A majority of your workouts should leave something in the tank. For example, in most interval sessions, you should feel like you could complete another rep or two. The average tempo run should not leave you completely spent. However, there are occasions when a workout should push you far outside of your comfort zone. These are supercompensation workouts – big workouts meant to produce a large adaptation effect. They aren’t easy but, well, neither is racing!
What Are Supercompensation Workouts?
Supercompensation is a basic theory in exercise science. You apply a significant amount of training stress. Fitness experiences a temporary dip as you recover. However, if you recover well enough, your fitness then bounces back higher than the previous baseline.
You do not want to apply too large of training stress. If you did, then your fitness would drop too low and stay low as your body struggles to recover. So, supercompensation workouts should be scaled to the runner’s ability. For the first-time marathoner, a 20-mile long run may be a supercompensation workout. For a skilled marathoner, they may do 20 miles with a large amount of marathon pace pacing in it.
On a macro scale, supercompensation can occur through weeks of high mileage and/or intensity. Most training plans utilize some degree of supercompensation (think the last 20 miler of marathon training). On a micro-scale, big peak workouts such as these provide a supercompensation effect.
A supercompensation workout is a running workout that delivers a huge amount of stress to elicit this effect. These are not your bread and butter workouts. You only want to do these workouts a couple times in a single training cycle, in the peak weeks of training.
How to Do Supercompensation Workouts
For a supercompensation workout to be fully effective, you must recover properly. The more challenging the workout, the more recovery is required. Recovery begins once you finish the run. Consume adequate amounts of protein and carbohydrates to repair tissue damage and replenish glycogen stores. Get plenty of sleep that night. Program at least two days of easy running before your next long run or hard workout. Do not skip your scheduled rest days. If you stop partway through the workout, do not attempt to make it up – instead, recognize your state of fatigue and focus on recovering.
An ideal supercompensation workout is done 3-4 weeks prior to your race. This timeframe allows you to be in optimal fitness from training. A few weeks before your race also provides enough time for you to recover and, more importantly, adapt before your race.
Supercompensation workouts are not magic workouts. One does not replace weeks of hard, deliberate training. In fact, attempting one of these workouts without an appropriate training progression can increase your risk of injury. If in doubt – high fatigue, pains, or skipped training – skip it.
Remember also: training is like laying bricks. You use many small bricks to build a wall, not just a couple of huge ones. Not one single workout – even a supercompensation workout – builds your entire fitness for the season. A smart training plan, which may include a supercompensation workout, will.
All of these workouts should be preceded by a thorough warm-up of 10-20 minutes of easy running and followed by a cooldown of 5-15 minutes of easy running. You will want to eat a pre-run snack rich in carbohydrates, hydrate well, and, if the workout exceeds 80 minutes, take in some mid-run fuel. These workouts are all demanding and require a large amount of carbohydrates to produce energy.
Pacing is key. You do not get extra fitness points if you run too fast on these workouts; you only risk overtraining. These workouts are not always meant to be completed perfectly. These are hard workouts. You may fall off pace. You may cut them short. And that’s okay!
2-3 x 5 minutes at 5K pace, 2-min recovery jog, followed by 5 x 1 min hard/1 min easy
This 5K workout looks simple on paper, but you will finish with your hands on your knees. The 5-minute intervals will stress your VO2max and the shorter ones will aid in sharpening a strong finishing kick.
3-4 x 2 miles at half marathon effort, with a 4-5 min jog in between.
For more experienced runners, this half marathon workout occurs in the middle of a long run. Two-mile repeats are long enough that you have to nail your pacing or you will crash. After multiple two-mile repeats at half marathon pace, you have a solid aerobic stimulus and a big confidence boost.
90 minutes easy, 70-80 minutes at marathon pace.
Racing a marathon is all about being able to mentally and physically sustain a moderate pace for a prolonged period of time. Long marathon pace tempos built into long runs prepare you for that; this extra-long marathon pace tempo prepares you for also running on tired legs. If you can do this workout, you can run that pace for the marathon.