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Training For a Race? Try Progressive Overload

Training Rx

Why Running a Combination of Short and Long EASY Runs is Beneficial to Improving Running Fitness

By Alix Shutello

Are you someone who runs the same distance EVERY day? Well, you might not be doing yourself any favors if you are training for a race.

Running the same distance every day does have its benefits. First, you are running – which means that you are maintaining fitness and reducing stress. But if you are training for a race, running the same distance everyday will not increase your fitness in a way that will maximize your speed and strength when you run.

I completed the Road Runner Club of America’s (RRCA) trainer certification course in Annapolis, MD a few weeks ago. I took the course not only to become a certified running coach, but to really learn the art of training for my own personal benefit as well.

alix-running22.jpgThe most fascinating thing I learned was about base training and how to build a base in preparation for a race correctly. For all runners,  including those who are looking to run their first race, alternating long and short distance days is the best way to increase fitness because of the scientific and biological concepts of progressive overload and periodization – both are very technical terms but after reading this article, the concepts will make more sense.

 The concept of progressive overload and periodization really is the process of running  a combination of easy and hard days in succession at least 5 days a week. Doing this will train your body to increase running distance by putting stress on the body – and for some reason, doing this stimulates the body’s ability to manage stressful situations (running a long, easy run) and adapt to them (during short, easy runs). The operative word here, is EASY. In base building, one does not run hard tempo runs, Fartleks, or attempts to run to fast too much. This only leads to injury. I trained this way all last year while base-building for a 1/2 marathon and while I kicked butt in the race, I  ended up with a ham string tear and plantar fasciatis and have spent the last six months trying to get it to heal.

So to repeat, Progressive overload, as defined by Wikipedia, is the gradual increase of stress placed on the body during training. While progressive overload is used in many sports, in running it means running a series of short and long runs in succession to give your body the experience of stress and recovery. Miraculously, during the process of running long runs and recovering on short runs, the body actually makes more capilaries allowing blood to flow more efficiently. The body also utilizes energy better and becomes more efficient at burning fuel including fat.

Runner’s World magazine’s training plans are based on the concept of progressive overload – the biggest fault with them is that they suggest running every other day – which is how I have trained for years. Progressive overload seems to be more effective when a runner plans to run a series of hard and easy days for four or five days a week, coupled with a longer weekend run and a day or two off for full recovery and rest. 

The reason why periodization, or the scheduled recovery time between longer runs, is important is because the body cannot be continually stressed day after day. So in a proper progressive overload/periodization running schedule, you would incorporate a schedule as follows

Sunday – off (cross train)
Monday – run 2 miles
Tuesday – run 4 miles
Wednesday – run 2 miles
Thursday – run 4 miles
Friday – off (cross train)
Saturday – run 6 miles

The next week, your long run becomes 7 miles, then 8, etc. until you reach the desired distance you and your coach or your running plan suggests, and then start a strenghtening phase where you begin to incorporate speed in your distance plan.

Last year I was running hard speed work runs every other day. The one day off in between hard days did not do me much good because I needed more rest. I became injured because I was trying to run at race pace for unsustainable intervals every single time I ran. While I did get faster,  I soon needed more recovery. I was fatigued, sore, and became ill more easily – why? Because I was not training correctly. When training for any race – especially those of longer distance – it is crucial to base build with easy-slow paced running for EVERY run for a set period of time before incorporating speed work. One does not build a base by running full throttle all the time.  The only injures your body and weakens your immune system. And in times like now, with new strains of flus and other illnesses, now is not the time to tax yourself so that you become susceptible to illness.

By allowing yourself to slowly adapt to longer distances and recover by running only a couple of miles on off days you body can acclimate itself better to the stress of increased mileage. There is no reason to think you will not get more fit. For those of use with huge running egos, this is a tough pill to swallow. Now, however, I find I am more apt to run on consecutive days because I only need to run a couple of miles, and I feel more motivated to run, because I am not running so hard that I burn out after a couple of weeks, and then need  time to recover from over doing it.

This was very difficult for me but for the past three weeks I have been using progressive overload and I have found that I am more motivated to stay on a schedule and increase my mileage. Something that is tough for me because I work fulltime and have two very energetic young children.  Between working and having to get them at the end of the day, I often don’t have time to run. Now, knowing that on recovery days I only need to run for about 20-22 minutes (very slow 10 to 11 minutes miles), I feel that I can fit that into my schedule on off days and as a result, my weekly mileage is increasing. 

Please tell me about your training planning. 

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