How Understanding ‘Density’ Can Help You Avoid Overtraining

How Understanding ‘Density’ Can Help You Avoid Overtraining
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When I first started coaching, I would often have to talk a new client off the ledge of despair. They would look at their training plan and get overwhelmed by the prospect of so many workouts and long runs.

But these key sessions — which took place in the final few weeks of the plan — wound up being entirely manageable. They just weren’t quite possible yet. The runners needed to build up to those workouts, recover properly, and get in better shape before attempting them.

That process is why we train. It allows you to improve incrementally, and ultimately to do things you didn’t think you could. And it all depends on patterning, or properly varying effort throughout a given training week.

I worked with 10 different coaches during high school and college, yet the patterning I experienced for cross country and track remained remarkably similar. Most runners have heard of the “easy/hard” rule, where effort alternates from day to day. This general rule always formed the backbone of our training programs.

And this patterning reflects a concept called training density. And once you understand density, you’ll be able to plan your own training much more effectively.

What is ‘training density’?

Training density reflects the pattern of effort throughout a certain time period. If density is high, the runner is completing a lot of high-quality work (like long runs and faster workouts). If density is low, the overall workload is spread thinner with fewer high-quality training sessions.

High training density doesn’t just mean that there are more challenging workouts and long runs. It means that those key training sessions are closer together, resulting in less recovery between hard days.

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

How to spot mistakes in training density

Training density mistakes are always on the two ends of the workload spectrum. In other words, density is either too high or too low.

The goal of any runner interested in improvement is to stress the body enough to warrant a physiological adaptation (like gaining more endurance, strength, or speed). But this goal requires a Goldilocks-like level of density — and getting it “just right” is tricky.

If there’s too much density, the runner will either suffer a running injury, psychologically burn out from too much high effort, or experience overtraining syndrome.

High-density schedules can be objectively too difficult, but they can also be relatively too difficult. Any weekly schedule that includes three or more hard workouts is likely too dense (except, perhaps, for some elite athletes during peak training). And any schedule that includes back-to-back hard days with no easy days for recovery is almost always a mistake. That said, certain schedules that aren’t inherently too dense could be too difficult based on your fitness level. For example, if you just started running a few months ago, it’s best not to attempt a weekly long run and two faster workouts per week; limiting yourself to one hard workout is a much safer plan.

The other side of this coin is having too little density in your schedule, which means you just won’t improve much. There won’t be enough stress to spur those beneficial adaptations, which then leads to stagnating performances. This can often be seen with runners who don’t run any faster workouts or only sporadically complete their long runs. There simply isn’t enough hard work in their regimen spurring them to move forward and improve.

Optimal examples of training density

Most runners will thrive with one long run and 1-2 faster workouts per week, spread evenly throughout the 7-day period.

In this schedule, consider doing 2 workouts only if you are a more advanced runner who can handle a denser plan. If you’re a beginner or intermediate runner, it’s best to limit yourself to one faster workout per week.

Let’s look at two different examples of optimal training weeks. This will help you plan your own training schedule, and hopefully find that Goldilocks sweet spot.

The Beginner Schedule

This schedule includes five runs, with two of them quality sessions (the fast workout and the long run). They’re as evenly spaced as possible, allowing for 2-3 easy or rest days to allow for ample recovery.

  • Monday: OFF
  • Tuesday: Easy run
  • Wednesday: Fast workout
  • Thursday: OFF
  • Friday: Easy run
  • Saturday: Long run
  • Sunday: Easy run

The Advanced Schedule

In this schedule, there are seven runs with three quality sessions (two fast workouts and one long run). They are also spaced as evenly as possible, allowing for 1-2 easy days in between each hard session.

  • Monday: Fast workout
  • Tuesday: Easy run
  • Wednesday: Fast workout
  • Thursday: Easy run
  • Friday: Recovery run
  • Saturday: Long run
  • Sunday: Easy run

Both schedules allow for adequate recovery and injury prevention. They don’t include back-to-back hard days. Workouts are evenly spaced throughout the week, and there aren’t too many hard sessions over the weekly time period.

As you’re planning your own running program, training density is a critical concept that will help you avoid injury, prioritise adaptations, and get the most back for your effort. Which sounds just right to me.

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