The volume of training to do occupies most endurance athlete’s mind more than anything else. It’s understandable – efficient running requires a lot of repetition and a lot of repetition triggers a lot of the energy adaptations runners are looking for. But it’s not as simple as ‘more is always better’.
King Mithridates of Pontus
Exercise mimics a drug almost exactly – or we should even say ‘a toxin’ – similar to those the Pontic king Mithradates sipped in small amounts to gain immunity. The process of Mithridasation became named after the eccentric and brilliant king who pushed Rome to despair through all his long years as a way to gain big benefits from small controlled doses of exposure to a harmful substance.
When we train we are doing much the same. So let us try to ask ourselves the question again: how do I pick the best volume of training to do? Many people have read and are fully bought in on the idea of ‘more volume not always being better’ and understand that ‘everyone is individual’. Yet even such benign and common-sense notions are limited in application because once you hit that road yourself the answer doesn’t always seem to obvious especially as the harmful effect of too much volume can be delayed long enough that we don’t realise until it’s too late. And that is before we factor in that we all suffer from a degree of bias when it comes to our own abilities: almost every person imagines themselves to be ‘the exception’ when, of course, most of us are average by default.
Complex problems solved through simple metaphors
In my own life – especially in my many years having to make decisions about very abstract concepts in the IT industry – I found the easiest way to arrive at a simple answer was to re-frame the question in the context of something else. In IT we would often reframe our very complex sounding problems within the context of a transaction over a shop counter and similar ‘down to Earth’ sales relationships. When talking about the right physiological and psychological dose of running, we can use our drug metaphor: imagine you were given a drug and told it will make you stronger if taken consistently. You are told that taking more of the drug will likely make the benefits show faster but that taking too much of the drug will lead you to begin to feel worse. As if that was not enough, you are informed that no one knows the exact individual dose that is beneficial and the one that is harmful. Now you are pretty much in the same situation as the person deciding how much running to do on any given day and during any given week (for my Irish and Danish readers: it’s a bit like deciding how many pints you can drink without getting a hang-over the next day – based only on previous experience and even then not always accurate).
So how would we approach this problem if we feel taking the drug is worth the risk. We are told that the harmful effects will be small and not life-threatening. I cannot answer for you but here’s what I would do: I would take the smallest dose possible on day 1 and see how I respond in the following day. Then I’d take a slightly bigger dose. Once I felt a positive effect, I’d try to sustain that dose for as long as I feel a benefit. Why not up the dose at this point you may ask, so let me answer: because I am now certain I have a dose providing benefits with zero risk of side-effects. This is a perfect relationship between gain and risk – much like putting money in a bank account and just seeing the interest accrue rather than putting them in risky stocks with potentially better investment but also big risks.
Once the benefit slows down or ceases, I would try to change the dose and even here I have options – I could change the individual dose I take or the frequency and see how the effects change. At all times I would be extremely wary of the response. This leads me to ask an open question to anyone reading this (answer it for your own benefit): do you review your own response to training as diligently as you would in this ‘drug scenario’? We have to consider that while the drug metaphor is contrived, exercising can be dangerous: a person with the wrong lifestyle doing running that is consistently too hard may drop dead FROM THAT EXERCISE (in combination with lifestyle and a certain type of diet) in their thirties or forties. That is not joke and not intended to scaremonger – but exercise, in whatever form, is not such a simple matter that it cannot be done in a way that will harm you. Serious harm such as what I describe in this paragraph is rare: but why gamble when not necessary. Which brings me to: when do we gamble?
A lack of time and response-regulation
Sometimes we do not have all the time in the world to reach the level of preparedness we feel is necessary for a race. Let us say that I have 8 weeks and I am trying to gain the biggest possible adaptation. In this case I would do as I did before and each day slightly increase the dose of my drug and see whether I got any benefits. But this time I would not plateau – instead I would continue to increase until the first of detrimental effect (‘over-reaching’ in training terms) and then I’d dose right back for a few days and take note of the ‘borderline’ – during the remainder of that
Another thing to consider is that our resistance to the ‘toxin of exercise’ fluctuates which means you cannot establish an upper border you can tolerate and expect it to always stay the same. It may move down and it may move up – this is where it is incredibly important to continue to monitor your actual day to day and week to week response to exercise. There are many clever tools available to serve as canaries in the coal-mine – subtle measurements such as HRV can tip you off before most people feel themselves suffering detrimental effects from overdoing it. The reason for this is that heavy training ramps up your sympathetic ‘fight and flight’ nervous system and this bestows you temporarily with amazing powers. But you are borrowing energy in the future here which will need to be repaid. Like taking too much of a drug, however, you can feel so great while ‘on the buzz’ that you are entirely incapable of self-monitoring or judging accurately based on your subjective feelings. In this case an objective measure or a good coach are ways to protect yourself from waking up with a massive head-ache.