Maintaining fitness at a decreased volume

4 months later, and here we are!  With many of the fall races now officially cancelled, this article is even more relevant than when I originally started to think about this the topic of how much one should train in a time of uncertainty.  Of course there is the chance that something will happen race wise, whether it be in the form of a small group or virtual race.  In the meantime, knowing how much training you should do to maintain fitness is a key question.

No training at all 

With my last article, I looked at just how much fitness we can lose if we completely stop.  You can read the full thing HERE.   In summary, I discussed how:

  • You would likely lose 5-10% of your VO2max in a couple weeks
  • It would take a very long time to lose your running economy 
  • The longer it takes the develop an adaption, the harder it is to lose it

How much is enough?

There are many reasons to be optimistic and to believe that non-optimal training will leave you not that far removed from your best performance.  But just how much is enough?

They key to answering this question is making sure you are aware of your goals and current situation.  The closer you train to your highest level, the higher the risk of injury and burnout.  The further you are away from your highest level of training, the faster the rate of detraining will occur.  

To me, the optimal level in this moment for many is to maintain a baseline level of training that is at least challenging enough that you can jump into a ~12 week race-specific training block without feeling burnt out, but also feeling fit enough to accomplish what is needed at the start of week 1 of that plan.  

Of course, your definition of success might vary drastically.  For instance, you may just enjoy training at a high level so there’s no thought of finding out what the minimum should be.  Or, you’d rather take this year to detrain and worry about cleaning things up in the New Year.  There is nothing wrong with either of these approaches if you know what you’re getting into! 

What the Science Shows:

So just how much do we have to train to maintain?  This, as always in the science of training, is a multifactorial question that is difficult to give a clear answer.  Let’s take a look at some of the research out there to see what we’re dealing with when athletes decrease their volume.

Short-term decrease in volume:

The gold standard when tapering for a race and trying to feel fresh while maintaining (or even spiking) fitness is to maintain the frequency and intensity while dropping your volume.  

In line with that, THIS study looked at a 3 different 7-day tapers including (1) high intensity, low volume, (2) low intensity, moderate volume and (3) complete rest.

Throughout this study, they looked at a number of physiological parameters.  Some interesting findings include:

  • Total blood volume increased in the high intensity group, decreased with the rest group
  • Citrate synthase (important respiration enzyme, more is better) increased activity in the high intensity group, decreased in the rest group
  • Muscle glycogen (chains of carbs in your muscles, more is better) increased in the rest group and intensity groups only- moderate volume wasn’t good for this! 

However, most importantly, what about performance?  What they found was:

  • The high intensity group (with a 90% drop in volume) saw a 22% improvement in performance 
  • The moderate intensity/moderate volume group (62% drop in volume) saw a 6% improvement in performance 
  • The complete rest group saw a ~3% drop in performance 

There are a number of caveats to consider here including the fact that these were highly trained runners and that they were looking specifically at 1500m performance.  Perhaps maintaining endurance with a little more volume is more important for those tapering for longer races.  Perhaps if you have a lower volume to begin with, that same percentage would result in a drop in performance. 

However, all of that being said, this study along with many others like it show that maintaining intensity and frequency, even if the volume is significantly reduced, can result in a spike in performance and phycological predictors of performance. 

Of course, 7 days does not really contribute to our long-term COVID planning, but it does provide a clear incentive to make sure we keep the fire stoked with some intensity.  It’s amazing to me that under any circumstances you can reduce your volume by 90% and be FASTER 7 days later, but you can expect a clear ~3% reduction in V02max if you do nothing for that same week.  

3 Week decrease in volume:

So now that we have an idea of how intensity can allow us to get away with a decreased volume, what happens when you start to extend the period of decreased volume?  

This study took an interesting look at it.  Over 3 weeks, they decreased volume by 25%, and then by 50% in the third week.  Training frequency stayed the same at 6 runs/week.  

Interestingly, they found no change in V02 max.  This is huge! If you recall the details of my previous article, it would probably cost you a 10-14% drop in VO2max if you did nothing. But by maintaining 75% and 50% of your volume you now see no drop in aerobic fitness. 

Not only that, this study also showed a 3% improvement in 8K time trial results!  Again, running less, this time for 21 days, and coming out faster. 

3 Week decrease in a different way:

These results are fairly consistent across other studies looking at this range of tapering.  Another way of looking at it was completed in this study.  

Part of what the study looked at was HR as indicator of performance during a taper.  That aside, we also got some performance results to consider.  

They showed that with a 33% drop in volume and a 1-day drop in frequency resulted in no change in V02max at a 17% improvement in time to exhaustion at 95% of their V02max.

In other words, despite dropping a day (not recommended) and 33% of their volume, not only did they not lose any aerobic fitness, but they were able to last 17% longer in the time to exhaustion test!

4 Week decrease in volume:

So, a 3-week taper at a decreased volume while maintaining our frequency likely not only maintains fitness, but also makes us faster.  What about as we get into 4 weeks?  And what happens if we decrease our frequency? 

This study looked at the impact of a 66% decrease in total training volume and a drop in frequency by 50%.

