Understanding Supercompensation to Avoid Overtraining

Read the Adidas Runtastic tips to avoid supercompensation

If the word supercompensation has you confused, don’t worry. You’re not alone. After 50 years of scientific study, there is still debate over how to apply the theory. It’s easier said than done. Here we have simplified the science so you can master the art.

WHAT IS SUPERCOMPENSATION?

Supercompensation is the theory that after training, the body recovers above and beyond pre-training fitness levels. This adaptation is the essence of physical training and enables us to improve our fitness. 

Diagram supercompensation

4 steps in the Supercompensation Cycle

1.      Training

Whether tricep dips or triathlon, the first step to improving fitness is training.

2.      Recovery

Training causes fatigue (e.g. dehydration, glycogen depletion, muscle micro-tears), which requires time for recovery.

3.      Supercompensation

Following training and recovery, the body recovers beyond baseline (pre-training) fitness levels in anticipation of future exercise.

4.      Detraining

Use it or lose it! Detraining is the natural decline in fitness that follows supercompensation. If no further training takes place during the supercompensation phase, the body will return to pre-training fitness levels.

STATUS QUO

Our bodies are constantly aiming at equilibrium. This state of equilibrium is known as homeostasis and is achieved through physiological processes that stabilize internal conditions. Sweating, for example, is a key process that enables the body to maintain a stable core temperature.

When we exercise, the training “stimulus” upsets the balance of homeostasis. After the training session, our bodies recover to re-establish equilibrium. But if we only ever recovered to pre-training levels, we would never improve.

The amazing thing about our bodies is that after exercise, we recover beyond pre-training levels. This is supercompensation and it occurs at every level of our physiology, from muscle fiber size to mitochondrial density to glycogen storage.

In effect, your body is being prepared for a higher level of stress to the system. The body does this so that it can achieve equilibrium faster, but the desirable “by-product” is improved fitness.

USE IT OR LOSE IT

Understanding supercompensation theory helps us to be strategic about when to workout. The magic trick is to time training sessions to coincide with peak fitness during the supercompensation phase. In this way, fitness gains are accumulated with each workout.

This isn’t easy. As you may have experienced, consecutive workouts with too little recovery time in between can lead to overtraining. Equally, if you leave too much time between workouts, the supercompensation effect is lost and your fitness won’t improve.

Imagine a castle wall under attack. If the attacks are too frequent, the walls will be destroyed. With time however, the walls will not only be rebuilt, but will be reinforced to defend against future attack. If too much time passes and attack is no longer expected, the reinforcements will be dismantled.

Remember, your fitness is in constant flux. Without further “stimulus” during the supercompensation phase, the body will begin to lose fitness. (There’s no point building extra muscle if it isn’t needed to support normal activity). This is the “use it or lose it” principle.

SUPERCOMPENSATION STRATEGY

The aim for your workouts is to manipulate training and recovery to maximize supercompensation. Bodybuilders use supercompensation for muscle bulk, ultrarunners for muscular endurance and coaches for precompetition tapering. Whatever your fitness goal, training for supercompensation can improve results.  

To take advantage of the supercompensation effect most athletes plan their workouts in one of two ways.

1. The first involves planning training sessions to coincide with the peak of supercompensation from the previous workout, after full recovery

         +         Simple strategy, less likely to result in overtraining

                   Supercompensation after each workout is smaller and easier to miss

Diagram positive supercompensation

2. The second strategy involves a series of closely spaced workouts causing fatigue to accumulate. These workouts are followed by an extended recovery period which results in an accumulated supercompensation effect. Some athletes believe this functional overreaching method leads to greater performance improvements, though this is not always the case. [1]

         +         Potential for bigger performance improvements

                   Accumulated fatigue more likely to result in overtraining

Diagram positive accumulated supercompensation

WHAT IS OVERTRAINING?

Overtraining is an extreme state of fatigue or burnout that results from excessive, accumulated training load with inadequate recovery. It is defined by long-term performance decrements lasting months and is sometimes referred to as “unexplained underperformance syndrome”. [2]

If you are experiencing the following symptoms over a long period despite rest, a clinician may diagnose overtraining syndrome.

