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It's Not Quality vs. Quantity
by on Thursday, July 10, 2014  (2 comments)

Note: This is an article I first wrote at least a decade ago for the articles section of HillRunner.com. As I'm in the process of retiring that section, I'm moving all articles to the blog in their original form. This is the final one. I would likely write this somewhat differently if I were to rewrite it today but I want to keep it in its original form.

Over and over again, I see the debate come up. What is more important? Quality or quantity? Is it that simple, though? Can we really narrow this question down to one or the other? In recent years, it seems like many people would have you believe it is that simple. They refer to quotes such as "if you want to run fast, you have to run fast" and say that race performances are dependant on quality and quantity is not important. They frequently talk about "junk miles" as if anything that isn't a hard day is useless. Interestingly, it seems as if the "mileage junkies", as some of these people like to term high volume runners, don't take the same kind of angle. I can't think of one high volume competitive runner who has done high volume training to the exclusion of quality workouts or one high volume proponent who has stated that quality done at the right time is not an important aspect of training for competition. I can, however, think of many high intensity runners who have done high intensity to the exclusion of aerobic conditioning and also many people who say high volume training is unimportant, some who even say it is detrimental.

If you are interested in maximizing your performance potential, you have to consider all the variables that go into your performance. Just like a race car mechanic. It doesn't matter how good the tires of the car are if the engine has no power. It doesn't matter how powerful the engine is if the drive train can't handle that power. It doesn't matter how strong the drive train is if the tires can't hold up at high speeds. For a runner, it doesn't matter what speed you have if you don't have the aerobic capacity to run at a high effort level for the duration of the race. It doesn't matter what your aerobic capacity is if your muscles do not have the strength and stamina to go the distance. It doesn't matter what strength and stamina you have if you don't have the speed to turn it into a fast race pace. With any piece of the running puzzle missing, you are not a complete racer and you will not perform up to your highest potential.

So how do you get all the components needed? By mixing the right amounts of both quality and quantity at the right times. This comes back to periodization, which I've already discussed in another article, but in terms of this article it means finding the right balance of quality and quantity. In this way, quality and quantity are not opposing forces. As a matter of fact, if you don't view them as opposing forces, you can bring them together to work as a pair of complimentary forces pushing you to whole new levels of running performance.

The obvious question that comes up next is how to find the right balance of these two powerful forces. Well, if you have been reading popular magazines and websites over the past decade, the first step is to forget everything you have read. Go back to the drawing board and re-learn the basics of training for competitive distance running. The first rule of distance running is that you have to be able to cover a distance or even farther comfortably before you can race the distance. This means base training. Run a lot of miles and become real comfortable with running the distance and longer. This is the basis for everything that comes later and this is where quantity is the focus. After at least a few months of this, you should be comfortable covering your race distance, farther if your goal race is on the shorter end of the spectrum (half marathon or shorter) and maybe a little shorter for the real long races (marathon or longer), and your base should be pretty well established. At this point, you can maintain your base while establishing the speed needed to race the distance. This is where quality becomes the driving factor in your training plan. You are prepared to cover the distance, you can now maintain that by maintaining at least some of your quantity and now focus on building the quality to push yourself to speeds that you had never been capable of reaching before. The final result is being able to run a fast pace thanks to the quality and being able to maintain that fast pace all the way through your race without hitting the wall thanks to the quantity. Obviously, this is simplifying a well thought out training plan quite a bit but it points out how both quantity and quality are needed in order to reach optimal performance.

A lot of people will tell you that doing high volume will detract from your speed workouts, which will hurt your race performances. Don't buy into this. It may be the case if you're doing more than your body can handle, likely in terms of running too fast but possibly in terms of running too far, on your recovery days. However, I can tell you from experience and I could find many others who could share similar experiences that my best workouts came during my highest volume periods of training. During 2002, my highest volume period of training ever at that time, I was doing workouts that were blowing my mind. I was running repeats at 10-20 seconds per mile faster than I had ever previously been capable of doing on lower volume training. Why? Because, instead of beating my head against the wall with more and more intensity, I took a step back, found my balance, and gained an incredible amount of fitness by building my base to a level I had never been at before. My high quantity helped fuel the very high quality training I did when the time was right and the combination of the two led to my reaching the highest level of fitness I had ever experienced. If I had excluded either the very high quantity or the very high quality I had been doing, I never would have reached the level of fitness I did through a balance of both powerful forces.

