OVERREACHING for RUNNING PERFORMANCE GAINS

Elisabet and Sondre training in Lanzarote in 2019. They will return again, January 2020.

Recently, I wrote an article about ‘RUNNING and INJURY’ and how fine the balance is between the two (here).

In summary, training is about adding stress to the body and with rest, the body adapts and we come back stronger. Get the balance wrong and we get injured.

The secret is planning and usually we will have an A race or target event that provides an end date for training with maybe one or two, B/C races or Prep events: This is a Macrocycle – typically 1-year but it could be longer. For example, an Olympian may have a 4-year Macrocycle.

This training year is then broken down to Mesocycles, these can be 2-weeks in the shortest scenario or several months, or even a year, in the longest scenario.

Finally, a Microcycle will be one week within the Mesocycle plan, with a plan for each day.

A year plan could look like the following and for simplicity, I am starting in January and ending in December. A Macrocycle though could run, August to August for example:

The above provides an overview of the year. This helps one prepare meticulously knowing how to plan stress and recovery and importantly, it enables one to understand when one needs to peak.

Progress in training is a delicate balance. A failure to not add enough stress and one will not meet potential. But, adding too much stress without relevant rest and recovery, and one risks injury or in an extreme scenario, *overtraining.

But, and this is a big but. For the experienced athlete, overreaching can be an excellent way to make significant progress gains.

WHAT IS OVERREACHING?

Overreaching is often common among the dedicated, obsessed and addicted athletes and in many scenarios, they do not even realise they are doing it. If unmanaged and not planned, it can be a slippery slope that leads to overtraining, so, caution!

Short term periods of overreaching followed with strategically planned recovery, can result in significant gains in endurance, speed and/ or a combination of the two.

This is ‘Functional Overreaching.’

In the Macrocycle above, you will see four periods of graded boxes, June, August, October and November.

These four periods of 1-week have no recovery, they are specifically planned periods of running too hard and/or too far to bring on significant performances gains. This is ‘Supercomensation.’ 

“Supercompensation training is the act of dramatically increasing your training load for a short period of time and then compensating by going very easy to maximize recovery and absorption.” ****

However, these gains will only come with a week or weeks of recovery and de-stress. Continue to add stress with no rest or recovery and injury is likely… If this continues for weeks/ months, then overtraining is distinctly likely. 

A good way to understand an overreach week like this with super supercompensation gains is to imagine one of the following scenarios:

  • Someone running UTMB as a target race and then doing the UTMB route over 4-days in an overreach week.
  • Signing up and joining a specific training camp for one week that provides one or more training sessions per day for a 7-day period.
  • Having entered a 100km race and then specifically planning 3 back-to-back days of running 30km per day.
  • Maybe entering a multi-day race like Marathon des Sables and then replicating a percentage, say 60-75%, of the daily MDS distances and re-creating a mini MDS week in training.

“If the stress and recovery are sufficient we can improve performance and fitness and gain a host of positive physical and mental adaptations. However, if the stress is too high or the recovery is insufficient we may see impairment in performance and fatigue and it may be a significant factor in the development of running injury.” **

In an overreaching phase, it is not unusual to feel depleted, have disrupted sleep and feel mood fluctuations. Everything returns back to normal during the recovery/ rest phase.

Remember, food and nutritional needs, just like training, should be adapted and planned to coincide with training stress.

After a block of planned overreaching, place an emphasis on the following:

  • Recovery
  • Sleep
  • Diet
  • Massage/ physiotherapy
  • Analysis

Overreaching depends on the individual and recovery/ stress levels should be assessed on an individual basis.

“It is commonly known that fatigue can be either positive or negative; everything depends on the scale. On one hand, with more training and exercise, the more trained the athlete will be. On the other hand, if the level of fatigue is not monitored, the athlete may receive an “overdose” of fatigue…” ***

We can all have off days, but if you notice for extended periods you can’t run as fast, run as long, you are moody, constantly tired, seeing fluctuations in resting hear rate, legs are always sore… Chances are you are on the edge of overtraining. You need to kick-back immediately, de-stress and recover.

