What is supercompensation in running? Is this the next thing to be superified—super storms, super strains, super moon… No, supercompensation training theory has been around for a long time and it could supply a big boost in your fitness if done correctly.
In short, supercompensation in running is when you increase your training load (also known as functional overreaching) by a unsustainable amount for a short period of time. Then you decrease it for a short period of time to allow your body to adapt. The adaptation is the supercompensation.
Runners can use supercompensation throughout a training cycle to accelerate fitness gains and/or to break through fitness plateaus. A great example of a common use of supercompensation in running is the marathon peak week followed by a marathon taper.
Related: How Do You Taper for a Marathon?
However, supercompensation in run training is not a shortcut and it does come with risks. It can be done incorrectly (known as functional overreaching), at the wrong time, or by the wrong person.
In this article, I’m going to explain:
- What is supercompensation and how does it work
- The benefits of supercompensation
- How long does supercompensation take
- Who should do supercompensation in training and who should not
- How to do supercompensation training
- Examples of supercompensation training, and
- Supercompensation training tips
So, let’s get going!
What does supercompensation mean?
Supercompensation is a theory in sports science that asserts if an athlete follows an increase in training load with a proper recovery time, their fitness and performance will increase past their baseline level.
Related: Why You Need to Take a Planned Running Break
There are 4 stages of supercompensation training:
- Training stage: the first stage of supercompensation is the training stage which applies a stimulus to the body. This is also known as functional overreaching.
- Recovery stage: This stage causes fatigue including muscle micro-tears, glycogen depletion, and dehydration.
- Supercompensation stage: This is when your body bounces back beyond its pretraining phase to get ready for the next training to come.
- Detraining stage: If you don’t use your new fitness level, it will erode and return to its pre-training stage.
How does supercompensation work?
Our bodies are smart and always want to maintain balance, also known as homeostasis. When we run, we stress the body, and this upsets the balance.
To keep things in equilibrium, your body adapts so that scales do not tip in the wrong direction. Your body in effect anticipates and gets ready for the next round of stressful events.
This results in fitness gains. Your muscles build back stronger; the heart and lungs become more efficient, and your body learns how to store more fuel.
It’s kind of like when you were in high school and showed up to class with a small dinky posterboard for your presentation on the Industrial Revolution and everyone else had three-dimensional dioramas and replicas.
Next time, you work your tail off to show the teacher the best presentation they’ve ever seen. In effect, you overcompensate or SUPERcompensate to be better prepared.
Related: 7 Tips to Recover Faster from Your Marathon
What are the benefits of supercompensation?
The benefits of supercompensation are fitness gains that you would not achieve if you gradually increased training in the form of a progressive overload or a training load that stays the same.
Research of physiological adaptations following a taper found the following fitness improvements:
- 5–6% improvements in competition performance
- Up to 20% increases in power, neuromuscular function, and strength.
- 10–25% increases in cross-sectional area of muscle tissue.
- 1–9% improvements in V̇o2
- Up to an 8% increase in running economy.
How long does it take supercompensation to work?
To achieve supercompensation, you should increase your training load for 5 to 10 days followed by a recovery period of decrease training load of 5 to 10 days.
The effects of the supercompensation stimulus will begin to present themselves in about three to five weeks.
Who should do supercompensation in training and who should not?
Supercompensation training is for the seasoned athlete. It is for someone who has a strong history of healthy running.
Related: 9 Steps to Return to Running After Injury
You should try supercompensation training if you:
- Haven’t been injured in more than a year
- Have at least 2 years of consistent running experience
- Are training for a race
- Have plateaued
- Are in a base phase of your training cycle or at least a month out from your goal race
You should not try supercompensation training if you are:
- new to running
- ill or already fatigued
- seeing steady fitness gains with current training
- running a lot of races
- not training for a race, and
- do not have experience in athletic training or do not have a coach
Related: Why Am I Not Getting Faster? 9 Potential Reasons
How do you use supercompensation in your training?
