“How many times should I run a week?” and “How many kilometres do I need to run?” are two commonly asked questions in any running program.
As runners progress through different parts of a race season or change coaches with a different training philosophy, volume and frequency is often manipulated to try and find the sweet spot for optimal training adaptations.
Volume refers to the amount of kilometres run in a week and frequency refers to the number of sessions performed in a week. Despite the amount of evidence surrounding volume and frequency, training plans continue to be designed with very little scientific backing.
For beginner runners, logically, running more frequently will improve an individual’s aerobic capacity purely from an increase in exposure to running.
Studies have shown that 6-9 weeks of 2 to 4 running sessions a week can improve VO2 max by up to 25% in unfit runners. When looking at a larger sample of beginner to higher level marathon runners, greater frequency in running correlates to a faster marathon time.
Keeping in mind, generally more advanced runners will run more frequently than slower runners. Therefore, it is often the quality of the runner and not frequency that dictates running performance.
As running frequency increases, so does overall running volume.
Does an increase in volume correlate to an increase in running performance?
There is evidence to support that an increase in volume leads to an increase in performance related physiological variables. One study found that a graded increase from 8 to 16km a week to 56 to 64km a week regardless of frequency, increased VO2 max by 15-20%.
The Magic Number
There are many blogs and social media posts that pick out a magic number athletes should run to achieve their best 5km or 10km or marathon time. However, an optimal number of weekly volumes have not been identified in any study.
To a certain extent, volume is the basis for any endurance sport. Athletes must train more in order to achieve: cardiac hypertrophy, increase in red blood cells, increase in aerobic enzyme activity and improve mitochondrial function. However the way to achieve this is different from athlete to athlete.
Individual Sweet Spots
Ultimately, running frequency and volume must be individualised based on, but not limited to:
- Training history: Athletes who have no structured training history should not jump onto a 5 to 6 days a week plan. Understanding what type of training athletes have performed previously is important in determining how much weekly volume they can handle initially.
- Injury history: Injuries may restrict an athlete’s ability to handle higher volumes of running. Furthermore, volume induced injuries or overload injuries may provide a coach with critical information regarding how much is too much.
- Muscular strength: Closely linked with injury history, an athlete’s capacity to withstand the physical demands of distance running will dictate how much volume their body will be able to cope with. Generally physically stronger athletes not only run more efficiently but are able to run further due to stronger connective tissue. Hence, a running specific strength program is important to implement alongside an athlete’s running program.
- Time availability: At the end of the day, most runners will not be professional runners. Comparing yourself to an elite runner running 100+ km a week is unrealistic. Elite runners revolve their day around training. They are able to fuel, recover and optimise the times when they train without the daily stresses an everyday runner will experience. Trying to run towards a magic number may actually cause more negative than positive stress to the body resulting in a decrease in overall running performance.
There is no magic number when it comes to running volume. Everyone is different and a number of variables play a role in determining how a running program should be put together. Of course, in order to run well, athletes must run more and expose themselves to the physical demands of a 5km race or 10km race or a marathon.
However, gradually building frequency, volume, adding variety of running sessions to stimulate different training zones and experimenting with a coach who can adapt to what works and does not work for you will result in the greatest running performance outcome.
Wenger, H. A., & Bell, G. J. (1986). The interactions of intensity, frequency and duration of exercise training in altering cardiorespiratory fitness. Sports medicine, 3(5), 346-356.
DeBusk, R. F., Stenestrand, U., Sheehan, M., & Haskell, W. L. (1990). Training effects of long versus short bouts of exercise in healthy subjects. The American journal of cardiology, 65(15), 1010-1013.
Dotan, R., Rotstein, A., Dlin, R., Inbar, O., Kofman, H., & Kaplansky, Y. (1983). Relationships of marathon running to physiological, anthropometric and training indices. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 51(2), 281-293.
This article was written by our colleague and Running Coach Justin Trang at Precision Athletica.
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