Remember, the reason for planned functional overreaching is to increase performance. Anything else and you are in non-functional overreaching or in danger of overtraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrome can be difficult to treat and, like many things, prevention is better than cure. 

Finally, planned training, taking time to look at a macrocycle, plan mesocycles and and then implement structured microcycles will improve performance and reduce the likelihood of injury by maintaining a balance between stress (both physical and emotional) and recovery.

JOIN OUR TRAINING CAMP, INFORMATION HERE

References:

* – ‘It involves a barrage of symptoms such as decreased motor coordination, force production, and glycolytic capacity, alongside the possibility of recurring infections, sleep disturbances, and depression.’ – Mike T Nelson PH.D

** – Running Physio – https://www.running-physio.com/stress-recovery-balance/

*** – Omega Wave – https://www.omegawave.com/2013/02/06/overreaching-and-overtraining-what-are-they-how-to-avoid-them/

**** – Runners Connect – https://runnersconnect.net/coach-corner/supercompensation-training/

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Long Term Goal Setting and Planning for Ultra Running

The Long Term Goal

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Recently I have produced several articles that have been created to help runners formulate a plan for a new year of racing and training. The articles have been as follows:

  • Planning a Running and Racing Year HERE
  • To Base Train or not to Base Train HERE
  • Base Training HERE
  • How long should the long run be? HERE
  • In addition, I wrote several articles on walking and how important it is to practice this for:
  • Ultra running HERE
  • Walking with poles HERE
  • Walking efficiency when climbing HERE

Recently I was involved in a series of discussions about the Marathon des Sables. One thing that became very clear is the panic and apprehension many runners feel about a goal that may well be a ‘one-off’ or lifetime goal.

Experienced runners will know how to goal set, they will know how to periodise and plan their training so that they hopefully arrive at a target event in peak form. This was discussed in Planning a Running and Racing Year (HERE). However, goals that go beyond one macrocycle (one year) require a much greater perspective and overview. If you are new to running, well, it can be just terrifying.

A great deal of advice can be extremely counter productive as it makes many runners feel inadequate, inexperienced, lacking confidence and in the worse scenarios even questioning if they should even go ahead with the race.

Let’s be clear. Everyone is an individual, I have yet to find two runners who need the same training plan or structure. However, certain scenarios work for all and it is with this in mind that I am writing this post.

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Why not join our Multi-Day Training Camp in Lanzarote with 2x MDS Champion, Elisabet Barnes? Information HERE

Why set a long term goal?

Long term goals provide incredible motivation to step out of the door and to train. You will have heard the saying, ‘if it was easy, everyone would do it!’

To that end, iconic races such as UTMB and Marathon des Sables, are races that for many are the ultimate race, they are races to be built up to and therefore a macrocycle is not enough time to prepare; hence long term goal setting.

Irrespective of experience, two key words come in to play when setting a long term plan: Structured and Progressive.

In this scenario, I am using goal setting for Marathon des Sables.

STRUCTURE

A macrocycle is one training year and this is broken down into mesocycles. It may sound like a fancy word but a mesocycle is a series of blocks of training that make up one macrocycle. For purposes of explanation, let’s assume that you are running the Marathon des Sables which takes place in April 2020.

I always recommend getting a year planner so that you get a big picture of what lies ahead. Fourteen months may seem like a long way off, it is, no need to panic, but also don’t become complacent. What’s important here is experience. I am therefore going to have two runners.

Please Note – This guide below is geared towards someone who aims to run as much as possible at MDS. Very few run all of MDS and most walk considerably more than they think. For me, walking is a key element to a very successful training plan. The structure below still applies, the sessions would adjust accordingly.

Runner A has run a marathon, runs to keep fit and has set the lifetime goal of Marathon des Sables. Priority is completion.

