There is no progress in training without supercompensation. However, this can only be exploited with the right distance between training stimuli.
Dr. rer. nat. Michael Schwarz is a sports and physical exercise scientist and runs the Medbase Checkup Centre in Zurich on Römerhofplatz.
If you want to improve your triathlon, cycling or running training, if you aim for a better time in your next competition, or if you wonder why your performance is stagnating – then it’s time to look into supercompensation.
The stimulus of training leads to muscle fatigue and the depletion of energy reserves. This is why performance capacities decrease during training. After training, we move into the regeneration phase. At the end of the regeneration phase, performance increases compared to the initial level. This phase is called supercompensation.
If you set the new training stimulus precisely in this phase, performance will be better than in the previous training. This will be followed by another phase of fatigue, regeneration and the subsequent supercompensation.
The secret is to always seize the right moment for the next training session, neither too early nor too late. In this way, you can continue to improve your performance.
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Timing is key
The most ambitious amateur athletes sometimes train every day, often intensively, and then wonder why they haven’t made any progress. The reason is that they set the next training stimulus too early. Supercompensation has not yet taken place. So the opposite of what is intended happens: performance drops.
Training has an effect during the break, so it takes some time for supercompensation to occur. If your legs still feel heavy from your last workout, it is probably too early to start training again.
The opposite is also true if, after the initial good result, you can no longer increase your performance after training two or three times a week. The reason is that by the time the next training session arrives, the supercompensation phase has already passed. The breaks and regeneration time between training stimuli are too long.
As a rule of thumb, the regeneration time after free aerobic endurance training is 24-36 hours, after intense anaerobic endurance training 48-72 hours and after strength training 72 hours (for the trained muscle group).
The training stimulus plays an important role
The fact that training works is due to the principle of supercompensation. Every training plan is based on this concept. And this should also be followed before the competition. In practical terms, this means that there should be a sufficiently long break between the last training session and the race, so that you are as regenerated as possible on day X.
However, it is not only the right timing that is decisive, but also the strength of the training stimulus. For example, if the top athlete needs 150 kg on the bench press, it may only take half as much for the amateur athlete to achieve the same increase in training effect.
Amateur runners have an advantage, at least in relative terms. They can stimulate more with targeted training and achieve faster adaptations in performance than high-level athletes. This is because the higher the performance level, the more difficult it is to set an effective training stimulus that increases performance.
Greater glycogen stores in trained muscles
Since degradation and storage processes do not occur at the same rate in all tissues, the respective supercompensation phases do not occur synchronously. Tendons, for example, usually adapt much more slowly than muscles. The supercompensation model, first described in the 1970s, is therefore not transferable to all tissues, cells and organs.
However, certain biological processes can be explained very well by it, for example the depletion of glycogen stores in trained muscles and their subsequent replenishment. With proper nutrition, more glycogen is stored in the muscle than before, so that more energy is available for the next workout.
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