In the end, if you are looking to perform at your best, it's not about one or the other. You can't ignore or even short one aspect of training if you want to be the best you can be. You need to hone the powers of all aspects of training and bring them together for ultimate fitness. That means you have to go through periods of high volume training, whatever that means for yourself as an individual, as well as periods of lower volume but higher intensity training. If you leave any of the aspects out or even if you shortchange any of these aspects, you will not perform up to your capabilities.

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Ulrich (Guest)

You make a lot of good points and I would agree with most of your article. In the end every runner has to evaluate his strength and weaknesses and experiment with what kind of training will help to reach the next level of fitness. For myself just running a lot of volume caused some injuries and I was forced to change my training to what my body could absorb in terms of volume. For myself running 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m repeats uphill with long walk breaks has enriched my training and made my body more resilient to injury. I started out with an LSD mentality because of reading Lydiard and Van Aaken but my performance gains with speed work have been so huge that I could not ignore the validity of faster training. I also noticed that my body recovers much faster from speed work than from long slow efforts so that I can now train 5 or 6 times a week. Speed work will also reveal faults in running mechanics very quickly that then can be corrected. Gordon Pirie in his free online book “Running fast and injury free” makes some compelling arguments against “periodization”.

He writes “Another popular aspect of training which I think is very dangerous is that known as “periodization” - that is, breaking down the training year into various “phases”, each of which is divorced from the others. Thus, the beginning of the year may be devoted to a slow distance “build-up”, the second portion of the year devoted to hill training, a third part devoted to interval work and then speed training, and finally (though most of these runners never get this far) a racing season undertaken. The difficulty with training in this manner is that you go along quite well with one aspect of training (e.g. long distance running), and then suddenly, on a certain day, “Bang!”. You start hill-bounding, or speed-training, or something new, and the body simply is not ready for the change, and invariably, year in and year out, you are more often than not injured. The body should be trained in all aspects of running, all of the time. Only the emphasis should change as you progress through the year; no aspect of training should be entirely given up for any significant length of time. The balance between different types of training (distance running, intervals, hill running and speed training) should be adjusted as the year progresses.”

Of course I still make a long run every weekend but currently Gerschler interval work is my focus. However in the future this may change completely. I think this is one of the biggest faults is that runners are too dogmatic in their training approach instead of experimenting and adjusting training schedules to what is needed to progress and to do it in a fun way. Lets not forget that Emil Zatopek won 3 gold medals 5000m, 10000m and Marathon at the Olympic games in Helsinki 1952 with training 200m and 400m intervals only. Of course this was also high volume at the same time because running 20x200m + 40x400m + 20x200m plus the jogging breaks in between adds up to a lot of running.

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Ulrich, very interesting thoughts.

I do agree with you that we all need to find our appropriate balance. I personally do very well with volume and too much speed work burns me out. You're obviously the opposite. However, I still need some speed and you need some distance if we want to maximize our abilities.

I also agree with you about periodization. I originally wrote this original piece back in 2000 or 2001 if I recall correctly. I still believe in the general concepts but I'm in a different place on the details these days. I still believe in periodization but I believe in the Pirie style of periodization you mention, where all components of training are touched on at all times but different ones are given different emphasis at different times.

The Zatopek training is interesting and, in some ways, isn't that different from what some Kenyans do now, where they run a high volume of shorter repeats. The thing is, if a Kenyan is running 40x400 with a 200 "float" (faster than most Americans would think of as a recovery) that's more of a long tempo run than what most of us would think of as a workout of 400 repeats.

We all are constantly learning (or so I hope). We all are also constantly changing. Our bodies are changing as we age, our life circumstances are changing, our goals are changing. As all of these things are going on, our training needs are also changing.

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