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Quality vs. Quantity

While I can imagine how the title alone will lead people to make assumptions about the nature of this discussion, as well as the conclusions that may be reached, the intent is to view this ‘debate’ in a different light.

I despise gross oversimplifications. I also despise unneeded complexity.

As such, the following will be an examination of the most enduring conflict in coaching, regardless of the sport. The intent is to reflect the idea that any explanation should be as simple as necessary, yet no simpler.

Further, I’d like to provide a framework that can actually be acted upon that allows for better decision making on a daily basis.

One of the most contentious debates in the swimming world is that of ‘quantity vs. quality’. Coaches either believe that the quality (how fast) of training is what is most important, or they believe that the quantity (how much) of training is what is most important.

I’ve often been asked, by fellow coaches and individuals interested in joining the teams I coached with, whether I am a ‘quality or quantity coach’. I imagine most other coaches have had the same experience.

The question misses the point. At no point, is it ever a requirement to choose between these approaches. At the same time, both is not a particularly useful answer, as it feels like quite a cop-out to everyone involved.

I’d like to explain why both really is the appropriate answer, yet do so in a way that not only makes sense, but is actually useful in informing coaches as to how to make effective training decisions.

By taking a relatively complex topic and distilling it into simple premises, we can appreciate of quality and quantity are complementary aspects of the same phenomenon.

Starting Out

Below are two simple, basic FACTS-

There is a minimum amount of intensity that is required for certain changes to take place.

There is a minimum number of repetitions that must take place for changes to take place.

These are not opinions. They are reality, and they greatly inform the debate of whether quality or quantity is more important. Let’s explore what these facts imply

There is a minimum amount of intensity that is required for certain changes to take place.

Let’s start with an example outside of the context of swimming. If you want to challenge Usain Bolt’s world record for the 100m, you’ll need to become a faster sprinter. Will you be able to do so with a program of walking?

Of course not.


While running 100m as fast as possible and walking are both the same activity (terrestrial locomotion), the intensity of walking is simply insufficient to cause changes in maximal speed. To improve maximal running speed, there is a certain intensity which MUST be achieved. Failure to achieve this intensity, REGARDLESS of the volume, will prevent any improvements in performance.

Let’s take another example and assume one’s goal is to increase the maximum weight they can use during a back squat. Every time you get out of a chair with while holding your empty dinner plate, you’re performing a loaded squat. If getting up from the dinner table going to improve your maximal squat? It will not. While both movements are squats, the difference is that a certain minimum intensity is required to create the desired change, which getting out of a chair does not meet.

Back to the swimming context, let’s say we want to improve maximal speed. To do so, swimmers will need to train at relatively high speed While I’m not sure exactly how fast swimmers will need to go in training relative to their current maximum, it will need to be relatively high. Slow swimming is not going to make an impact. If it did make a difference, every lap swimmer in the world would be FAST. They’re not, because they go too slow.

Conceptually, regardless of the desired goal, a minimum level of intensity is going to be required to stimulate change. The required intensity WILL change depending on the context, which will be discussed later. However, if the minimum required intensity is not achieved, NO amount of volume will ever be sufficient to promote improvement.

There is a certain number of repetitions that must take place for changes to take place.

While we’ve explored how a minimum intensity threshold must be exceeded to create change, it’s important to appreciate that this is not the only threshold that must be crossed. Volume still matters. Let’s use some examples to illustrate the concept.

Let’s take Johnny, who is just getting back to a regular exercise program. Currently, it takes him 21 minutes to walk a mile, and he wants to bust through the big 20 minute barrier. Because the intensity of this activity is quite low, the minimum intensity required to promote change is also quite low. ANY walking is going to improve his walking time, so any time Johnny steps outside, he’s ‘training’.

Now let’s assume Johnny’s training plan consists of walking for 3 minutes, 3 times per week. My suspicion is that this plan does NOT meet the minimum volume required for him to accomplish his goals. It is simply not enough work, even though it DOES meet the minimum intensity requirement. Now if Johnny decided to walk for 60 minutes per day at ANY speed, I’m pretty confident that he would accomplish his desired goal, and he could probably do less than 60 minutes. If he walked faster, he could do even less volume, an idea that will be addressed later.

