in the Lehmann study did poorly. This suggests that increases of 15-20% per week should be regarded as the maximum rate of increase of volume. I am inclined to agree with Nate Jenkins’ comment – for short term gain do intervals; for longer term gain, increase training volume – though I believe one should do some speed work and a small amount of upper aerobic work within a high volume program. I think this is in accord with Lydiard and Hadd’s recommendations for basebuilding but differs from Maffetone’s recommendations.

  3. thegymmonkey Says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  4. The training of Ed Whitlock | Canute's Efficient Running Site Says:

    […] a greater risk of the over-training syndrome than increases in intensity (discussed in detail in my post on 14th April 2009) I consider that the secret to Ed’s success is the gradual build up and his […]

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