Training Load ~ Intensity v Volume

The information in this factsheet is complementary to the information held in the VO2max Development and Threshold Power factsheets. 

You may wish to read them before or after this factsheet to familiarise yourself with the trilogy of pain, power and success.

As you'll see from this shot of Phillipe Gilbert in the 2008 Het Volk, If you want to maximise your success, you need to maximise your tolerance to pain.  Do you do that by training with intensity or volume?

As my all time favourite songsmiths Depeche Mode sang, amongst other things, "Just hang on; Suffer Well".  Which probably gives you a clue to my thoughts on the matter!

The Preamble...
As we've discussed previously (see factsheets mentioned above), if you are to realise your true cycling potential (this website's sole reason for being), you need to make best use of your genetically given gifts, your VO2max; and increase, through hard work and structured training, your Functional Threshold Power. 

You have far more influence over one than the other.  To be a stronger, fitter, faster cyclist you need to understand the options available to you and choose the ones that work best for you.  We are all different and will all react differently to the same stimulus.  So no cookie cutter training plans and don't buy a book and follow it slavishly.  It probably won't work. 

Please take the time to read, digest, and reflect on the contents of the three factsheets and mix and match your options to find what works for you.  When you've found the magic formula, give it 100% commitment. Just like Philipe Gilbert.

Just so we all have a common understanding of what we are discussing it's best that we all have the same interpretation of the two main terms we will be covering in this factsheet. 

Volume: is the amount of work that we do.  It can be measured in hours, miles or whatever you fancy but it has no measure of effort applied to it.

Intensity: is the measure of effort applied during the volume,  It can be measured in many ways (heart rate, watts, perceived effort) but has no measure of volume applied to it.

So if someone says I went out and rode for five hours, it may be impressive but doesn't tell you much.  If someone else tells you they can knock out 300 watts, again you don't get that much info on which to base a decision regarding how impressed you should be.

If someone tells you they can fire out 300 watts for five hours, believe me you should be mightily impressed or extremely suspicious.

As we discussed in the Functional Threshold Power factsheet, there is an inversely proportional relationship between intensity and volume which basically breaks down to; "The harder you do it, the less time you can do it for". 

It won't win any literary prizes, but it sums up exactly what we mean.  As does this graphic. 

The width of the red triangle shows the intensity of the session.  The width of the tan triangle denotes the duration for which you can hold the intensity.  You can't have both.  They are mutually exclusive. (see the Physiological Continuum)

Measuring Load and Intensity
As we discussed above, intensity means nothing without a volume validation.  300 watts may sound impressive, but not if it's your maximum sprinting wattage.  So we need to find a system for  designating Training Load.  This is where we learn some new acronyms; yeeeha!

Now all of this info is drawn from the world of power meters, but it is transferrable to the "real world".  So if you haven't got a power meter please don't think this doesn't concern you.  It does.

Every ride we do has a training load or stress it places on our body.  If the load is just higher than our previous efforts, our body will adapt and make itself stronger.  If you constantly train at the same volume or intensity, you will plateau and become relatively slower as those around you speed up.  If you don't constantly increase your workload you will detrain and become slower than your peers.  So constantly increasing work load it is then.

However, if you go out and make your ride much, much harder than the previous effort, you may exceed the capacity for your body to adapt. That leads to overtraining, injury and illness.  Your immune system will take a hammering from which it can't help the body recover.  You get run down, you can't fight a virus, you get ill.  So a gradual, increasing work load it is.

Now the question is, "How do we determine the correct Training Load?"  How do we ensure a constantly, gradually increasing, sustainable workload?

If you ride at your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) for one hour, you will illicit a Training Stress Score TSS of 100.  It also sets a benchmark for an Intensity Factor IF of 1.00.  All this is covered in the FTP factsheet.

So there's our two new acronyms.  TSS & IF

It has no matter what your FTP is.  If I ride for an hour with mine at 300 watts, Dianne rides hers at 200 watts, and a pro holds out at around 480 watts, we will obviously cover different distances in the said hour.  But the relative training load on our bodies will be exactly the same.  For each and every one of us, the TSS will be 100 and the IF will be 1.00.  We can now compare our totally disparate training regimes against each other because we have a parative, relative training load term as a comparator.

We'll leave this behind for a bit and come back later...

Volumizing the Equation
We can't ride for two hours at our FTP, otherwise it wouldn't be our FTP would it?  So to score a TSS of greater than 100 we have to increase our volume and decrease our intensity.  So we can ride very slow, for a very long time or we can ride faster for less time.  But how can you ensure you get the right mix.