Even when the required intensity is achieved, a certain amount of work must be performed at that intensity to create change.

Going back to our maximal sprinting example in the pool, the number of repetitions performed matters to create change. Let’s say swimmers are performing short sprints at very high speed, a speed equivalent to what they’d achieve in a 50m race. This speed should be sufficient to improve maximal velocity.

If we perform 2x10 seconds sprints once per week, I’m not sure that is going to be enough practice to ensure progress, particularly for an advanced swimmer. At the same time, it MIGHT be enough for a very novice swimmer. Regardless of how intense the activity is, there is a certain amount of work that needs to be done.

While this may seem obvious, it’s often unappreciated or forgotten in the context of what’s required for change. Sufficient volume is critical once a certain intensity threshold is met.

Provided you meet the minimum thresholds for intensity AND volume, you can substitute one for the other and swimmers will still make progress toward their goals.

This was concept was alluded to earlier. If you’ve met the minimum thresholds for volume and intensity for your desired adaptation, options start to emerge. This is where the debate begins. Provided the minimums are met, there is some flexibility in terms of emphasizing either volume or intensity.

If you are operating at the minimum intensity level, you will need more volume relative to a training approach that uses slightly more intensity. The faster you swim, while still allowing for the minimum volume to be met, the less work you have to do. Conversely, if you are operating at the minimum volume level, swimmers will need to swim a lot faster to get the same benefits. As you do more work, less intensity is required.

Both approaches have value. Some swimmers tend to respond a little better to intensity and some respond a little better to volume. In other situations, you don’t necessarily have a choice, and it’s important to know how to be optimally effective. For instance, limited pool time may require a preference given towards intensity. In other cases, swimmers may find it more psychologically tolerable to swim with less intensity after a really hard block of training.

As, that was a little abstract, let’s try to make it more concrete with some specific examples-

  • Let’s take a distance swimmer seeking to continue to develop their aerobic endurance. Let’s say that swimming at 65* seconds per 100m is the MINIMUM speed that they must swim at to elicit further aerobic adaptations. Let’s also assume that to create the desired effect, a training set of about 4000m* does the job. If this swimmer decides to swim at 62* seconds per 100m, they may be able to perform sets of 2500m* and still get the same benefit. This is possible because intensity is being substituted for volume, while the minimums are still being met for both. This is where coaches have flexibility.

  • Let’s now look at a sprinter looking to improve race specific endurance, and approximately 400m* of work is required to make an impact. You’ve been training for 400m at a speed of 50* seconds per 100 (while training over shorter distances than 100m), which is definitely faster than race pace. However, you’d like to reduce the intensity a bit to allow for better technique. You could slow the speed to 54* seconds per 100, which is now slightly slower than race speed, and then increase the total volume to 800m*. This increase in volume can compensate for the decrease in intensity, which remains race relevant.

*These numbers are completely made up, I have NO idea if they represent reality in any way. It is simply to illustrate the concept. Importantly, you will NEVER know exactly what is required. The idea is to understand the role of intensity and volume, as well as how they interact with each other.

As you can see, there is flexibility in how much and how fast you swim while targeting certain elements of training. However, this flexibility only emerges provided that certain minimum intensities and volumes are met. Provided they are, coaches do have choices in terms of how they work to improve performance.

However, if those minimums are not met, these options disappear, as we’ll explore next.

If the minimum intensity or the minimum volume thresholds are NOT met, continually substituting one for the other will have NO effect on improving performance.

This is where coaches can get into trouble. If you choose to emphasize volume and intensity, you MUST ensure that the minimum thresholds are met for both attributes. If you don’t, it is impossible to compensate with more intensity or more volume.

Some examples-

  • It doesn’t matter how many 50s a sprinter swims at an aerobic development pace, it’s not going to improve their speed over 50m. Whether they do 20 or 20,000, the result is the same. The speed is simply too slow to improve top speed. There must be more intensity in the program.

  • If you’re only swimming 1,500 meters per day, it is probably insufficient volume to successfully train for the 1,500m. It doesn’t really matter how fast you’re going. Even if it’s all really fast, there is not enough volume to fully develop the systems required to optimize performance over 1500m.

