We want results and we want them fast. So how do we get them? In sports science theory, empirical research now backed with scientific evidence identifies a way our bodies achieve the desired metabolic and muscular response of increased aerobic capabilities and strength. The methodology and actual training adaptation that gets you there is supercompensation.
Our bodies are constantly responding to the stress we apply — whether it’s in the form of recovery or increased fatigue — in order to maintain a state of homeostasis. Ideally, with the proper structure, our bodies respond to that stress leaving you stronger for your next phase of training, whether that be a workout or the next step in your Build or Specialty Phase. The following discussion provides an inside look into how supercompensation plays a role in reaching that state of equilibrium.
What is Supercompensation?
Many of us see the term “supercompensation” as daunting; as if it’s associated with an extremely rigorous and demanding training process that’s risky and should be avoided — WRONG. Although this practice achieves supercompensation effects, you’re confusing this with another form of training, which we’ll get to shortly.
Supercompensation as a Model
Supercompensation (commonly referred to as overcompensation) is not only the physiological training adaptation, it’s also conceptualized as an entire model that you can frame your training within. Internationally recognized training and conditioning expert Vern Gambetta breaks down the process for us in an excerpt from “Athletic Development”.
- Phase 1 — Training: Athletes begin to introduce training stimulus that’s higher than what the body is previously used to (i.e. structured training). This stress prompts fatigue which is reflected in declining performance.
- Phase 2 — Recovery: Declining performance leaves an athlete with no choice but to introduce recovery in some form. Whether that be active rest, active recovery sessions, or simply taking a day off completely. Proper recovery and nutrition allows energy stores and performance to return to original baseline fitness.
- Phase 3 — Supercompensation: Now here comes the good stuff — this is when supercompensation comes into play. After adequate recovery from a workload your body was previously not suited to withstand has been introduced, the predictive and responsive nature of the body builds itself in anticipation for the next expected challenge. You’ve basically tricked your body into becoming suitable to withstand the next effort based on the previously experienced challenge in phase one.
- Phase 4 — Decline of fitness (preparedness): Naturally, all good things must come to an end. Well, ideally not for long. When you reintroduce your training, this stimulus should frame the height of the supercompensation effects to maximize benefits. The process thus repeats itself, and the sinusoidal wave begins to form. As time spent implementing the supercompensation model increases, so will your fitness. The intention is to gradually move that wave in an upward trend.
The Supercompensation Effect
Supercompensation is ubiquitous in training. You know it as the effects of training hard, but scientifically it’s referred to as supercompensation.
Your fitness is never stagnant — we’re either in a state of supercompensation or detraining. Framing your training in a way that takes advantage of the super-compensatory effect is imperative if you want to capitalize on your hard work. The proper work-to-recovery ratio opens a window to a new training stimulus which will further perpetuate your fitness in an upward trend. This window can vary from rider to rider, so there isn’t necessarily a definitive range.
Keep in mind the work aimed towards supercompensation with cycling is largely aerobic, considering cycling is a predominantly aerobic sport. With anaerobic activity, the replenishing of creatine phosphate and glycogen stores happen fairly quickly. However, a part of the aerobic undertaking is a regeneration process that’s much deeper. This regeneration takes place at different muscular and metabolic levels, resulting in aerobic adaptations that underlie everything important to an endurance athlete, e.g., increased mitochondrial proliferation, increased capillarization and increased aerobic enzymatic activity.
The Training Process: How Does This Relate to Your Training?
Coach Chad weaves each workout into his structured training plans with aims to achieve the benefits of supercompensation. Every workout either addresses overload (in a range of forms) or recovery, where the supercompensation is actually occurring:
- Microcycles: Think of a week of structured workouts in your training plan — notice that workout on the weekend that dials things back? Or maybe a rest day immediately after a strong weekend of riding? You’re seeing a supercompensation model, just on a smaller scale. That recovery day is where the adaptation takes place, allowing for your next workout(s) to take hold of the supercompensation benefits built from that previous brick.
- Mesocycles: How about a 4-week training block? Notice that active recovery week in there? Yep, you’re giving yourself the time for adequate adaptation coupled with recovery, which’ll again be interrupted by the next phase of training stress.