And at what intensity do we do that volume?  Do we ride around for four hours at 15kph?  Because that's volume.  Or do we mix and match our sessions, doing super intense bursts with periods of "taking our bike for a walk".  Here's some real figures...

Here's a fantastic example of a  January 1st 2008, recovery ride.  Mild volume, no speed, high cadence, done with my wife to keep me reigned in. 

It was 2 hours, at 21 kph, with a TSS of 55.5 and an IF of 0.531. 

So you can see that this ride had a TSS of 23 points per hour, I'd have got a higher training load washing the bikes rather than riding them.  But that wasn't the point.  It's recovery; and recovery is good.

Here's an example of a Christmas Eve Endurance Ride.  High volume, low speed, high cadence, done on my own to prevent getting competitive with anyone, and boring as hell.

Five hours, at 26 kph, with a TSS of 235 and an IF of 0.691.

This ride had a TSS of 47 points per hour.

Here is a full on sportive, the Jaques Bossis, taken in the company of 1500 others.  High volume, high speed, high cadence, high pain.

4 hours 19 minutes, at 33 kph with a TSS of 336 and an IF of 0.882 (or 88% of 25 mile TT power, FTP).

This screamer had a TSS of 72 points per hour.

The middle figures are from a classic, "getting in the miles" ride.  This was in 2005 when I didn't know what I know now.  To me it's all old school; time for a change?

Intense Volume
As I race and train with a power meter, I now have a massive five year database of "effort required" to compete at the level I choose.  With almost fifty European sportives (49 at time of writing) under my belt I know how "fit" I need to be to compete at the level I choose, in the events I enter.  Here's how...

This chart takes all of the power information from all of  my races and drops them in to the relative FTP training levels at the time of the event.

In the events I've undertaken, I've been racing at or above my Anaerobic Capacity for 9.1% of the time and at my VO2max for 6.4%.  These are big sportives with big hills so you get lots of recovery on the big descents and from "sheltering" in pelotons of a couple of hundred riders.  You can still be doing 40 kph while banging out less than 200 watts which is the top of my Endurance Zone.

With the season starting in March (I'm writing this on the 5th February), there's less than a month before it all kicks off.  Here's my training breakdown for January 2009...

The scores are;

▼  Anaerobic Capacity 9.1%,
▼  VO2max 7.7%
▼  Threshold 11.8%
▼  Tempo 10.5%
▼  Endurance 23.5%
▼  Recovery 39.5%

As you see, I've worked very hard to mirror the efforts needed to compete in the events I've chosen.  Now I don't believe you can compete at the level you need by training with volume alone. 

The reason it worked in the old days was because that's what everyone did in the old days.  In the old days, water was the drink of choice, steak was seen as race food, and you'd ride for six hours on one bottle and no food to toughen you up and prepare you for competition! 

You didn't need intensity because no one else was doing it and in those days (only 15 years ago) people used to race themselves fit in the early spring.  For pro's, Paris Nice used to be a warm up and training race.  Now they go to Australia and Qatar to get fit for Paris Nice.  The world's turned upside down.

We are not Pro's
We do not live the life of professional athletes.  We can't get the miles in for six hours a day, three days a week all through January.

We do not have soigneurs or a back up team to look after our every need; we do not get to lie down for three hours after a six hour ride; we can't sleep for four hours a day and ten at night.  We can't even lie down for an hour after a six hour ride!  Someone has to walk the dog and play with the kids.  And, "after being out enjoying yourself all morning",  it's probably going to be you!

In this day and age of 24 hour everything, with the demands on our time and energy much more than those of yesteryear, we can't apply the same training principles as our forefathers.  The environment, the culture, the facilities and technology have changed so much, why shouldn't our training?

Robert Cole ~ Zinging in the Rain!

I believe our training should reflect the events in which we compete.  We have to make the training specific to the demands we will place on our body when we race.

This year flamme rouge coached athletes have changed their Winter Preparation Schedules to include more intensity and less volume.  If your longest event of the season is three hours long, why do you need to do five hour training rides?  And if you want to beat the hour for the 25, how is four hours at 15 mph going to help you?

This year right from day one, we've been working on intensity by building our FTP, developing our VO2max and cranking out one hour turbo sessions combined with medium volume road sessions going from very high intensity to village policeman pace. 

The results have been remarkable.  I'll share that with you next month when we discuss how the TSS is plotted against time, with Chronic Training Load, Acute Training Load and the Training Stress Balance.  Three more fantastic new acronyms to impress the non-cycling members of your family.

Until then...