Progressive Overload: Get Stronger Safely

3 years ago


One principle for running (and for all exercise) is overload. This is when you push the intensity of your exercise beyond your normal level, causing the body to adapt in specific ways in response to overload in different systems of the body.

Cardiovascular changes occur quite quickly; muscles take a little longer; and connective tissue takes the longest to become strong enough to support increased mileage. It takes from 6 weeks to 6 months for skeletal/connective tissue to adapt. The fastest system to adapt is neuromuscular.

Here are some cool things that we cannot see that happen when we are training:

  • Our capillaries increase in number.
  • Our blood is pumped more efficiently, and our heart rate improves.
  • Blood volume increases.
  • Lung volume improves.
  • Mitochondria become denser.
  • Bone density is improved.
  • Connective tissue becomes stronger.


Overload should lead to positive results, helping the athlete become stronger and faster rather than weaker and more fatigued.

When I think about overload, it always makes me think of bodybuilders. Successful bodybuilders who are just starting out do not begin with their heaviest weight they want to lift. That would be ludicrous! Instead, they start with the weight they can do well, with proper form for a certain amount of reps. Then, they have a rest day before they go at it again.

For some reason, this is a hard principle for runners to learn. I’ve taught hundreds of runners, and it is not uncommon to hear of runners ignoring this principle only to get injured. (I’ve even been guilty of this myself!)

The areas that you overload in running to improve running performance are speed, distance and hills. We are going to talk about speed and distance here, although the concept can also be applied to hill training. It is best to practice speed and distance in isolation so that you are overloading one while the other is resting.

When using progressive overload in your training, you will want to implement as many overload days as possible without getting injured. That means that you have to have enough rest days in between to allow recovery. So, if we talk about overload, we must also talk about rest.

We call the overload and rest cycles the hard/easy cycle. Any good running program will follow a hard/easy cycle. These cycles include hard days where you push your body a bit beyond what it is used to; these are followed by easy days (or rest days) that allow your body a chance to recover and make adaptations and changes so that it is ready for the next push.

Many runners get what I call “The Superman Syndrome.” After starting a running program, they notice that they feel strength in their muscles that wasn’t there before. They can breathe and even talk during a run like they couldn’t before. They “feel” like they can achieve the impossible with their running goals! Then they get an injury. What happened?

What happened was that although their muscles, heart and lungs had adapted, their bones, ligaments and joints had not. The skeletal system is the last to adapt and may take anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to adapt. This is the main reason for PROGRESSIVE overload. Most studies show that you should increase by 5%.

Here is a chart to help you understand why we separate speed and distance. An “easy” day is a day that is easy in speed and distance. A “very hard” distance matched up with a “very hard” speed is your long race. We want to train where the gray boxes are, not the white boxes.

Now look at this next chart. The numbers in this chart represent rest days. We want to train where the grayed boxes are, not the white boxes. The white boxes represent what happens when you combine speed and distance. You need more rest days following days when you combine speed and distance. If you stay in the grayed areas, you will be able to implement more days of overload in your training with less chance of injury. Because let’s face it: if you are injured, you will not be training and will not be practicing overload.

Overload is what we want as it helps your body adapt to harder workloads. We want as many overloads as possible before race day. To get enough overloads in, you need enough easy days in between them. Separating speed and distance is one way of achieving more overload training sessions.

A typical training week may look like this:

Finally, I want to end with sharing some of the training mistakes people have shared with me through the years in regard to overload. Keep in mind that these are things that increase your likelihood of injury:

  • Running a 5K race (at race pace) on a Saturday and then running a long run the following day.
  • Taking off due to sickness for a few days, and then trying to play catch-up when coming back by running several hard days in a row.
  • Peaking too soon by running the longest long run fast (race pace) and then not allowing enough recovery to be ready for race day.
  • Signing up for our YMCA half marathon class without a 6-mile long run base and trying to catch up - our first long run is 6 miles. (I do offer a free 10K plan to help runners prepare for the class.)

Here’s to adaptions—to a faster, stronger and healthier you, using the principle of progressive overload!

Prepared by Karen King, Joplin Family YMCA Running Coach, RRCA Certified

Karen is a RRCA certified and coaches the Anyone Can Run class, Kids Run the Nation program at the Joplin YMCA and works with individuals to help them meet their specific running goals. She enjoys helping new runners or runners new to the 5K, 10K, or Half Marathon distance. In 2014, Karen helped establish a bible study running group called, Sole 2 Soul. Since May 2015, she has been leading an early morning strength training workout targeting runners, called RunFit. This class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:00 AM to 7:00 AM.

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