Training Smart: Understanding Frequency, Duration, and Intensity

If you were going to start running to improve your fitness or even train for a race, how would you structure your training? What factors would you consider? While these may seem like daunting questions at first, training to see fitness improvements in running (and in most endurance sports for that matter) boils down to managing three training variables which include: frequency, duration, and intensity. 

No matter if you are a professional runner training to win the New York City Marathon or if you are simply running to improve your fitness, the necessary training is based on the same three variables. By appropriately manipulating and monitoring frequency, duration, and intensity, we are able to avoid injury and achieve improved fitness and/or performance. 

Provided below is a brief explanation of each as well as some tips on how you can use these variables to train smart!


Frequency, or how often you train, is important from both a workout and recovery standpoint. While training more allows us to get closer and closer to our fitness potential, it must be balanced with time spent recovering so that the benefits of training can be realized. How often we train must also fit in with our everyday lives so that we are not compromising the most important factor of recovery: sleep!

For this reason, time available for training is a scarce resource for most people. Often, careers, families, social lives, and other personal responsibilities limit the number of training sessions we can complete every week, thus, making each training session even more valuable. For example, most recreational runners are only able to squeeze in 3-4 runs per week, whereas elite and/or pro runners can fit in closer to 10-12 runs per week!

For beginners, training frequency is more important than both duration and intensity. Also, there is no need to train as often or as intensely as an elite runner. In fact, this would be more detrimental to performance than helpful. By simply establishing a consistent training routine of 3-4 workouts each week, with limited focus on duration or intensity, the results can be astonishing. 

With less time available for training, this makes every session more important. In fact, this is a big reason why many people hire coaches. By allowing the coach to take care of the planning and monitoring required to ensure that the athlete is using their limited time wisely, they can instead focus on their training as well as their everyday lives.


Duration is a measurement of how long your training session is based on time and/or distance. When combined with intensity, the balance between the two in a given training session will provide training stress. For example, two workouts of different lengths could provide the same level of training stress but in different ways – A longer workout at a lower intensity aims to improve endurance whereas a shorter, yet more intense workout functions to improve efficiency, speed and power.

Regardless of the sport – running, cycling, etc. – our bodies respond to the amount of time spent at various intensities. Not to distance. Thus, if you are following a running program based on mileage it’s important to recognize and accommodate for different abilities. For example, a runner at an elite level will complete an extra two miles tacked onto their weekly long run much faster than a beginner, creating a larger training stress for the beginner than the elite runner. 


While both frequency and duration are important elements, it’s the combination of frequency, duration, and intensity that allows us to achieve fitness levels closest to our athletic potential. Thus, monitoring and manipulating workout intensity is most important for more experienced runners. 

Similar to frequency and duration, intensity must be measured in order for it to be applied correctly. However, intensity is unique because there is no single best method of measurement. While most programs rely on pace, one could also use heart rate, rate of perceived exertion, or even power. That said, it is important to realize that each method has limitations that must be taken into consideration.

Hopefully the information provided above helps explain how frequency, duration, and intensity influence your fitness and thus your training decisions. Although training for runners at all levels is based on these three variables, the appropriate blend differs from athlete to athlete. Two important factors that help determine this include the runner’s experience as well as their response to training stress. 

A great way to start monitoring your frequency, duration, and intensity in your own training is to simply keep a journal or log of your workouts. After a few weeks, look back and see how you incorporated these variables. Think about how you did during this time and what blend of frequency, duration, and intensity you might need to accomplish your goals. Then, make a plan and get after it!

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