Intensity vs Volume. What is the best way of balancing these factors on your training plan?

Intensity vs Volume. What is the best way of balancing these factors on your training plan?

As one progresses in their cycling training knowledge expands as well and new questions come to mind. A good question to ask yourself as an athlete or coach is, what is better for your particular training, is it more volume or more intensity on the workouts. Volume being the frequency and duration of workouts and intensity referring to workouts which have intervals around the athlete threshold level or above it. The answer to this question will vary greatly from one athlete to another, but I will try to explain their many advantages, disadvantages and other factors that should be taken into consideration when planning this section of the training plan. There are two different types of training that I will be discussing: HIIT or High-Intensity Interval Training and MICT or Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training.

As mentioned before, the answer to this question will vary greatly from one athlete to another. However, there are some important factors that will help determine what is best for you. The three most important ones I believe are:

  1. What is the athlete goal?
    1. Is the athlete training for a high-intensity XC mountain bike race or an endurance event like a Gran Fondo?
  2. What are the athlete limitations?
    1. Does the athlete have a limited amount of time to train or maybe needs to train a specific area of its energy systems?
  3. What is the athlete current level of fitness?
    1. Are you just starting to train and race or are you a Category 1 or Professional racer?

If you are able to answer these questions truthfully, then you are a step closer to figuring out what is best for you. Now I will try to expand on why these two questions are very important. An athlete’s goal is the most important thing on an athlete’s plan, and it will draw a path to follow if one is to achieve it. It will normally include what event is the most important for him, and the nature of this is what will push an athlete one way or the other. If the event is a high-intensity race like a XC Mountain Bike race or a Road Criterium, then high-intensity training will probably be best suited for the athlete. However, if the event is of longer duration as Endurance events like a Gran Fondo or a 24-Hour Race regularly are, then the contrary will apply. A moderate-intensity continuous training will most probably assist the athlete to reach his goal better, as high-intensity does not normally form a big part of those events.

Once the type of event and its level of intensity have been determined, then an athlete is to look at what are his limitations and weaknesses. If the time to train is limited due to normal daily tasks like work and family, or if there are specific areas of the energy system that the athlete would like to train then HIIT would be again a great fit. High-Intensity Interval Training greatest advantage is that it produces similar gains in an athlete’s fitness level in about 40% less time. It as well has the advantage of being able to target specific body systems if the athlete’s threshold has been determined and the training bike is equipped with a power meter. With the proper zones set an athlete can train their Aerobic Endurance System, Threshold Power, VO2 Max Level or its Anaerobic System. However, one of its disadvantages is that the athlete’s mitochondrial adaptations will be minimal compared to MICT. There is as well less improvement using HIIT VS MICT for long distance events, the only way to be able to achieve 100+ mile rides its by increasing the volume on the athlete’s exercise plan. Once the limitations and the goal are taken into consideration, there is a third important factor that the athlete or coach should be aware of.

A German research study compared both types of training in 17 experienced runners; they all performed a one-month cycle of MICT as well as one of HIIT. It was found that these athletes had a 5 – 17 % greater fitness gain in High-Intensity Interval Training.

An athlete’s current fitness level has to be taken as well into consideration, this is to avoid overtraining or undertraining him/her. If an athlete has a poor fitness level, then high-intensity training might be too much for him to handle. If the body is not able to sustain the efforts, overtraining and other counterproductive results will occur. On these athletes, it is best to start with a moderate increase in volume partnered with a slow increase in intensity over time. In the other hand, if an athlete has been training for a long period of time and has gained a significant level of fitness, then if the intensity is not introduced counterproductive results will occur as his level of fitness will hit a ceiling or even worst diminish over time. The perfect level of balance will normally have to be found in order to accommodate to each athlete needs and requirements.

As you can see there is no simple answer to this question, however, I hope that you are closer to finding what is right for you after reading this article. Take the three factors that I discussed and do incorporate other factors which are important to you into the equation and you will get a clearer image of what that looks like. Remember that there is no pre-determined path and the best way to find yours is to keep trying to get there, so if you believe that intensity or volume might be the answer for you then try a mesocycle or two of that type of training. Make sure to record your fitness markers and compare them at the beginning and the end of each period. This will let you know what is working for you and what is not working. Over time this trial and error will bring you to realize what is correct for you. Usually, this will be a balancing act between endurance and intensity on your workouts.

Please let me know what you think is the best type of training for you in the comment section below, as well if you have any questions or concerns for me. I hope that you keep having a great week and I will see you on the trails!

Thank you for reading!

Gilberto Cortez - USA Cycling & TrainingPeaks Certified Coach

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