Applying supercompensation theory to your training requires care because you are adding a large dose of stress.
If done incorrectly either by dosage or timing, you are at risk of injury, overtraining syndrome, or a performance decline. In fact, studies have shown that attempts at supercompensation in which not enough recovery was used has led to a loss of fitness in lieu of a gain in fatigue.
Examples of Supercompensation Training:
Okay, so how do you actually spur supercompensation in your training? There are many variations.
Here are some supercompensation strategies:
- An increase in training volume. The most common way to trigger supercompensation in the body is to increase training volume by 20 to 30 percent for 5-10 days. Follow this increase by a decrease in your baseline mileage by 20 to 30 percent for 5 to 10 days. You can balance the volume and number of days for the increase and decrease. Then resume normal training.
- A decrease in recovery time. Another (less common) supercompensation strategy is to shorten the recovery time between your workouts which involve speedwork, tempo work, or long runs.For example, if you typically have low easy mileage after a day at the track, you can do a longer run instead. Then do another speed or threshold work the following day.
- An increase in training intensity duration. Runners can also add duration to their workouts for supercompensation. If your scheduled workout would typically have you do 4 one-mile repeats, you may try doing 5 one mile repeats or doing 4 by 2,000 meters with the same recovery.
- Double days. According to renowned performance coach Steve Magness, running twice in one day can result in supercompensation adaptations.
- To run doubles, do your first running workout in the morning. Later in the day or evening by at least six hours, aim to do a short run of about three to five miles at a recovery pace. Do this for 5 to 10 days followed by a reduction in mileage.
- Peak week. Common to marathon training, a peak week is when you have your biggest workouts including your longest run in the training cycle. This week is followed by the marathon taper. This peak week is typically done four to three weeks out from the marathon.
Related: How to Recover from Hitting the Wall in the Marathon
- Microscale supercompensation. The above strategies are supercompensation on the macroscale—that is over the course of about a week. You can also do microscale supercompensation in the form of monster workouts that elicit enough stress to spur additional physiological adaptations. Remember that supercompensation training and workouts should be scaled to meet your current fitness level, ability, and training period. For examples of supercompensation workouts, check out my co-coach Laura Norris’s article.
Related: How to Carbo Load for Your Marathon
6 Supercompensation Training Tips
As noted, trying to apply supercompensation to your training can go horribly wrong. It can make you less fit or even injured. Below are some tips to help you use this sport science theory in your training.
- Consult a running coach. No, this isn’t a marketing ploy for you to hire me as a coach. I just want to ensure you train to stay healthy! I advise against trying to trigger supercompensation on your own unless you are experienced in run coaching and/or exercise science.
- Have a solid base. Ensure your additional training load is done when you are solidly healthy and training. You should have a solid base of running under your belt and not be in a competition phase with races on the calendar (unless the race is part of the supercompensation week/plan). You should also ensure you are at least three weeks out from your goal race or race.
- Ensure you are healthy. Supercompensation training should be done when you are able to eat and sleep well and keep stress levels though. Life stress is also taxing to the body. This additional stimulus may overload your system in a nonfunctional way and have adverse effects such as illness or injury.
- Do not increase intensity. Running your mile repeat faster than you should will not make you fitter faster. Therefore, supercompensation should be triggered by duration of workouts or an increase in mileage.
- Allow for adequate recovery. The recovery period is where the magic happens. That’s when the body adjusts and gets fitter so do not skimp on the rest. If you do, you risk losing fitness or getting hurt.
- Don’t overuse the principle. Supercompensation is not a shortcut and should be used sparingly. Depending on the length of a training cycle, use it one or two times. Doing more may apply too much stress to the body.
As Laura says, “training is like laying bricks. You use many small bricks to build a wall, not just a couple of huge ones. Not one single workout – even a supercompensation workout – builds your entire fitness for the season. A smart training plan, which may include a supercompensation workout, will.”
If you want guidance with your training while running, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
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