In these specific examples, it is not to say that aerobic development work is a waste of time for a sprinter, or that it’s pointless to have 1,500-meter workouts for a distance swimmer. The point is that these practices, without sufficient intensity or volume elsewhere in a training cycle, will not lead to the desired improvement.

If the minimums are not met for volume and intensity, we cannot compensate with maximums of the opposing trait.

Determining Minimum Thresholds

I can appreciate that all of the above is pretty abstract. It doesn’t necessarily tell coaches what to DO. Unfortunately, we’re rarely going to have concrete answers; the best we can hope for is concepts that can help us navigate the uncertainty we face on a daily basis.

To make the above more practical, we need to examine ways of determining what these minimum thresholds might be for specific situations. We can do so by examining the factors that tend to impact these minimum thresholds. Even still, these are GENERAL considerations, not hard and fast rules.

Training age. As swimmers are exposed to more training, they will need to train faster and longer to continue to improve. Swimmers new to the sport will require very little intensity and volume to improve. As they continue to train, these requirements will continue to grow. It’s NOT necessarily how old the swimmer is; it’s more about how much training they have done up until this point. It’s important to note that the physical training performed while participating in other sports does ‘count’ to some extent.

Speed of the swimmer. Faster swimmers, those that are competing at higher levels, tend to require higher intensities and/or volumes. When considering an elite sprinter, it may seem that they require LESS work. While this may be true from a volume standpoint, they more than make up for that lack of volume with their very high intensity. They go FAST. Lesser swimmers can’t get away with the reduced volume because they can’t achieve the same intensities. The minimum intensity is quite high for elite sprinters, and the program needs to be geared towards making this happen.

At the other end of the spectrum, distance swimmers will tend to need a greater combination of volume and intensity. Their faster work will need to be faster and faster, and their endurance work will tend to need to be longer and longer. These processes can be separate in that there is less of the faster work, but it’s faster, while the longer work may not be that much faster, but there is more of it.

Desired adaptations. What you’re trying to accomplish affects what you need to do to create the changes you desire. If you want to develop maximal speed, the intensity threshold is going to be relatively high, while the volume threshold is going to be relatively low. In contrast, if you are looking to develop very basic aerobic endurance, the volume threshold is going to be relatively high while the intensity threshold is going to be relatively low. Now think of it as a spectrum, with those two qualities operating at opposite ends. As you move from aerobic endurance to maximal speed, the required intensity will rise, while the necessary volume will fall. The opposite is true when moving in the opposite direction.

Individual differences. Here is where it can be frustrating. Even when all of the above is consistent, there can be significant differences between individuals. The solution? Be conservative, pay attention to what is happening, and then adjust accordingly. There is no simple solution beyond coaching. While you may observe patterns over time based upon personality, primary events, etc, be aware that these are still just patterns, and individual differences will still emerge.

All of the above is relatively intuitive, yet they provide solid guidelines for how to go about managing appropriate intensities and volumes. While we will probably never have access to concrete answers, a solid framework can help us navigate our decisions.

Start with less, then add intensity and volume as necessary.

Making Decisions

The debate between ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ misses the point. BOTH are required for any activity. Certain minimum thresholds of both intensity and volume are required for any performance improvement. If both of these requirements aren’t met, change won’t happen. If there isn’t enough intensity, all of the volume in the world won’t be sufficient to compensate for a lack of intensity. If there isn’t enough volume, all of the intensity of the world, won’t compensate for that lack of volume.

Further, these thresholds are not concrete. They change dependent on what adaptations one is trying to create, as well as on the individual that is performing the training. You can’t really volume your way to a create 50 freestyle, nor can you really rely solely on intensity to compete in open water. Further, these thresholds tend to rise as swimmers continue to improve.

It is only when the thresholds for BOTH intensity and volume are met that debate can begin as to whether volume or intensity should be emphasized. This is where flexibility is possible based upon personal experiences and preferences. Yet there are only so many options that satisfy the necessary requirements for both volume and intensity.

Volume AND intensity matter. They are both required to move that performance process forward. With an appreciation of this dynamic, we can design training plans and training sessions that are focused on results rather than adhering to dogma.


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