  •         Fatigue
  •         Depression
  •         Demotivation
  •         Insomnia
  •         Anorexia
  •         Weight loss
  •         Irritability
  •         Agitation
  •         Lack of mental concentration
  •         Bradycardia (HR below 60 bpm)
  •         Tachycardia (HR above 100 bpm)
  •         Heavy, sore, stiff muscles
  •         Hypertension
  •         Anxiety
  •         Restlessness
  •         Awaking unrefreshed

Diagram negative supercompensation

Temporary performance decrements that result from accumulated training load are defined as overreaching. Where the decrease in performance is long lasting (several weeks), the condition is known as non-functional overreaching (NFO). Although full-recovery is still possible, NFO results in a loss of training time and is therefore negative.

Functional overreaching however is a positive state where accumulated training load leads to a short term decrease in performance (days to weeks) followed by supercompensation and performance enhancement. Many athletes aim for functional overreaching to maximize the supercompensation effect.

6 TOP TIPS FOR SUPERCOMPENSATION

So how do you time it right? Unless you are an elite athlete with a passion for muscle biopsy, laboratory analysis is probably not an option.

Use these tips to promote supercompensation and prevent overtraining.

1. Plan ahead //

Plan your training for the weeks ahead. Training microcycles (1-2 weeks) will help you train and recover more effectively than spontaneous workouts.

2. DOMS //

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) can be used as an indicator of recovery. DOMS usually peaks between 24 and 72 hours depending on the exercise. Training with DOMS can limit your training capacity and delay recovery time. Wait for DOMS to improve (or disappear) before training again to allow time for supercompensation. [3]

3. POMS //

The Profile of Mood States (POMS) test is a simple questionnaire that measures mood. You can give it a try here. Record your score at regular intervals to help you identify changes in vigor or fatigue. If you feel motivated, relaxed and energized, you are probably ready for a workout!  Long-term negative mood changes may indicate that recovery is needed. This test should only be used to support your judgement, not replace it. Contact a qualified clinician for professional analysis.

4. Heart rate //

Heart rate measurement is accurate, accessible, and affordable. Record your resting heart rate (RHR) at the same time each day to identify changes over time. If RHR is consistently elevated, you should rest and recover

5.  Work–life balance //

Factor in other sources of stress. Poor sleep and chronic stress can significantly slow physical recovery and limit the supercompensation effect. [4] [5]

6. 1:3 ratio //

The fitness effects of a workout last approximately 3 times longer than the fatigue effects. Once fatigue is gone, the remaining fitness effects equal supercompensation. Use the 1:3 ratio to train in the supercompensation “window”. [6]

TRAINING FOR SUPERCOMPENSATION

Once you have a base of training you are familiar with – e.g. comfortable weekly mileage or bodyweight workouts, try a supercompensation microcycle (1-2 weeks). For this “super-block” beginners should focus on improving intensity or volume, but not both at the same time. For example, a runner might include anaerobic threshold workouts or increase mileage by 20%. Either strategy should provide the stimulus needed to enhance fitness through supercompensation.

Remember, for normal progression, weekly changes of more than 10% are not recommended. This is a specific block of training which must be followed by full recovery. Do not attempt to train harder if you are ill or injured.

Many athletes train too hard on rest days and hinder the supercompensation process. Easy days should be easy! If consecutive workouts stress the same physiological systems, e.g. tempo and threshold runs, fatigue will accumulate. In this case, recovery and supercompensation will take longer. Alternate between muscle groups and fitness areas to promote recovery. 

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all supercompensation strategy. The supercompensation effect varies between individuals and according to the fitness component being trained. Experience will be your guide as you learn to balance load and recovery for maximum effect. As always, eat well, sleep well, train consistently and progress slowly. Let the gains begin!

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Abe Ankers Abe’s background in sports science and exercise physiology comes in handy when he’s running and cycling. He likes to share his insights with others. View all posts by Abe Ankers »