beginner training habit

How Ultrarunners Get “Progressive Overload” Wrong

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When I first met my wife she was training for her very first half marathon. Like many before her and countless since, she had picked up a book from preeminent marathoner and author Jeff Galloway and organized her training around programs in the book. Galloway’s methods center around two principles: weekly progressive overload and a run:walk ratio. The woman who would eventually become my wife had dutifully started her training with a single mile. Then two. And then three. In no time she was running 10ks without flinching, interjecting Galloway’s patented walk breaks at precise moments in time.

Wanting to impress this beautiful woman I’d only known for about two weeks, we went to Durango and I introduced her to the author of the training plan she’d been following with such precision. As always, Jeff was gracious and encouraged her to trust her training and have fun. She let him know how much she enjoyed the training, gushing at how precisely she followed the program, never straying from the weekly mileage even though she felt like she could. At the very end, to my amusement, she mentioned she had done “everything but the walking parts.” That’s like telling Gordon Ramsay you like everything but his food.

It was certainly not the first time Jeff had talked to a novice runner who had fallen in love with the running part of his program and dismissed the walking part. Thankfully for Liz, and many beginners, the volume of workload was low enough that doing all of the running and none of the walking didn’t lead to injury. Instead, the progression of workload (one mile, then two miles, then three miles, etc.) was enough to cause adaptation and improve fitness. And that works well for beginners, but only for a little while.

Progressive Overload Works for Beginners

The common way beginner training plans work is to start with short or easier training sessions, then add more time or intensity each and every week. The notion is that if you can run one mile this week, then your body will adapt and be able to run two miles next week, then three the following, as described in my wife’s training plan above. This also gets applied to interval workouts. This week you can do six hill repeats, so next week you can do seven, and the week after you can do eight. The term for this is ‘progressive overload’. In the example above, the workouts progress each and every week and can be more precisely described as ‘weekly progressive overload’.

For most beginner athletes, progressive overload on a weekly level works. This is because the adaptations you make take hold in a rapid fashion, on the order of days or even perhaps hours. In addition, the fatigue you generate is not great because you are just starting out. So, the balance of improved fitness and higher levels of fatigue is such that you can continue improving fast enough to handle adding harder and harder workouts every week.

Why “Easy-to-Hard” Doesn’t Work for Ultrarunners

However, as you become a more experienced runner (and all ultrarunners are experienced runners) this balance of fitness and fatigue gets turned on its head. The adaptations required for improvement take longer to sink in, on the order of weeks and months. And in almost all cases, the cumulative fatigue from a month’s worth of training outstrips your body’s ability to adapt. You are literally worse at the end of the month compared to the beginning. Athletes at this level require a different way of prescribing hard workouts during any training phase, compared to the training structure you–like my wife­–used for her first half marathon.

Do the Hardest Workouts First

As an ultramarathon athlete, you are better off completing your hardest workouts (like a 8x hill repeat workout) when you are most rested, and then backing off the volume of workload (to perhaps a 6x hill repeat workout) as you accumulate fatigue over time. For instance, let’s say you are working on pace at lactate threshold with 10-minute TempoRun intervals and the first workout of your training block is a workout consisting of 4 x 10-minute TempoRun intervals.

As you go through the training phase, fatigue accumulates at a faster rate than you can adapt, meaning you literally have less capacity to do hard work. Therefore, the specific workload (4X10 minutes in this case) for each workout should gradually go down. In the calendar below, I’ve outlined how this would work. Note that the hardest workouts are first (using the red spotlight). Then, as fatigue sets in during subsequent weeks, the volume of the hard workouts is reduced.

It is also important to note that doing the hardest workout first is not a license to smash yourself over the head with some ridiculously hard workout that leaves you groveling at the side of the trail and takes a whole week to recover from. But, being an experienced athlete (or if you are working with an experienced coach) you should generally know what you are capable of in any single workout. When starting a phase, I usually have my athletes aim for something that is ~80-90% of what they can do maximally. In the above example, that means they could do 5X10 min Tempo at the same pace/intensity, but it would wipe them out for a whole week.

Weekly progressive overloads have consequences

Take the training program above and flip it around and you’ll have the type of training architecture I see time and time again, even with elite athletes. Each week builds off of the next with progressively more and more time-at-intensity. There is a huge glaring issue when athletes do this, and one that I think goes under-appreciated in the endurance world. When athletes apply this type of weekly progressive workload training model they end up with the hardest and/or longest workouts when they are most fatigued. This is a huge problem and a mistake many athletes and coaches make. It can be a costly mistake in terms of compromising adaptation, and it can be a source of overfatigue and injury.

hardest workout first

What You Should Do

Look at the architecture of your current training plan. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where is (are) the hardest workouts(s)
  • When will I be the freshest (or most rested)?
  • When will I be the most fatigued?

CTS Coaches ask these three simple questions more often than any others when we peer review each other’s training plans as part of our continuing education program. In fact, our coaches know if they can’t immediately answer all three of these, to the dog house they go.

If the answers to question one and two are the same, you are good to go. However, if the answers to one and three are the same then I am sorry to say, “Houston, we have a problem.” When that’s the case, you have a classic mismatch of having the hardest workouts when you are the most fatigued.

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning


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Comments 9

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Sep 26 - Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

  2. So my question would be, when would you turn the progressive overload program around for the less experienced runner? After the first marathon? Sometime later? I’m particularly interested because I am not an ultra runner but have some aspirations in that direction, yet feel that the progressive overload is not really working like it once did.
    Thanks for the great content.

  3. I disagree. I think that doing the hardest workouts early in a build-up, when you are the least fit, is a mistake and will cause over-reaching and fatigue, and will increase the likeliness of injuries.

    Progressively overloading doesn’t have to mean eliminating self-evaluation and running yourself into oblivion: just look at Lydiard’s idea of going “hard enough.” Kipchoge uses it every day, never emptying the tank, or, loading too much on the legs.

    As you become more fit, you can handle a higher workload; one simply needs to progress the workouts slower than the fitness.

    Progressive overload done wrong is just a cumulative version of overtraining.

    1. I am sure that it is assumed that as an ultra athlete, we are experienced and in shape. Jason does mention progressive for new runners and would not prescribe this for brand new or injur
      y returning runners

  4. This is amazing content. What if several weeks of progression are followed by one or two weeks of reduced training load to allow for recovery before staring a new set of weeks of progression overload?. Sometimes my athletes are not in shape to handle the harder workouts the eventually will later in the training period.

  5. Morning!

    I wish you’d post these on the CTS Facebook page and then I could “Like” them!

    Happy Holidays!

    Crossing my fingers for an ultracamp this year! 🙂

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