From an absolute number standpoint, the athletes went from about 72K/week down to 25K week.  Even with my experience and knowledge base on this topic, I look at this as a training plan and think there’s no way that these athletes will maintain their performance or V02max.  However, what they found included:

  • Virtually no change in V02max 
  • A reduction in 5K performance by a mere 1.2%

So, if we look back to my last article, I discussed how 21 days of not training resulted in a 14% decrease in V02max.  What studies like this one show is that if you are a 70-80K/week, 6 run/week athlete, you can completely maintain your V02max and almost all of your performance at less than half the volume and only 3 runs/week for a 4 week period! 

Practical Applications:

This is 4 of about 25-30 studies I looked at on this topic.  This read might feel long, but it really is the abbreviated version of everything.  There are so many permutations and factors to consider when deciding how to proceed with your training when you start to consider all the factors such as:

  • How much do you want to decrease your volume by?
  • How much do you want to decrease your frequency by?
  • What is the duration of this drop in volume?
  • Do you want to maintain your fitness, or are you ok with a drop?
  • What distance are you training for specifically?
  • What was your baseline starting fitness and mileage?
  • Are you typically a high-responder to training, or does it take a while to see gains?
  • Do you tend to have a high baseline level of fitness when you stop, or is the drop significant? 

It would be pretty easy to write not only a novel, but an anthology on this topic.  So, with some sweeping generalizations, here are my recommendations on how to move forward based on the best available evidence:

Category 1: Business as usual 

If you want to train at your max because you love it and know the risks, you already know what to do. 

Category 2: You don’t care if you detrain 

For you, the specifics are not exactly as important since you’re ok with getting slower and figuring it out later.  In general though, I would strongly recommend maintaining at least 30-50% of your normal volume (closer to 50% if you run relatively little to begin with) throughout at least 3-4 days/week with one day of some intensity/week.  This will go a long way in maintaining some form of your injury tolerance, lactate threshold and VO2max that will allow you to start from a feel-good base, rather than what can feel like the seemingly insurmountable ground-zero run/walk plans. Plus, it’s just healthy and likely will breed more training without any effort or thought.

Category 3: Decrease volume, maintain comeback potential

This is the category of athlete where the fun comes in.  If we do too much, you will risk injury and burnout before real training begins.  If you drop things too much, you will detrain excessively and risk not being able to peak when races are back on.  In general, if this is you, I would recommend:

  • 3 weeks of each 4-week block, look to maintain ~60-80% of your normal volume (both in terms of total volume and intensity volume)
  • 3 weeks of each 4-week block, look to maintain your normal run frequency
  • On the down weeks, go as low as you feel like you need to be fresh mentally and physically, but try to maintain at least 3 runs and 20-50% or your normal volume
  • Don’t feel guilty or worried if you have a really bad week with little-to-no running (just don’t let it turn into many weeks).  As studies above show, there is only a ~3% drop in performance after a week completely off.  
  • Don’t feel guilty or worried if you have a 4-week block that is down in general.  As studies like the one above show, 28 days at 44% of your normal volume and a 50% drop in frequency will result in virtually no change in aerobic capacity and performance.
  • If you do have a “bad” 4 weeks, try your best to follow those up with at least 4-8 weeks of that 60-80% of normal volume.  Don’t push extra hard to make up for lost time. 

Based on everything I’ve read, if you follow this plan, you will likely walk out of an extended period of time with no concrete goals, enjoying the sport, avoiding injury, having no drop in V02max and likely a very small drop in performance even if the period of time lasts months.

Case Study: Myself

I don’t just tell people to do this type of training! Throughout COVID, I put all of this into practice.  Without getting into too many details, you can see my training on my Strava account.  I didn’t follow the above plan to a T, because I never do.  Respect to all the regimental athletes out there!  

In general, compared to my training from my best historic performances, I dropped my volume about 20-35% depending on the week and the volume of my intensity by 25-50% depending on the week.   After the Chilly Half in early March, I maintained this reduced volume plan for 12 weeks, followed by 2 taper weeks at a 50% reduction in volume.  Then, we did a virtual race with H+P on a fair 5K loop course where I ran 16:14.

Compared to my historic results, this was my 5th fastest 5K of all time, and definitely on a much slower course compared to the races ahead of it. 

Of course, there are numerous other caveats including this race being completed at the perfect temperature, in general my running going better in recent years, and me almost never really attempting to peak for a single 5K before. 

Regardless, 12 weeks at a significantly reduced total volume and quality resulted in almost being in PB-ish shape really does prove the principles described above to work.  On top of that, I never felt like the training was challenging or a drag since I was below my normal, heavier (for me) volume. 

Be consistently a little lazy

So, in closing, be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to drop volume strategically.  Why get injured and burn out when there’s no reason to risk it for that A+ race? However, when deciding on how to cut yourself some slack, make sure to maintain your run frequency, some form of intensity 1x/week, and avoid extended periods of time involving significant reductions in volume.

If the theme of my last article was “it takes a long time to lose adaptations that take a long time to develop,” the theme of this article would be, “a small amount of consistent training goes a long way in maintaining fitness.”