If you’ve ever read the classic running novel, Once a Runner, you’ve probably dreamed about ditching work and all responsibilities to rent a cabin in the woods to do nothing but run, sleep, eat, and focus solely on training as the main character did in the novel.
While retreating to a cabin in the woods isn’t a reality for many runners, we all have short periods of time when we can train more than usual — vacations, time away from work, or running retreats. If you’re lucky enough to have the chance to devote a week or two solely to training, you can take advantage of the opportunity by implementing a training concept called supercompensation.
Supercompensation training isn’t for beginners or the injury-prone. But if you have the time and you want to take your training to the next level, I’ll show you exactly how.
Supercompensation training is the act of dramatically increasing your training load for a short period of time and then compensating by going very easy to maximize recovery and absorption.
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How It Works
All training, at its core, is about the manipulation of stress upon the body. You apply a stress to the body, in the form of hard training, and then recover, which allows the body to adapt and get stronger. To improve consistently, you need to continually increase the amount of stress as the body adapts and returns to homeostasis.
The best way to accomplish this is to introduce small amounts of stress in regular intervals. This is exactly what happens during a normal training cycle. You run a moderately hard workout, recover and then repeat.
However, sometimes these consistent, repeated bouts of stress result in a plateau. The body is no longer adapting to the stimulus and therefore it’s not getting fitter. To combat this, you need to introduce a new or different type of stress, one that the body isn’t ready for.
That’s where supercompensation training comes in.
By increasing the training load dramatically, you introduce a new stimulus that the body must adapt to. In essence, it’s a shock to the system. Consequently, when you let the body fully recover, you’re able to make much greater gains and break through the plateau.
How To Structure Supercompensation Training
Before discussing how to add supercompensation training to your schedule, it is critical that you understand that this is not a shortcut or a training method for beginner runners.
First, the recovery cycle of the supercompensation period is the most critical component. This means you can’t simply train extra hard for one week and then return to normal training. You must schedule a recovery period equal in length and equal in reduced intensity or volume. Meaning, if you increase your mileage by 30 percent for one week, you need to decrease your training by 30 percent for one week following. This isn’t a shortcut to faster fitness, it’s simply a change to the training stimulus.
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Also, you should not attempt a supercompensation week if you have not been training consistently for at least two to three years. More importantly, you must be relatively injury-free. A big block of training will magnify any small injury you have.
How To Perform A Supercompensation Week
A supercompensation week should primarily be an increase in mileage, not an increase in workout intensity (although workout volume is fine). Why volume versus intensity?
First, workout paces are assigned to elicit a specific physiological response. Running a threshold run faster does not make it more effective. In fact, it probably makes it less beneficial.
Second, you’re going to be very tired during this week due to your mileage increase. As such, hitting specific splits and running faster is going to be difficult. This is a great time for threshold runs on an unfamiliar course, where you don’t get a bunch of splits. This is not the time to try and do the best track workout of your life or try to run your best ever tempo on your favorite loop. You’ll only leave discouraged and disheartened.
The percentage of volume increase is going to depend largely on your training history and background. However, I generally use an increase of 30 to 40 percent of weekly mileage. So, if you’re comfortable at 70 miles per week, you would increase your volume to anywhere between 90 and 100 miles per week.
The supercompensation period can last for 5-10 days. Running shorter won’t be enough of a stimulus and longer than 10 days will likely result in overtraining.
After your increased training period, schedule a recovery cycle equal in length to your hard training section. Reduce the volume by the same percentage you increased it. This is the most important part of the supercompensation theory. Do not skimp on the recovery.
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When Is The Ideal Time?
A supercompensation week should occur late in your base training phase. You should not try to do this while you’re still building mileage or increasing intensity. You want to be in a normal, established rhythm of training. Otherwise, you’ll likely get injured.
You also do not want to do a supercompensation week during your race specific segment — the final 6-8 weeks before your race. During this time, you need your workouts to be on pace and specifically targeted to the demands of the race.
Unless you have a very long training cycle, you shouldn’t have more than one or two supercompensation periods in your training. These are hard, plateau-busting weeks, and should be used sparingly.
Used wisely, a supercompensation week can be the key to your breakthrough performance and a way to test your limits. If you’re stuck at a plateau, give it a try and see the difference it can make in your fitness.