Progressive Overload; Straw by straw

When I told my teenage daughter I was writing about progressive overload, her reply was not suitable for a family audience. She had been subjected to this as a promising young swimmer with an elite squad. Under this guise, swimmers were constantly pushed to their limit, there was no let up. Ninety nine percent of the swimmers fell by the wayside, even those who swam at national level. But every now and again, one swimmer would win a national title. This justified the system for the squad.

I first used my own version of progressive overload in the early seventies, when I was cycling. I did not know what it was called, it just seemed to make sense to me. I would over-train for several weeks, steadily building my mileage with each week. I would then cut the mileage down, a week or so before an event in which I wanted to do well. After years of adjusting, I eventually found the right balance for me of overload and recovery time. When I got it right, it was sweet, very sweet. But it was very easy to get it wrong.

I have begun playing with progressive overload in running, on a small scale. I train for several days, then ease off, and see how I feel on the next run. A typical overload would be three or four days of ten miles, then a couple of fifteen mile days. A day or two of rest, then a run to see how I feel. This worked reasonably well, so I moved to overload periods of three weeks followed by an easier week. Again, this seems to work for me. I will continue to experiment as my running develops.

It is important that you choose the distance and period for yourself, err on the side of caution at first, then build up.

You will find similar ideas to this across the web, it is not revolutionary. But I think it is vital that you adapt any plan to suit yourself. All you need to start is a target daily distance, which you run for say, five days. The distance needs to be challenging, but not overly so. A day or two of rest, then you should feel some benefit. Go and enjoy an easier run, or your race. Gradually scale this up, either by daily distance, or by the number of days you run before your break. I found that by overloading quite heavily, for several weeks, I could get good results. I was having days when I felt I could do anything.

You need to push yourself, and not rest until you really need it. If you do not push hard enough, you will gain little. But beware; push too hard for too long, and you will lose a lot.

The obvious danger is over-training, which will lead to fatigue and demotivation. You will still feel tired after your rest period, your legs will feel heavy and you will be lacking interest in running. So err on the side of caution, go “over” by small measures at first, and learn what your limits are. I ruined several seasons of cycle racing by working too hard for too long. By the time I was recovering, the season had ended.

So progressive overload is not without its dangers, but handled carefully, it may work for you. You need to get as close as possible to the edge, without falling over. The more often you achieve this, the more you will improve. Look out for warning signs of over-working, such as tiredness even after rest.

Your body will only change if you make it change. It will resist, your mind will try to talk you out of it. Make sure you are the master, and work yourself to the brink, then rest. This is where your important race would fit in. Then another cycle. Repeat the cycles over and again, choosing where to insert your races, or “good days”.

Rather than lose fitness during the months where you may have no races, you can still practise progressive overload, but at a modest level. It just means you do not level out at a continuous steady plod pace.

Design your overload periods to be challenging but achievable. Begin with overload periods of just a few days, then build up gradually. Increase the intensity of your days, and the number of days in your overload period, but only one change at a time. Monitor your performance and how you feel, and adjust your regime accordingly. Keeping loading the camel, but don’t break its back.


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