It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the fitness information out there, which makes it difficult to figure out which approach to working out will lead to progress. But when it comes to actually seeing results, your best bet is usually to revisit the basics.
In fact, one basic training principle that all workout programs should have is called progressive overload—a fancy way to say you should continuously advance your workout so you keep seeing results. No effective running or strength program would be complete without this approach to training.
“Progressive overload is at the heart of all modern training programs,” says cycling coach Garret Seacat, C.S.C.S., owner of Absolute Endurance. “And for a good reason: It works.”
Here, we lay out the concept of progressive overload, how to apply it to your training, and how it benefits runners.
What is progressive overload, exactly?
Progressive overload is a method of gradually increasing one or more training variables from one week to the next.
“Without progressive overload, you would just be doing the same thing over and over again, and your body would eventually stop adapting,” says Alex Parry, a UK-based strength and conditioning coach.
With running, this means that if you want to keep going further and faster, your training sessions will have to get progressively harder over time, he says. This applies to both your workouts on the road and off of it.
How do you follow a progressive overload program?
“Have a plan first of all,” says UK-based strength coach Jack Coxall, C.S.C.S. Write out which running and strength training workouts you plan to do over the next four weeks (or so) and which performance metrics you’re hoping to improve. Keep all this info in a training journal so you can see it written out.
With that information in hand, aim to make small increases to one or two of the following variables in your running workouts each week:
For example, if your weekly mileage is 20 one week, kick it up to 22 miles the next, and 24 the next.
If you only have so much time (like most of us), you can focus on another challenge in the following weeks, like pushing your speed, for example, notes Seacat.
Once you complete each workout, jot down what you did and how it went. Make sure to note any helpful info, such as the distance you ran and how long it took, how fast you were able to go during sprint intervals, how much rest time you needed, your average heart rate, and whether you incorporated any resistance. “Having this information will allow you to take stock and improve the next time,” Coxall says.
After gradually building on your workouts with these weekly, super small increments for about four to six weeks, switch up your training to focus on a different goal.
For example, if your goal for the first four to six weeks was to spend more time on the road or trails, you might spend the next four to six weeks gradually getting faster, so you cover more distance in the same amount of time. Or, you might incorporate more anaerobic-focused workouts like hill repeats and sprints into your schedule to create a new challenge.
This periodized approach is especially suited for intermediate or advanced runners. A beginner runner can very likely repeat a workout two to three times per week and get faster every single time, so they don’t need much variation in their training, Parry says.
An intermediate or advanced runner, however, needs more frequent (and drastic) changes. “So, by introducing blocks with a different training focus—endurance, strength, speed—you can get new stimulus and keep making progress,” Parry explains.
While you’re at it, be sure to apply the principle of progressive overload to your strength sessions, too. Achieve this by increasing one or two of these training variables by 2 to 5 percent every week:
- Resistance (amount of weight lifted)
- Time under tension (the time you spend with muscles engaged; increase this by slowing down each move or eliminating rest breaks)
Again, change your training more drastically after four to six weeks. This could mean selecting new exercises, working within a different rep range, and/or focusing on improving a single exercise like deadlifts, squats, or pull-ups.
How Progressive Overload Benefits Runners
It’s pretty simple: If you want to get faster, fitter, stronger, or simply more efficient on the road, trail, or treadmill you have to keep challenging the muscles and energy systems that ultimately control these outcomes. And you won’t achieve that if you go out and repeat the same workouts with the same level of effort, week after week. At some point, your body will get wise and quit adapting to the stressors.
Increasing the difficulty of your weekly workouts bit by bit is truly the best way to make continual progress.
“Without progressive overload, your training will become stale, and you’ll find that your times no longer improve, even if you train multiple times per week,” Parry says.
Plus, by limiting yourself to small increases in training (the “progressive” part of progressive overload), you can keep improving without the injury risk that typically comes with massive jumps in workload (like when you run five miles one week and 25 the next), he adds.
Small steps always get you to big goals—especially if you keep challenging yourself.