In this article I’m going to attempt to explain why and how you should increase the total training volume in running in order to perform better in your races (whatever distance they may be)!
This is going to be quite a technical article, aimed at running coaches and running “geeks”, but I’m going to try to keep the technical training lingo to a minimum in order to appeal to a larger audience.
A community member asked for the scientific research pertaining to volume applied during training. I have to be clear about this - I could not find concrete evidence stating that running the exact race distance in training is beneficial, or that it yields better results.
As far as I know, there isn’t a study out there that meets these criteria – yet. It’s difficult research, there’s an insane number of variables that have to be controlled but hopefully this question will be researched in the future.
But still, I didn’t base the last article on a whim.
In training, there are a few principles that we have to follow in order to create a training plan that will take us as close to our goal as possible, while keeping the risk of injury low. This is an incredibly difficult task, it’s like a puzzle with hundreds of pieces, and each runner has its own individual puzzle, in which the pieces have to be put together in a way that is individual to that particular puzzle (or runner, in this case).
Coaches (and runners who are enthusiastic about creating and following training protocols) constantly look for commonalities in different training techniques. This expedites the initial coaching intervention and allows coaches to build a strong ‘training base’ with the general population, to get them ready to work towards whatever goal they want to achieve.
A few of these commonalities have been observed in running and have been successfully implemented into many training protocols for years, and even decades (e.g. Arthur Lydiard, created and used the linear periodization training model in running throughout his whole career).
Principles like periodization and supercompensation have pretty much been accepted and embraced by coaches and runners alike. There’s a common understanding that in order for the body to improve, it has to go through bouts of strenuous activity, followed by adequate recovery periods.
However, in regards to training, opinions collide in the intensity vs volume argument.
This article is already becoming too long (and we’re still in the introduction) so I’m only going to address the VOLUME side of the debate because that is what caused the most uproar in my last article. Let’s dive in…
For a long time now, we’ve seen runners and coaches suggesting that the total weekly volume progression shouldn’t be higher than 10%. This number seems conservative but it has gained its merit in the running community, becoming the staple for safely increasing you distance every week (assuming you are de-loading every few weeks).
But let’s challenge this idea! What if we try to increase training volume by as much as 30%? A team of researchers published a meta-analysis in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy in December 2018, in which the purpose of the article was to compile evidence examining the association between changes in training load (weekly volume) and running-related injuries.
Out of over 8200 studies, only 4 met the research criteria, and within those 4 only 1 paper clearly defined the volume increases and split them into different groups – 10%, 10-29% and 30% increases.
Out of the three different groups, the group increasing their total weekly volume by 30% experienced higher injury rates within the participants.
The other two groups also resulted in injury rates – but there was no predominant percentage at which injury was more likely to occur. From this we can understand that increasing total running volume will always result in a higher chance of injury, but we can manage this variable and increase volume while maintaining the chance of injury as low as possible.
In practical terms, increasing total weekly running volume by 30% or more will result in a higher probability of encountering injury. The research showed that increasing volume by 10 to 29% is a safer alternative, although it’s safe to assume that we are increasing chance of injury as we reach the higher end of the spectrum (+30%).
Clearly, more research needs to be done in this area to draw definitive conclusions, but this meta-analysis definitely shines light on the issue and allows us to make better-informed decisions.
Conclusion from this article? Higher total weekly volume increases = higher injury rates.
But! (there’s always a but…)
This does not mean we shouldn’t increase our running volume. In order to train for races (5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon, etc) it is inevitable that we increase our training volume! Stress must be applied, followed by adequate recovery, in order to continually improve. A chance of injury is always present and the real glory comes from proper management of the variables that may increase chance of injury.
Studies indicate that higher training volumes also indicate better results.
In elite athletes, long-distance running performances are best predicted by volume of easy runs and deliberate practice of short-interval and tempo runs, this study suggests. The strongest correlation between running performance and training volume was found between runners who had 3, 5 and 7 years of systematic practice (some were running up to 100KM per week).
It’s crucial to understand, however, that elite runners usually have a team behind them controlling every variable, and thus eliminating (or greatly reducing) the chance of injury. This isn’t the case for amateur runners, so this needs to be taken into account.
However, in a sport that doesn’t receive much funding and is filled-to-the-brim with amateur runners tackling great distances, the results were similar. I’m talking about trail running.
Trail running has definitely blown up in popularity, and with this increased popularity, a lot of challenge-hungry individuals started increasing their volume in order to run the distances we usually see in trail races (50KM, 100KM, 100 miles, etc).
