Volume: the benefits of more

The running boom of the late 1970’s was fuelled by cocktail of elements but is largely credited to increased racing opportunities, more media coverage of events and Frank Shorter winning the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich. 

As a result of the exposure and timing of Shorter’s success, running numbers boomed and a previously cult market became a commercially scaled one which at its peak was estimated to have attracted 25 million Americans to take up some aspect of running in the 1970’s and 1980’s. As thirst for product and information grew around the growing wave of road race participation there was the emergence of many classic books such as Jim Fixx’s “The Complete Book of Running” and George Sheehan “Running and Being” as well as growth of magazines such as Runners World, Running; Running Times and Athlete Times. In addition, there was a plethora of running shoe manufacturers and clothing suppliers eager to tack into a growth market and the number of races also expanded significantly and gave runners a previously unprecedented choice of locations and challenges to test their fitness.


In the early years of the boom, this resulted in outstanding growth in athletic performance standards across the USA, Britain, Australia and NZ as hero’s and icon’s such as Shorter, Switzer, De Castella, Rodgers and Salazar shared their stories, struggles and strategies with a hungry audience. What is important is during that time the entering runner would access most readily a pragmatic, honest and proven insight into successful practice of long distance running. Invariably, their stories all shared a common theme in that they encouraged and exposed many hours of easy or steady aerobic running each week and this eventually led to the belief that the 100 mile week was the approximate baseline training volume of great distance running. 

Yet as the commercial running juggernaut grew, the rise of commercial marketing led to a running media delivering the belief that training could be outsourced from the runners legs to over engineered footwear and that magical interval sessions changing in each monthly magazine where the secret to your next 5k PB or Marathon PR. Volume was largely ignored in the running media as it’s discussion may have been seen as a barrier to entry and provided resistance to consumption. However the main reason to neglect the importance of volume is because resilience and work is a hard sell. What is easier, is to expose work as “junk miles” and high intensity intervals as “magical secrets”. Less work and better results sounds like a runner’s utopia!


What is unequivocal is that since training volumes have dropped, so has Marathon performance standards in Britain, USA and here in Australia. In 1969, Derek Clayton run 2.08.33 to win the Antwerp Marathon and was rumoured to have been running up to 250k/week, he was succeeded by World Record holder and World Champion, Rob DeCastella (up to 240k/week) who ran 2.07.51 when winning Boston in 1986 and Steve Moneghetti (220k/week) who ran 2.08.16 in 1990. 13 years ago in 2003 Lee Troop became the last Australian to break 2.10 when he ran 2.09.49 at Lake Biwa. Indeed, it is near impossible to locate a single world class male marathoner of any generation to have run less than this volume and run sub 2.10 for the Marathon. Similarly, if we look at overall mean performance standards in Marathon running across all participants the standards continue to regress. An indexation of performance regression against median training volume would invariably show a strong correlation.

What about injuries you ask? There is no research to support the belief that a gradual increase in training volume increases injury risk. Indeed, the latest research on 1969 runners over a 6 week trial by Luitenberg et al. at the University of Groningen (2015) suggests that running beginners are least likely to be injured when they commence with easy intensity 60min jogging in favour of higher intensities of exercise resulting in increased risk of injury. This is matched by elite athlete data which shows higher injury risk in racing or high intensity periods and not in base volume periods which appear to reduce injury risk profile.

When you think of running load and injury risk, a nice way to view human locomotion is to imagine a continuum from walking to sprinting. At the lower end of that spectrum, at lower intensities, it is clear that per unit of time injury risk is extremely low (have you been injured walking?). Similarly, risk of injury grows almost exponentially when pushing beyond your anaerobic threshold pace. What seems counter-intuitive is the reality that repetition and volume of exercise at lower intensity is perhaps the most important performance element lacking in modern distance running.

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