Runner B has been running for years, eats marathons for breakfast, races ultra races regularly and is going to Marathon des Sables as a challenge, to test him or herself and plans to compete over complete.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that runner A and runner B need completely different training plans and strategies. Keeping in mind that A has less experience, more insecurities and a great deal of anxiety about the big target, I will talk through the possible planning cycle for A.

Let’s break down the macrocycle. As I said, we have twelve months (+/-) to play with, so a schedule may look like this:

Phase 1: Apr, May with C race objective (half-marathon).

Phase 2: June, July, Aug with B race objective (marathon to 50km).

Phase 3: Sep, Oct, Nov with A race objective (multi-day race)

Phase 4: Dec, Jan with B race objective and/ or specific warm weather training camp.

Phase 5: Feb, Mar.

Phase 6: Apr – A race.

Phase 1

Is all about consistent and regular running based on available time, ability and commitments. Set yourself a C race target for the end of this period. It could be a half marathon. It’s always good to have intermediate targets to work to and we often use C and  B races as stepping stones to an A race, in this scenario, Marathon des Sables.

Be realistic here, it’s important. Ask yourself a couple of key questions:

How many days can I train?

How many hours a week can I train?

We are going to assume that running three/four days is possible every week with a fourth/ fifth day for cross training and strength work. A microcycle (week) in phase 1 may well look like:

  • Tuesday – key day
  • Thursday – key day
  • Saturday – Cross training
  • Sunday – key day

In phase 1 we want to just walk, run or walk/ run and build a base of fitness from which to build. No need to rush in and panic. Be sensible and progressive. A safe way to do this is build for three weeks and on the fourth week rest and recover, Yes, rest and recovery is just as important as running.

Use the 10-20% rule and never add more time than this to each run. An example for the first month may look like:

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Over this phase, you would eventually cap the length of time for the Tuesday and Thursday runs at 60 to 90-minutes and the Sunday run would progress to 3-hours 30-minutes as follows:

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Use this system in phase 1 building week on week over four months to lay a great foundation of progressive miles and time on feet. If you have built progressively, your Sunday long run will have progressed to over three hours which puts you in a great place for a C run target.

A marathon would be a good C target at the end of phase 1. You wouldn’t taper for a race like this, it would be a training run that would be added to your plan.

Phase 2

You have phase 1 under your belt and the confidence of completing a C target. Phase 2 now builds and at the end of this phase you will have a B race target as a goal. This race should be challenging but not so challenging that it becomes intimidating or breaks you. If you ran a half marathon as a C race, then your B race could be a marathon. If your C race was a marathon, then your B race may be a marathon or 50km race if you feel that training is going very well?

It’s also important now to think ahead to Phase 3 and an intermediate A race target that will motivate you and boost your confidence for phase 4, 5 and 6.

Also think about planning and booking heat chamber sessions or equivalent for the final build up phase just before the race; this usually takes place in the final 2-3 weeks and sessions go quickly.

In the UK, a race takes place in November called the Druids. It’s a three day race where runners take on a marathon for three consecutive days. It’s a perfect ‘mini’ Marathon des Sables scenario and a great opportunity to test clothing, pack, fitness and build confidence.

Assuming that four days training are still possible and that you have had no injury issues or problems, we can now progress training building on endurance in the long runs and adding some faster/ strength sessions during the week.

A week may look like this:

  • Tuesday – Hills.
  • Thursday – Speed
  • Saturday – Cross training and strength.
  • Sunday – Long run.

As in phase 1, progression is really important and the plan would actually change and evolve over this period with each month looking different.

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The above plan is a guide and this is where a run coach can step in and provide structure and remove the guess work away from how the plan is put together. It’s all about placing the right emphasis at the right place and at the right time.

You will see how month 3 changes from months 1 and 2 so that it is specific to the B target at the end of this mesocycle.

Phase 3

You have just completed your longest run in a B race, be that 50k, 50m or somewhere in-between and your confidence is sky high. You now have an A race on the horizon (November) that involves three back-to back marathons and suddenly your appreciation of what is required is much clearer. You respect the Marathon des Sables target but now it is less intimidating as you have moved your way up through logical and incremental steps.

