For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Triathletes are always in search of that sweet spot of fitness. Train too little and you might not reach your full potential, but go overboard and you end up injured. Recent research suggests supercompensation training gets it just right. This approach involves ramping up training—both in volume and intensity—and stressing the body for a short period of time followed by recovery to achieve peak fitness. If approached correctly, it can push fitness to the next level.
The study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise recruited 33 triathletes eight weeks out from a race and split them into two groups. One group increased their training by 23 percent for three weeks and then went into a four-week taper during which volume and intensity were reduced by 40 percent. The other group simply continued with their normal baseline training for those three weeks before subscribing to the same four-week taper.
At the end of the study, VO2max testing and cycling trials showed the athletes fell into three distinct categories. Those who kept to their regular training program showed a small jump in performance when they first started tapering, followed by varied results through the remainder of the taper. The group of athletes who increased their training for the three weeks ended up reaching a point of diminishing returns, where overtraining caused them to experience fewer performance improvements than the group who simply kept to their normal training regimen. Lastly, the group who successfully increased their training without going overboard experienced significant leaps in performance outcomes, particularly two weeks into the taper after they had recovered from the hard training.
The results of this study demonstrate the supercompensation theory at work, which is all about increasing training for a short time and following it with recovery days to allow the adaptations and fitness gains to crystallize. Since the body can’t stay at an increased level of training for an extended period of time, coaches who employ this approach usually implement multiple cycles during an athlete’s season.
While this approach can be incredibly successful for accomplished and durable athletes, Randy Ashley, a North Carolina-based coach and two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, emphasizes, “Supercompensation is a training theory that works for some people, but certainly not all.” To be sure, every athlete responds to this type of training differently, and it can be easy to cross the line. This is why having a coach who can monitor your progress is particularly important.
“If I felt an athlete was close to going over the line with supercompensation, I would monitor resting heart rate and recovery heart rate after hard repeats,” he says.
Indeed, the periods of recovery that follow this type of hard training are among the most important. “The recovery period, which is still part of the training phase, is the period when the supercompensation gets into the cardiovascular and muscular systems to allow for greater strength to be built,” Ashley says. “Without this active recovery period, the athlete will grow stale and lose the usefulness of the hard work.”
Over a 12-week period that includes 10-day microcycles, coach Randy Ashley offers an example of how he might utilize supercompensation for athletes he deems capable of handling this type of training:
Supercompensation Phase 1: 30 days
75% of max volume*
80% of max volume
70% of max volume
*The maximum amount of miles you typically run on a weekly basis.
Supercompensation Phase 2: 30 days
85% of max volume
90% of max volume
75% of max volume
Supercompensation Phase 3: 30 days
95% of max volume
100% of max volume
Begin taper and allow for around 14 days total
For someone who runs 50 miles a week, that means in Phase 1, he would do 37.5 miles the first 10 days, then 40 miles, then 35 miles. Over the course of the phases, he would increase the intensity of the workouts during the hardest 10 days. For instance, 3–5 x 1 mile repeats might start at 6:30–6:35 in Phase 1, then drop down to 6:25–6:30 in Phase 2 and 6:20–6:25 in Phase 3.