The Key To Progress

Ever do random workouts? Find a training session that looks fun so give it a go? Rarely would an athlete or pro runner just ‘do a workout from social media’ and there are a few key reasons why.

Notice how we never put up a training session in isolation? Reason 1 is injury risk. Doing something totally at random without any context is a quick way to get injured. We wouldn’t recommend just jumping in half way through SOMEBODY ELSE’S programme. Chances are, it was designed specifically for them, their training and injury profile and for the phase of training they are in.

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Another reason, and just as important if you want to get better as a runner, is the training principle;

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

You may have come across this before as many running programmes follow the basic principle of small weekly increases in training volume/mileage.

In short, progressive overload is the idea that we humans (even runners!) adapt to stress slowly over time and can train to handle and adapt to more and more stress. Therefore to keep getting better athletically, we should progressively overload our physical capacities to develop them over time.

Training, whether running or gym based, is viewed by the body as a stressor. It disrupts our systems and takes us away from homeostasis - our bodies preferred state. In order to prepare us for another bout of this same stress, our body adapts and improves the systems we have challenged. In this way, each time we apply a training stress we get a little better at the thing we trained. By following this process consistently over time we become a faster, stronger, more robust runner.

This sounds great, and in principle it is. The problems arise however when the stress we apply stops making us adapt, or is so large that instead of adapt we breakdown and get injured. The science of adaptation to stressors in humans goes back a long way and is mostly based on a model from the 1930’s. Since then we’ve tried to understand how long these changes take, how much stress to apply and when. It’s largely individual in nature and there doesn’t seem to be a one size fits all structure other than to suggest that;

  • load increases in weight should be kept to around 3-5% per week

  • load increases in volume (number of reps, mileage etc) should be limited to ~10% per week

  • recovery and adaptation is hugely affected by other forms of stress

  • acute increases in loading (beyond those stated above) can and do lead to injury

Other forms of stress could include (but not limited to):

  • poor sleep

  • poor nutrition

  • inadequate nutrition

  • psychological stress

  • sickness and infection

(All stress, whether perceived or physically real, changes our biochemistry temporarily. We are designed to cope with short bursts of stress, adapt, and move on. In present day life however, stresses come from all directions at all hours so we must take this into account.)

Given that there are so many factors that we must control to optimise training response, PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD should be our highest consideration. Not only must we deliver on the overload in training stress, but we need to MANAGE IT, by adjusting and monitoring our handling of it.

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HOW TO MONITOR YOUR OVERLOAD:

  • track all your training; keep a log of all runs and gym sessions in as much detail as you can

  • try to follow the small increments rule (3-5% strength increases, up to 10% mileage increases per week)

  • take time off or reduce the training loads when going through periods of high stress

  • keep a note of what type and amount of training makes you perform the best and use that training leading up to competitions or races


If you do all of the above, take plenty of rest, eat well and train hard you're sure to progress and do well. However, if progress was linear and ever increasing we'd all be olympic athletes by now. Unfortunately it's not quite that simple and at times we have to employ other methods to get past plateaus - tools like OVER-REACHING & DE-LOADING we will talk about in another article coming soon. As a general rule we can utilise periods of 3-6 weeks in which we will see continued progress before we need to change things up or switch focus.

Remember that to get better at something, we need a period of planned progressive overload prioritising that quality. It could be speed, strength or endurance, even technique. Whatever you identify as needing to improve: DO plan, execute, monitor and be willing to adapt your training when necessary. DON'T jump from one random session to another with no real idea of where you're going or what you're looking to improve. If you have any questions for us, please get in touch.

By Alex Adams