Another three month phase of training that allows is to fine tune and hone in on the racing skills required.

As you may expect, phase 3 starts with recovery from your B race target. You will need to cross train or just run easy for 3-4 days. By the time the weekend comes around, you will feel as though recovery is well on the way, don’t rush. Take your time and the following week run easy Tuesday and Thursday for up to 60-minutes and then do 60 and a 90-minute run on Saturday and build on the Sunday run. An example of phase 3 is below. Please remember, YOU are an individual with specific needs and what I provide below is a possible structure leading to an A race in November.

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The A race at the end of November provides a significant marker in your training. The experience will allow you an opportunity to find out what worked, what didn’t work, how your kit worked, what was good, what was bad and so on.

December is now upon you and Phase 4 is an opportunity to look at weaknesses and work on them so that you are in great shape to take on Phase 5 which is the final period before your key race.

1. If you lacked endurance in your November A race, keep working on consistency and build endurance with time on feet.

2. If you lacked speed and want to run faster, December is a perfect opportunity to cut back on distance and long runs and add some speed work.

3. Due to the demands of running with a pack, running long and all the associated fatigue, make sure that you incorporate a strength and core routine to make you a stronger runner. It’s easy to say here, ‘I don’t have the time!” You do, cut down your run time on a Tuesday and Thursday and free up time for strength and core. Maybe you can even find an extra day in your week (Wednesday) to allow you to work on this. Alternatively, work on strength and core at home maybe while watching television? The time is there, you just need to find it and be creative.

4. Practice walking. Effective and fast walking is a key weapon to a successful race in any long ultra or multi-day race.

With a new year coming, April and the heat of the Sahara looms on the horizon. January provides a perfect opportunity for a warm weather training camp just as the weather is wet, miserable and cold in Europe.

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In conjunction with 2015 ladies Marathon des Sables champion Elisabet BARNES, we run a week long camp in Lanzarote that provides the perfect opportunity to test everything in a real situation. We even provide a bivouac experience. You can ready daily posts and view images from the 2016 camp HERE and you can listen to client feedback below:

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Phase 5 is the last phase and ultimately you have 6 weeks to get prepared and ready for your key race. If you attended a training camp you will now have a full appreciation of everything that you need to do. That may be changing kit, more time on feet, looking at nutrition or even a combination of all elements

Now is the time to make sure you have all your admin sorted – insurance, medical, compulsory kit and so on.

Don’t leave anything to chance now. If in doubt about equipment, contact MyRaceKit, they are able to provide expert advice in regard to everything that you will need.

Think about heat and how you will adapt. With luck, back in phase 2 or 3 you will have thought ahead and booked time in a heat chamber. Ideally this will take place in the final 2-3 weeks before the race. No sessions booked? Train in a gym with additional layers, take a sauna, do Bikram Yoga etc

Again, consistency is key here. You have been training for this long term goal for sometime, don’t do anything silly, don’t do a long run that is really long; you up your chances of injury risk. Remember, training is about ALL the sessions you have done and not just one session

Pack weight is a consideration and get it as close to 6.5kg as possible. On day-1, when you add water it will be 8kg. BE CAREFUL training with too much weight, it is a guaranteed route to injury. For sure, do some sessions with weight, be progressive and slowly build up. Just do one session per week in the final phase and only do 1 or 2 sessions with pack at 8kg and do not go too long.

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Phase 6 is race time.

Be organised, be prepared, think of everything and have the race of your life.

It’s in this final phase when you are so close that little things can go wrong. Be prepared as best as you can. You can’t account for the unexpected but reduce chances of anything going wrong by taking no risks.

The information provided above is designed to provide an outline and a guide on how to plan for a long term goal. Although you may be able to take this plan away and use it, please be sensible and assess your own experience, fitness and goals. Importantly, the scenario provided is with a multi-day race in mind, you would need to tweak and adjust this for a single stage race or a mountain ultra for example.

I can’t emphasise enough that we are all individual, so you need to find out what works for you.

Good luck.

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