Volume, Frequency and Intensity- The What and Why?

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As we head into spring and summer, more people are getting out of their winter hibernations and returning to exercise. If you have fallen out of your exercise routines, or are starting new ones, this blog is for you!
Why is Volume, Frequency and Intensity so important? Because getting the mix wrong could cause a nasty injury, or at a mimimum cause you to burn out or experience fatigue… your more likely to stop exercising again and lose your momentum and consistency, which are so important for making gains.

You also want to be able to enjoy your training, whatever it may be, and feel like you’re moving towards your goals…. improve your performance. The VFI mix is quite important for this.

VFI is essentially about load management…. gradually building up the exercise and resistance loads that your body experiences, and allowing it to adapt, gain fitness, strength and conditioning over time without having the setbacks of injury, pain or fatigue.

So let’s break these fundamentals down and look at what may be the optimal mix for best performance and injury prevention. We’ll focus our discussions on running, but some of these principles may be transferable to other sports, or even just returning to the gym.

The ideal mix will be dependant on certain variables:

  1. Your training goals, ie are you training for a specific distance event, or just beginning running or an exercise program, or building a base of fitness for future events.
  2. How conditioned you are as a runner or individual, ie beginner, intermediate or advanced.
  3. The time available to you for training.
  4. Your level of motivation!


This refers to the total amount of kilometers/miles you run, generally expressed on a weekly basis, but can also be averaged over a month. It can also signify volume of activity, such as total hours spent in personal training, Pilates or gym. It can also measure amount of weight lifted over a set period, eg a week. With a running example, as a beginner, your running volume may be 15-20km/week, as an intermediate it may be 30-40km/week and if you are more advanced it may be 50-60km/week or more.

As a general rule, most people believe that you would benefit from not increasing your weekly volume by more than 10%/week to reduce injury risk. However there is little evidence to support this. In the running literature, increases in volume by> 30% are associated with higher injury risks, but less than 30% there was no increased risk. However the 10% rule is a nice conservative measure.
For gym goers, this rule can apply to resistance increases for each exercise. If you do three sets of an exercise, you can choose to conservatively only increase your maximum set by 10% (if you pyramid your sets), or increase each set by 10%, which is more aggressive.
If you are only increasing your long run distance, it is also prudent to use this rule. It is much safer to increase your running or training hours slowly over time, and leveling out every 4 weeks to allow your body to adjust to increasing demand. Use your body as guide to further increases, ie be aware of niggles that don’t settle as a sign that your body is reaching its adjustment limits.


Frequency relates to how often you train or run, and is usually expressed per week. Your particular frequency will relate to the variables mentioned at the start of this article. If you would like to maintain your running at a particular level, it is generally accepted that running 2-3x/week would enable you to do this. To improve your running, frequency of 3-5x/weekly is optimal, but it is best to only increase you frequency by one extra run a week, and this is best maintained for about 6 weeks before increasing frequency again. This allows your body time to adjust to increasing training load.
If you’re starting back at gym, a good starting point would be 2 x weekly for 2-3 weeks before adding an extra day. This is a good rule for PT classes or Pilates, or sports like swimming or cycle classes.

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This is all about how hard a training session is, and can be measured in several ways. From a running perspective, there are 2 main ways it can be calculated.

  1. Rating of Perceived Exertion (Borg Scale)

This a universally accepted scale of how intense a person may be exercising. It is completely subjective, and based on a person’s perception of their own effort, using indicators such as fatigue, breathing rate, perspiration and how long they think they can sustain an effort. It has been tested to correlate closely with actual heart rate.

The scale is as follows:

6 No exertion at all
7 Extremely light
9 Very light – (easy walking slowly at a comfortable pace)
11 Light
13 Somewhat hard (It is quite an effort; you feel tired but can continue)
15 Hard (heavy)
17 Very hard (very strenuous, and you are very fatigued)
19 Extremely hard (You can not continue for long at this pace)
20 Maximal exertion

On this scale, an easy long run would be around 11-12, a tempo run(maintaining a steady moderate pace) would be 13-14, and an interval/speed session would be 15-19. This would also depend on the length of the session, with shorter sessions being able to be done at a higher intensity. A beginner-intermediate runner would not perform more than 1 of these per week. If you are relying on this method of rating, you need to be quite in tune with your body.

  1. Heart Rate

This is a more reliable and accurate way of measuring intensity and is based on the following formula:

HRmax= 220 – age

Thus, if you are 40, your HRmax is approx 180. Then, with the aid of a HR monitor, such as a GPS watch, you can observe how hard you are training. It is generally considered that if you are exercising at 70-85% of HRmax you are in the aerobic zone(11-14 RPE scale) where most of your training would be. Over 85%, you are likely to be in the anaerobic zone, where you produce lactic acid as a byproduct of energy production. This intensity cannot be sustained for that long and is best reserved for interval sessions of shorter duration.

For classes and gym work, you can still use the HR rule to calculate intensity, but if your just lifting weights you may be better to use volume of weight lifted or sessions/week as a guide.
If you’re just starting out, one high intensity session/week may be enough. Increase this slowly depending on your goals.

Young people jogging and exercising in nature

Some General Principles

  1. Don’t increase more than one variable at a time. that is, if your adding to your frequency of training, don’t increase your intensity or session volume at the same time.
  2. Make sure you do a good cool down and warm up for each session, which can include some active warm up and some easy running/cycling or brisk walk as a cool down.
  3. Your warm up and cool down should be for at least 5-10min, and longer for more intense or longer duration training sessions.
  4. Recovery between sessions is important. There is a lot that can be written here, but in general, recovery is where you allow your body to recoup and restore its balance. It can consist of stretching, foam rolling, massage, yoga, easy running, a brisk walk, or just resting. Do this at least once weekly, and increase when your training variables increase.
  5. Good sleep is also important, and hours banked before midnight have been generally believed to improve general health and reduce chronic disease risk.
  6. If you’re training frequently, you will need a good amount of carbohydrates in your diet, as well as protein to develop muscle and help tissue repair.

    Happy training!
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