How Progressive Overload Helps You Reach Any Fitness Goal

Tap into the power of this training principle to keep getting better — and faster.


There are few things as frustrating as hitting a plateau, especially when you’re trying to get faster, run farther, or just generally get in better shape.

That’s why everyone needs progressive overload. The phrase might sound intense or a little technical, but it’s actually a basic concept that’s the key to making improvements in your health and fitness. And no matter your goals, it’s a technique you should tap into.

“Progressive overload is imperative not only for runners who want to improve their race performances and have specific goals in mind but also anyone who runs to get in shape or stay fit,” says Danny Sheehan, an ultrarunner, certified personal trainer, and certified running coach with Mile High Run Club. “The strategy can be used in various ways to improve all elements of fitness, including aerobic capacity and cardiovascular health.”

Let’s break down what the principle entails and how to apply it to your schedule based on whatever goals you’re running toward.

Progressive Overload: The Definition
“Progressive overload is an important training concept commonly used to improve strength, endurance, muscle growth, and athletic performance,” says Sheehan. Simply put, the idea is that you gradually increase one or more training variables from one week to the next — and doing so forces your body to continuously adapt to greater and greater demands. In other words, keep getting better and avoid those annoying plateaus.

This strategy applies to your running routine (it’s the basis for any endurance-training plan that ups your weekly mileage by 10 percent) and strength workouts as well. Depending on what you’re training for, you might increase your distance, pace, or resistance.

It also helps you sidestep injury. “Think of muscles as protection of ligaments, tendons, and joints that support your body as you run,” says April Gatlin, ACE-certified personal trainer, master trainer and coach for STRIDE Fitness. You want your muscles to continuously get stronger to withstand the load you’re putting on them — particularly if you’re aiming to use your muscles to help you skyrocket your pace or support you through a marathon.

Just keep in mind, Gatlin advises, that it’s best to incorporate progressive overload once you have a decent base established: “Progressive overload training should only be done after you have mastered an exercise with proper form and you’ve been doing the same routine for at least two weeks.”

How to Ramp Up Your Training Using the Progressive Overload Principle
First things first: Consider your goals and make a plan. Are you gearing up for a marathon and need to build endurance? Looking to crush your 10K PB? Wanting to add more weekly runs to help your cardiovascular health? Write your intended running and strength workouts for the next month and, depending on your goal, make small training increases each week.

For example, says Sheehan, if your goal is to increase endurance, schedule workouts that gradually up your weekly mileage or the number of intervals in a speed workout. If you want to improve strength, you can add weight to resistance-training workouts done off the road or increase intensity of your speed workouts via the pace or terrain.

This is where the 10-percent rule comes in, says Gatlin: “If one week you have a long run of 32 kilometres, with the progressive overload training in practice, you’d add 10 percent of that distance to the next week’s run for a total of 35 kilometres.” (That means keeping the rest of your weekly mileage the same, FYI.)

To really pinpoint your training calendar based on your goals, Gatlin recommends hiring a coach or trainer to customise a plan based on your aims and abilities. But here are two brief example schedules that use progressive overload for different purposes:

Training for endurance:

  • Week 1: Run a total of 22 kilometres
  • Week 2: Run a total of 24 kilometres
  • Week 3: Run a total of 26 kilometres
  • Week 4: Run a total of 22 kilometres (cutback week)

Training for strength:

  • Week 1: Do goblet squats with 7-9 kg weight
  • Week 4: Do goblet squats with 9 -11 kg  weight
  • Week 8: Do goblet squats with 11-13 kg weight

The Role Rest Plays in Progressive Overload
Don’t worry: Just because you’re pushing through tougher and tougher workouts doesn’t mean it’s all work and no play. Easy sessions and full days off are just as important if you want to keep improving — and progressively overloading.

“While at rest our body makes the desired adaptations forced on it by the stress of the training load — everything from muscle repair and growth to replenishment of depleted energy systems occurs during this time,” explains Sheehan. Every few weeks, you should schedule a cutback week, in which your mileage or intensity dips.

Incorporating active recovery by way of easy walking, cycling, or other gentle cross-training can help repair damaged muscles by increasing circulation. “Without adequate rest,” says Sheehan, “you won’t see continued improvement and will risk injury and overtraining.”

We say, train hard, and a little harder — then take it easy, knowing you’ve put in the work to get better than ever.

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