The Overload Principle: The training value of runners training tired

Human nature leads us to take it easy when we’re sore or tired. Obviously, we don’t feel good, so our nature tells us to rest until we feel better.

Many training plans for runners will ask you to run a high volume of miles, even though often times you are tired from the prior workouts. Many novice runners will make the mistake of skipping or curtailing the easier workouts because they are tired. They don’t realize their being tired is part of the training stimulus for those workouts!

In fitness training we have a concept called the Overload Principle. The principle is that your training stimulus has got to exceed your current capabilities to elicit optimal adaptions from that training.

For a beginning runner who doesn’t run much, the simple act of running in itself kicks in the overload principle. A beginner’s current capability is they aren’t yet comfortable running a lot. So running in itself already exceeds their current capabilities. A simple run will for them elicit those optimal adaptions.

Separately, consider strength training through weight lifting with heavy, challenging weights. Done with a suitable intensity (i.e. sufficient weight, capable but challenging form), lifting weights can exceed anyone’s current capabilities as long as the weight and/or exercise itself is more challenging that the trainee is generally used to. Even if a trainee gets comfortable with a given weight/exercise, adding weight or progressing the exercise into a more challenging form can once again exceed the trainee’s capabilities and elicit those optimal adaptions.

However, if the trainee were to maintain the current intensity as they got comfortable with it, the exercise while still beneficial would produce lesser adaptions and results. This is often why people hit a plateau when training.

This is especially true with runners, as the act of running is usually done at a similar intensity. Only in quality workouts (e.g. speed reps, tempo runs, long runs) can the workout in itself exceed the experienced runner’s capability.

Otherwise, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with said runner’s fitness adaptions, which become smaller and smaller over time within the training monotony of easy run after easy run. The only acute variable that can be progressed in their regular distance runs is the volume of total running done, which is why many runners rack up increasingly heavy mileage.

Many runners semi-unintentionally work around this by periods of re-reducing their physical capability so their typical training load once again sparks adaptions. We just call this process “training breaks” or “offseasons”. Granted, our real intention of these breaks is to take a long rest and not just physically recharge for a new training cycle, but also mentally recharge to build motivation for the next challenge.

But this is also where the long term burnout hits runners. Most runners grow to a point (that point usually being a goal race), and then arrest their growth, so that their typical training can once again produce growth as they train for another goal race. The hopeful goal is that over time their growth curve shows a net increase.

But what ends up happening is that most runners’ adaptions follow a sort of Phugoid Cycle. This is a parabolic pattern of movement that some unfortunate damaged mid-air airplanes have ended up in, and turns out it matches the cycle of development that a lot of runners follow.

Phugoid

Basically, our training slowly progresses upward in adaptions/volume, then crests before swiftly declining in volume and fitness, before we rebound back into the previous training cycle and repeat.

In the cycle, the peak is typically in the same spot, and the valley is typically in the same spot. Whereas typically the plane eventually ends the cycle with a descent and horrible crash, the runner often ends the cycle by ceasing running entirely for a while (often due to burnout), sending their fitness plummeting with their net volume until they’ve mostly or totally de-trained.

Whereas the runner doesn’t end up in this cycle due to disaster, nor does it necessarily end in disaster or death… their training macro-habits can become a vicious cycle that limits and prevents future growth, despite the fact that they are training specifically to generate growth.


Don’t forget the principle of overload, that the training stimulus must exceed current capabilities to elicit optimal adaptions.

The trap that runners fall into is that, once they get accustomed to a pattern of how they handle regular runs, how they handle speedwork or tempo work, how they handle strength and flexibility work… they tend not to stray far from those routines. And while a base routine is valuable for grooving habits and keeping you on track, as a runner these habits often lack continuous needed changes to acute variables.

Volume (mileage, duration) isn’t the only acute variable that matters in training and fitness adaptions, yet many runners often fixate on that single variable. Their speed workouts don’t adapt beyond maybe demanding a marginally faster pace in tempo or speed reps.

And again, runners often recover from goals races by de-training, meaning that they’re not necessarily growing throughout multiple cycles, so much as they’re letting themselves shrink between cycles so they can repeat the same growth again next training cycle. Not only is that not necessarily optimal, but over time age will begin to undercut your ability to re-do that growth. A lot of runners slow down early in middle age, even though this wouldn’t happen if they trained and recovered smarter.

By smarter, I mean: In training that there’s a continuous commitment to progressing every acute variable within reason, when comfort has been found and the bandwidth exists to progress towards a more challenging training stimulus. And in recovery we work as seriously as we do in training on how we eat, how we rest, and how we otherwise prepare ourselves to do the next workout or race.


Taking my divergent rant back to the point: Experienced runners, consider the next time you have a scheduled workout and you’re still tired from the last one… that for you doing this next easy/long run tired may exceed your current capabilities, and therefore may elicit for you the optimal adaption from the scheduled workout.

This is actually the idea behind the back to back weekend runs in both the Hanson Marathon Method and Jeff Gaudette’s Runners Connect plans. By having you do a moderate run and then your long run the day after, an otherwise typical long run now exceeds your current capabilities by not being done on fresh legs.

I will add that I personally question whether this pattern is an optimal training stimulus for some. I do see its benefit as described, while considering that other training approaches to the long run could generate better fitness adaptions. Plus you do need to proceed with caution and not push yourself to the point of injury or burnout, to know the difference between just being tired and truly needing to switch gears and take a rest. In part, though, that’s a matter of context, and it’s a reason why pre-written cookie cutter training plans only get runners so far.

All that said, the methodology behind that training pattern is sound. For many runners, they’ve gotten so comfortable with easy distance running that the acute variable of doing the long run somewhat tired exceeds their capabilities enough to elicit optimal adaptions from a semi-tired long run.

Side note: Note that we’re talking about easy runs here. Definitely don’t tire yourself out before another key workout like speed or tempo work in the name of optimal adaptions. Those workouts already test other acute variables that exceed your comfort zone, like running close to your VO2max for brief periods, or running faster than comfortable for an extended period in a tempo run.

Also proceed with caution on doing strength workouts: Probably don’t test your one rep max weight on a barbell in the gym the day or week after a lot of running. Maybe a lesser intensity stabilization-themed total body core workout in the gym can exceed your tired capabilities enough to generate optimal strength adaptions. Be smart.


What to do with all this info? This is certainly not a brand new concept, and many running coaches have done what they know to do to try and create the best workouts they can. Again, though, the way we train runners in general is far from optimal for not just maximum results but better overall long term health. We have a lot of work to do.

On my end, I’m in the gestation phase of turning these ideas into a better training approach. It’s certainly turned on the light bulb for me in terms of how my previous training could have been improved. And now I’m making better informed training decisions. Over time, I’ll share more information that can allow you to make better decisions for yourself.

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