You've heard it said in relation to nearly any activity: quality over quantity. But have you tested it and seen the proof? Is it really true?
No. Yes. It depends.
Everyone is different. Our physiology, genes, background and experiences makeup a significant portion of our physical fitness limits today and tomorrow. As a result, generalizing things about fitness is never very accurate. However, with that caveat in mind, I’m going to go ahead and generalize and say based on my recent experiment, the answer is YES. Quality can be a direct substitute for quantity.
Now, dismissively stop reading this, let me put this before you; the racing I do lasts between 3-9 hours typically, and to race at ones absolute best, you need a TON of quantity. If you don't have the time to do quantity, endurance racing probably isn't the best idea. Sticking to races under 3 hours is advisable if you want to have any kind of success. But if you're like me though, 3 hours is a warmup and you may want to dig really deep during your racing. Being stubborn as I am with the type of racing I do then, I performed an (involuntary) experiment to see just how effective quality was in place of quantity.
This spring, during what I traditionally use as my biggest training months of the entire year, I barely rode my bike. Between renovating my house in preparation to sell it and moving out of state, riding and racing bikes simply wasn't a priority. So during my historically biggest build month, May, I rode 20 hours total. That typically consisted of 2 rides in a week, a 3.5 hour ride and a 1.5 hour ride. For some that may seem like a solid week of riding. But I feared it would be severely insufficient to prepare me for the endurance mountain bike racing I do during a typical season.
My rides had no structure really. I would get out on a whim, usually when a small window of opportunity appeared. Given that I wasn’t riding much, my legs felt constantly fresh, and since going fast and hard is pretty fun, I would usually just go out and hammer. On the trails, out on the road, up climbs, down hills, through the flats; everywhere. I noticed something immediately as I began doing these rides: I could ride very hard still, even though my mileage totals were way down. Even over 3.5 hours, I was still able to maintain my power and put down some solid efforts. My training tapered off majorly at the end of March and I skated my way through April and May on my two rides a week method, which was plenty of time to “lose my fitness.” I waited and waited for it to happen, but it never seemed to. I was riding just as hard as ever and wasn’t noticing any significant drops in my capabilities over a variety of distances. I was blown away.
June brought about a new life for me of sorts. I finished the move and no longer had any after work obligations. I immediately dove straight into a 3 week block of hard training in an attempt to fill in the gaps that I assumed had formed. My numbers seemed fine, but I started to notice that I was missing endurance and repeatability. If I rode over that 3.5 hour line, my power dropped significantly. And riding two hard days back to back was tough as my legs simply weren’t sharp on their recovery. There was definitely work to be done.
I hit the block hard and after 40 hours in three weeks, the legs were back. My power numbers showed I was in peak condition and at the same level of fitness that I had been during the same week last year. It worked. I registered for a 50 mile race for the final test, and the results there confirmed what the numbers showed: all systems go!
Most people don’t race for 3+ hours. And honestly, if my racing was shorter, I would be seriously reevaluating how I train going forward. Only putting in 2 workouts a week kept my fitness and threshold numbers plenty high and amazingly sharp. My experiment confirmed for me that with a little work, some suffering, and only two hard workouts a week, you can perform at a high level.
Quality over quantity, every time.