- Macrocycles: As a whole, when you’re on a TR training plan, your entire season is aimed at achieving supercompensation effects, as well as making them increasingly specific to the event your plan is geared towards. For all intents and purposes, you can think of these effects as synonymous to training adaptations, which we usually refer to them as.
There is another model of training that supercompensation often gets lumped in with: “crash training.” All too often people stave from supercompensation because they think it’s only associated with this potential risk of overtraining — it’s not.
If introducing above-normal training stress into your regimen achieves supercompensation effects, then crash training cranks that stimulus up a few — or even several more — notches. Nonetheless, you’re still achieving supercompensation effects.
To decide if crash training is something safe for you to implement, consider the following:
- If you push it too hard, you run the risk of overtraining, especially when dealing with consecutive high-intensity workouts. For a healthy, young athlete, a crash cycle of up to seven days might yield the extra sought after supercompensation, while an older or less experienced athlete might only need a few consecutive days.
- Despite the nature of the discipline, crash training commonly values increased intensity over increased volume. High, short-term increases in volume lasting up to a few weeks in a row can be just as effective as high doses of training volume, depending on the particular training adaptation being pursued and the amount of training time available. Compare this to your typical discipline-specific plan that introduces workouts varying in volume and intensity to prepare for multiple facets of a potential event.
- Every day of crash training typically requires one day of active — or even full — recovery afterward. For example, 4-7 days of high-intensity crashing should be followed by an equal number of easy or off days. The higher end of crash training (14-21 days of long, lower-intensity work) will typically be followed by substantially fewer recovery days, something more along the lines of 7-10 days.
Overtraining Vs. Detraining
We keep mentioning this window your training should be framed within to achieve supercompensation. Well, there are two things that can go wrong when your training is introduced too early, or perhaps even too late.
In a nutshell, non-functional overreaching is the continuous application of training stress, minus the adequate recovery needed to perpetuate restitution. Think back to phase two of the supercompensation model. In the instance of nonfunctional overreaching, adequate recovery hasn’t allowed your fitness to surpass your previous level of fitness before training is reintroduced, or you’ve reached a peak level of fitness yet continued to apply a hefty dose of training without allowing adequate recovery. The result? A gradual decline in fitness and lack of ability to perform.
If left unaddressed, this could lead to overtraining. Overtraining is no joke — this can end your season, requiring up to a multi-month recovery. Large changes in resting heart-rate, extreme fatigue and/or apathy for the sport are all indications of non-functional overreaching, which is sign to take it easy.
Say you reach the peak of supercompensation, but then simply stop training completely. The training stress that moves you into phase four of the supercompensation model is missing, and fitness begins to drop off. Keeping a consistent pattern in your training is the only way to avoid the risk of detraining.
The final risk you run if you don’t time your training to coincide with supercompensation effects is simply no gain in fitness whatsoever. You can see this in Figure E below:
The effects of supercompensation are crucial for improvement, but they need to be practiced carefully. If you’re following a properly structured training plan, there’s little need to worry. If you’re not, however, keep a lookout for symptoms of overdoing it. Pushing the limits of the super-compensatory mechanism too far can result in nonfunctional overreaching, which can lead to overtraining. That said, having an understanding of how the body progresses in fitness will allow you to better recognize when your training coincides with these mechanisms.
TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast is dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. It gives you the chance to get answers to your cycling and triathlon training questions from USAC certified coaches Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee and special guests. Learn more about other topics we covered in the latest episode with our resources below:
- Is it okay to use an old bike on the trainer?
- What to know if you are using two different power meters
- Are smart trainers better than power meters?
- What is supercompensation
- How to use supercompensation in your training
- What is the best smart trainer?
- Are smart trainers worth it?
- How to train for long, steady climbs
- How TrainerRoad workouts are named
- How to avoid flat tires on the trainer
- Are trainer tires better than normal tires?
- How to set up your tire for the trainer
- Can you expect big improvements when starting structured training?
- How much improvement is normal?
- How to recover from a workout
- Do TENS Units work?
- Does gearing or bike setup affect FTP?
- Are short recovery rides beneficial?
- Diabetes and cycling
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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