To take this from the abstract from the concrete, I’ll offer a real-life example. A 14-year-old with a modest background in sports takes up cross-country in the ninth grade. In his first season, he averages perhaps 25 miles per week and takes his 5K time from 21:00 to 19:30. Over the winter and spring his training is similar. Over the next three years, his summer training for cross-country increases steadily from about 35 miles a week before his sophomore year to about 50 to 55 before his senior year. He leaves high school with a fastest 5K of just under 16:00.
In college, he reaches a one-week high of 80 miles in his freshman year and averages close to 70 for extended periods of time. He improves at first, but is set back by a bout with iron deficiency, and by the time he is a junior, various distractions have rendered running competitively a chore and he elects midway through his junior year to not compete for the varsity team anymore.
After a couple of years of casual running he finds himself with renewed motivation. Preparing for his first marathon, he increases his mileage over a period of almost a year from 60 miles a week to close to 100. He does at least half of his training on grass. He performs respectably in the marathon with a 2:39 debut, and after upping his mileage to 120 a week over the next few months he promptly incurs a metatarsal stress fracture. Once this heals, he embarks on a quest to see how close to 2:20 he can get. He runs 2:33, then 2:30, then 2:26 over a four-year span. At 31, having endured as many setbacks as he has successes, he finds himself capable of consistent 110-mile weeks and runs 2:24. The following year, he averages over 100 miles a week with no injuries, but does not race especially well. His goal of running under 2:22 the next year, when his mileage is similarly high and his overall racing is satisfactory, goes unmet, but the year after that he, at 34, runs a slew of personal bests at other distances.
Few runners will ever reach these mileage totals, but the idea here is to illustrate how subtle year-to-year increases in volume can ultimately translate into the ability to reap benefits from training loads that would have crushed the same runner in his or her younger days. The resilience of connective tissue and the musculoskeletal system as a whole can’t be quantified, but unquestionably becomes greater over time with consistent training. Every runner has a different limit in terms of this (and every) sort of adaptation, but it is real. In theory a young man of 20 who has been running quite a bit for five years ought not to be as sore from back-to-back 14-milers as he would be fifteen years later. Yet speaking from my own experience, even as I approached my 40th birthday, I could easily handle training loads I could not have dreamed of accommodating two decades ago even though my speed had slipped.
The main lesson? Whatever volume you can do today may be a poor indicator of what you might be able to do in one, three, or ten years. This is largely age-dependent, of course; if you take up running in your forties, it’s unrealistic to expect that you will progress up the volume scale as prodigiously or for as long as someone who takes up running in his teens. But the general principle holds: Carefully and gradually boosting your training volume—and at the end of this series I’ll offer general strategies on how to best accomplish this—so as to bring it in line with your effective physiological limits virtually always yields both an “unusually” late lifetime peak and the ability to retain peak racing fitness for a greater-than-average number of years.
In Part 3 of this series, Kevin Beck will explore the role of body type, individual biomechanics and recoverability in the determination of training volume.
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