How Understanding Density Can Help You Avoid Overtraining

When I first started coaching, I often had to dissuade a new client from despair. They looked at their training plan and were overwhelmed by the prospect of so many training sessions and long runs.

But these key sessions – which took place in the last few weeks of the plan – turned out to be completely manageable. They just weren’t entirely possible. Runners needed to prepare for these workouts and recover and get in top shape before attempting them.

This is why we train. It allows you to gradually improve and eventually do things that you didn’t think about. And it all depends on the pattern or the correct change in effort during a given training week.

I worked with 10 different trainers in high school and college, but my cross-country and track skills remained remarkably similar. Most runners have heard of the light / heavy rule, which involves alternating efforts from day to day. This general rule has always formed the basis of our training.

And this patterning reflects a concept called learning density . And once you understand density, you can plan your workouts much more efficiently.

What is Learning Density?

Training density reflects the pattern of effort over a period of time. If the density is high, the runner does a lot of quality work (such as long runs and faster workouts). If density is low, the overall workload is distributed less through less high quality workouts.

High workout density does not mean there are more difficult workouts and longer runs. This means these key workouts run closer together, resulting in less recovery between tough days.

An example of a schedule with a higher workout density is a schedule with two workouts (faster workouts) and a long run per week. This requires 1-2 days of recovery between each quality day, resulting in a tighter schedule.

How to spot errors in training density

Training density errors are always at the two ends of the load spectrum. In other words, the density is either too high or too low.

The goal of any runner interested in improvement is to warm up the body to a level sufficient for physiological adaptation (such as increasing endurance, strength, or speed). But this goal requires a level of density similar to Goldilocks, and achieving it “just right” is not easy.

If the density is too high, the runner will either get injured while running , or psychologically burn out from too much effort, or experience overtraining syndrome .

High-density schedules can be objectively overly complex, but they can also be relatively overly complex. Any weekly schedule that includes three or more heavy workouts is likely to be too busy (except perhaps for some elite athletes during peak workouts). And any schedule that includes one tough day after another with tough days to recover is almost always a mistake. However, certain schedules that are inherently not overly tight can be overwhelming depending on your fitness level. For example, if you just started running a few months ago, it is best not to try to do a long run a week and two faster workouts a week; Limiting yourself to one hard workout is a much safer plan.

The other side of this coin is that there is too little density in your schedule, which means that you simply won’t improve much. There won’t be enough stress to stimulate these beneficial adaptations, which will then lead to stagnant performance. This is often seen in runners who do not run faster workouts or who only occasionally complete their long runs. In their regime, there is simply not enough hard work to motivate them to move forward and improve.

Optimal Training Density Examples

Most runners will succeed with one long run and 1-2 faster workouts per week, evenly spread over a 7-day period.

For this schedule, consider doing two workouts only if you are a more advanced runner who can handle a tighter plan. If you’re a beginner or intermediate runner, it’s best to stick to one faster workout per week.

Let’s take a look at two different examples of optimal training weeks. This will help you create your own training schedule and hopefully find a middle ground.

Schedule for beginners

This schedule includes five runs, two of which are quality runs (fast workout and long run). They are spaced as evenly as possible, which allows you to spend 2-3 light days or days of rest to ensure full recovery.

  • Monday: OFF
  • Tuesday: light run
  • Wednesday: quick workout
  • Thursday: OFF
  • Friday: easy run
  • Saturday: long race
  • Sunday: easy run

Extended Schedule

This schedule has seven runs with three quality workouts (two quick workouts and one long run). They are also spaced as evenly as possible, which allows you to spend 1-2 easy days between each hard work.

  • Monday: quick workout
  • Tuesday: light run
  • Wednesday: quick workout
  • Thursday: easy run
  • Friday: recovery
  • Saturday: long race
  • Sunday: easy run

Both schedules provide adequate recovery and injury prevention . They do not include hard days in a row. The workouts are evenly distributed throughout the week, and there is not much hard workout in the weekly period.

When you’re planning your own running program, training density is a critical concept to help you avoid injury, prioritize adaptation, and get the most out of your efforts. This sounds just right for me.

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