Another study was conducted in order to understand whether anthropometric variables were associated with total race time in male 100-km ultrarunners. This was the conclusion:
“The main finding of this present investigation was the fact that selected anthropometric variables having a well-known effect on performance in runners-up to the marathon distance were not associated with total race time in these male 100-km ultrarunners, whereas the average weekly training volume in kilometers and the personal best time in a marathon showed an association with race performance.”
The last study that I want to mention finally speaks about the general population (non-elite runners) in the 21km and 42km distance. The purpose of this study was to understand whether training volume was an associated factor for running-related injuries.
Have a look at the study (click the link above) to dive deeper into the details of the research, but here’s a quick summary of the conclusion:
“The proportion of injury was higher for the runners with a longer registered distance, where 42km runners showed 3 times more risk of developing a RRI compared with 10km runners in the multivariable model. These findings are consistent with previous studies conducted in half-marathon and marathon runners which appears to be logically plausible, because the 42km runners likely experience greater exposure to overload stress compared middle-distance runners."
Again, this makes sense. Marathon runners had a greater risk (up to three times more) of developing a running-related injury than 10K runners did – but this could simply be due to the fact that marathon runners are undergoing a greater amount of stress when training. Let’s continue analyzing the summary:
“Weekly running volume was a protective associated factor, where for middle and marathon distances (21km and 42km) accumulating a greater amount of training kilometres (chronic load) decreased the likelihood of developing RRIs. The distance analysis revealed that weekly volume was only a protective factor for 21km and 42km runners. Rasmussen et al (2013) reported that the relative risk of suffering an injury rose among runners with an average weekly training volume below 30 km/week compared with runners with an average weekly training volume of 30-60 km/week. According to our findings, we recommend that middle distance (21km) and marathon runners achieve a minimum running volume before a competition and we suggest at least 30 km/week and 45 km/week for 21km and 42km runners, respectively.”
By now, it’s clear that higher volume indicates better performance in long-distance racing. YES, increasing volume increases risk of injury, but it also improves racing results.
To conclude the three articles referenced above, higher volume = faster race results.
In case this is all getting too confusing, here’s the two conclusions we’ve reached so far:
In the first referenced study, we saw that a higher total weekly volume increase will result in a higher chance of injury. In the second study, we saw that higher total weekly volume indicates better racing results.
So how do we manage this? The findings are conflicting! We want to run faster, but we don’t want to get injured…
That’s where periodization comes in to close the gap we’ve created with the conflicting arguments above.
What is periodization? I’ve never seen it better explained than I’ve seen it in this video. The analogy at the end will de-mystify any doubts you may have about periodization…
There’s no need to build up an argument on periodization. This is an effective tool that has stood the test of time, from Arthur Lydiard to all great modern coaches. There are many periodization styles, but we won’t get into that in this article (I’ve written more about this in the Beginners and Advanced guide to periodization).
However, our initial question is still unanswered… is it beneficial to run the full race distance during training? Considering you periodize your training properly, I believe the answer is definitely yes.
When you learn to effectively increase training stress (volume) and manage training fatigue (periodization) then it is definitely possible to keep injury rates as low as possible.
In my last article, I said that runners would benefit from going OVER race distance in training (running 45km in training, when training for a marathon, for example). I received a lot of backlash, but as the studies above show, all things considered, if you increase your distance (volume) progressively (remember, no more than 30%) and allow for adequate rest and recovery (periodization) then you are keeping the injury risk as low as it’s possible.
May I remind you: running itself is a risky, repetitive sport. Any time we head out the door and start running, we could be developing an injury. Even if all of the variables are properly managed by a world-class team, there is still a chance of developing injury. We just need to properly manage these risks.
If that means that we have to add another month or two to our marathon training plan, to allow for increased volume, then so be it.
If you came into this article expecting a concise answer with a specific number to use as a reference, I’m sorry, but as with most things in the fitness industry – there isn’t a cookie cutter answer. In sports and fitness, there isn’t such a thing as a “one size fits all”.
As all things, the real answer depends on what your goal is. If you’re happy just participating in marathons and you’re not worried about beating your personal records, I would argue that you don’t need to run the full distance in training.
However, if you’re a competitive runner (either against others or against yourself) and you enjoy beating PR’s and looking at what place you came in overall, then it’s definitely worth it to add another full month or so of training/preparation (increasing volume) in order to allow your body to adapt to longer distances, which will in turn better prepare you to endure those last few pesky marathon miles.
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