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Supercompensation: Why a Break in Your Training Is Necessary

While I will always encourage you to be a consistent, daily mover due to its role in staying healthy, building endurance, holding on to muscle mass, and even maintaining body weight, there comes a time when you have to take a break.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #389

Purposeful Overreaching

Although it sounds scary, it should not be your goal to avoid overreaching.

At this point I want you to know that although it sounds scary, it should not be your goal to avoid overreaching. When you can recover correctly from all that cellular microtrauma, your body bounces back stronger than ever (remember that fitness is built through stress and rest) and the subsequent fitness gains are actually greater than what they would have been if you had played it safe and not pushed yourself to the edge of overtraining.

And that’s the whole idea in a nutshell, really. Push yourself to the edge (or overreach), and then achieve full recovery to reap the subsequent gain in fitness.

As I said earlier, the nerdy fitness term for this is “supercompensation” and based on this principle, you absolutely must push yourself beyond your limits, occasionally. Take a look at any good training plan (marathon, bodybuilding, or otherwise) and you will see that they have some amount of purposeful accumulation of fatigue followed by a period of recovery that results in supercompensation in an ever-growing escalation of performance and fitness.

It’s often hard to explain this to a new athlete who wants their fitness build to be a straight line with an upward slope directly from the couch to greatness. In reality, it looks a lot more like a mountain range, with many peaks but nearly as many valleys.

Instead of experiencing the losses in fitness, we can actually grow our fitness and strength during the time off.

Planning for a Break

To come full circle back to where we started, when you know you have a break in your training and you will be either forced or voluntarily put into a period of recovery (like I was last week on those Bermudian beaches) we can use this idea of supercompensation to our advantage. Instead of experiencing the losses in fitness that were highlighted in those research studies, we can actually grow our fitness and strength during the time off. This is how to do it:

  1. Identify when the break in training is going to happen.

  1. In your training plan, two to three weeks before the break, remove your normal rest and recovery days and instead begin a gradual build in your training load. This may include extra kilometers of running or cycling, more weight on the bar, or back to back workouts that would normally be separated by 24 or 48 hours.

  1. In the final week before the break, dig deep and feel free to ignore that inner voice of reason which I usually encourage you to heed. Launch yourself out of bed and into your workout clothes despite feeling a desire to hit snooze and call it a rest day knowing that you will soon get all the rest you need.

  2. Be careful not to push yourself fully into overtraining but definitely allow yourself to accumulate more fatigue than you usually would. Don’t be unreasonable but also, as we say in the biz, don’t be a wimp.

Here is an interesting study that was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that serves as a perfect example of supercompensation and recovery. In this study, researchers divided fit triathletes into two groups. Both groups spent one week doing their regular training, but then for the next three weeks, one group continued this regular training, while the other group ramped up their training by 40%. Finally, both groups did what is called a taper (which is a purposeful and gradual decrease in training) for a week before the research culminated in a final performance test.

In the same way that we are planning for that beach vacation, their goal was to push the 40% increase group into a state of functional overreaching. As expected, the performance of the overreaching group got steadily worse over the three hard weeks but then, after the taper, their fitness supercompensated and they had the absolute best results of the study.

So, there we have it. By planning some hard and heavy weeks leading up to a vacation or a break, not only can we avoid detraining, losing fitness, and having to make up for lost time, we can actually increase our fitness as we relax on the beach. With the caveat that this doesn’t give us license to go off the deep end completely. We still need to give our body what it needs to repair and rebuild (general movement, good food, adequate hydration, deep sleep, etc.) What we don’t have to do is pack our kettlebells in our carry-on or set an alarm to get up before dawn to bust out a quick 10k before our loved ones wake up in order to stick to our awesome fitness goals.

For more time off info, training break tips, and to join the vacation conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy or twitter.com/getfitguy. Also don't forget to subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, StitcherSpotify, Google Play or via RSS.

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