Training Principle #1: Overload and Recovery

‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’ is an aphorism from the German philosopher Nietzsche that is fundamentally applicable to training to become a better runner. What Nietzsche learned through observation about human nature, that scientists have confirmed to be true for all living organisms down to the cellular level, is that when an organism is stressed to a degree that is less than death and then recovers from that stress, the organism is more resilient in the face of future stresses. In this article, Team RunRun coach and exercise scientist Maxx Antush, discusses Training Principle #1: Overload and Recovery.

What is Overload and Recovery?

Overload Principle, Supercompensation Theory, Stress Reaction, and General Adaptation Syndrome are a few of the common names that coaches and scientists will use for the overload and recover principle. In order to increase the size, strength or endurance of muscles, or the functional capacity of other physiological systems, they must be stressed (in both intensity and duration) at levels greater than those normally encountered. Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who discovered the General Adaptation Syndrome, found that the body goes through the same process to adapt to a stimulus, regardless of whether it is training, an environmental stressor, or a psychological stressor. The General Adaptation Syndrome occurs in three stages:

  1. Alarm stage is a lowering of resistance to the stress.
  2. Resistance stage consists of the body adapting to the stressor and an increase of resistance to the stress.
  3. Exhaustion stage occurs if the stress is continually applied, which will considerably lower the resistance to the stress, and the body can’t respond effectively to the stress.

The overload and recover principle can be summarized into the equation made popular by coach and exercise physiologist Steve Magness, “Stress + Rest = Growth” (or Adaptation). It is important for runners to understand this equation and the three stages of the General Adaptation Syndrome because it highlights the often overlooked, but absolutely essential, component necessary for successful adaption: RECOVERY! While it is true that no improvement in ability or capacity is achievable without stressing the system, overloading a system without allowing for recovery will result in exhaustion and dysfunction rather than adaptation and improvement. 

bend running coach
Coach Misha Knea crushing it on the trails

How is the Overload and Recover Principle Applied for Endurance Athletes?

If you pay attention to your body while going for a run, you will get a sense of the many different structures and systems that are undergoing a response to the stress being applied. Your heart rate will increase, your respiratory rate will increase, and you might have some discomfort in your leg muscles. If you take your blood pressure, that will be increasing as well, and your body will have diverted blood flow from some areas of the body to other areas in order to meet the demands necessary for the task you undertook. All of these factors play a role in your performance as an endurance athlete and should be considered in the application of the overload and recover principle. 

Overload of a stress can be applied to training with three different factors: intensity, duration, and frequency. Intensity would be making the body work harder by increasing the pace or output, duration would be increasing the length of time that the body is being asked to perform a training task, frequency would be increasing the number of times that the training stimulus is applied. The manipulation of these variables will be discussed at length in a future training principle article on progression; however, these are the general tools that a coach uses to prescribe overload training. It should be noted that the General Adaptation Syndrome is applicable for environmental and psychological stress, so those need to be considered when determining the degree of overload that is being applied through run specific training.

Recovery from a stress is the essential component of the overload and recover principle that is taking place during the time outside of the overloading stress application. Because there are a variety of ways that we deplete the body when we are training, there are many different aspects to recovery that we need to utilize. The three most important aspects of recovery that an endurance athlete should focus on are sleep, nutrition, and hydration. Beyond those essentials, other modalities that can contribute to recovery include, but are not limited to, massage, stretching, cold therapy, and compression. 

Summary and Conclusion

The process through which we improve as athletes and humans can be simplified to the equation Stress + Rest = Adaptation. The overloading stimulus has to be big enough to overstress the system in order to elicit an adaptation and the degree of recovery must be proportional to the amount of stress applied for the desired adaptation to occur. The overload and recover principle applies not only to individual training sessions but also entire periods of training. In the words of coach and exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Daniels, “Regardless of what running event you decide to engage in, it is worthwhile learning a little about how the human body reacts to various types of physical stress, and believe me it does react.”

Maxx Antush is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Maxx, check out his coaching page.