The Most Basic Law of Training


Coaches and athletes alike consistently ask me what I consider to be the single most important training law or principle. This is an excellent question, and the answer has been embedded within, yet hidden beneath the surface of all of our discussions on training.

However, while we’ve consistently talked about a wide variety of very specific training strategies related to the art and science of optimal training, we have never focused solely on discussing the most basic general law of training – upon which the ultimate success of any of these specific training strategies is dependent.

This basic law or principle is the first and most basic physiological concept that needs to be understood by both runners and their coaches who want to optimize short- and long-term performance progress. Unfortunately, precious few runners and coaches follow this basic law of training when designing their respective training programs. Under-estimating the importance of this most basic law will surely result in ineffective training –  even if all other training strategies in a  runner’s program are highly sophisticated.

This training law is an essential part of the “foundation” of the training  “house plan.” No matter how well-designed  or well-furnished the rest of  the house (or training plan) is, without  a firm foundation, it will collapse. A builder (or runner) can invest heavily  in the materials (by working hard) on  all of the other parts of the house ( specific  training strategies) and still have  it collapse (or fail to achieve their  potential) if the foundation is not  strong and supportive (by not adhering  to this most basic law of training).

In my experience, neglecting this  most basic scientific training law  probably results in more major training  failures than all other training mistakes  combined. Conversely, the simple  mastery of this one key training  principle can enable any runner to  steadily improve.

The Most Basic Law of Training  

The most basic training law is  simple: Each and every training  stress should be followed by an  amount of rest (or recovery) which  is appropriate to allow for optimal  performance progress.

Optimal progress or improvement  is the result of balancing optimal  training stress with optimal training  rest or recovery.

Put into an equation it looks like this:

Optimal Training STRESS  + Optimal Training REST  = Optimal Performance PROGRESS

It has a nice ring, doesn’t it?  Optimal STRESS plus optimal REST  equals optimal PROGRESS.

While almost every runner or  coach is aware of this most basic law  of training, failure to effectively practice  it usually occurs from overemphasizing  the “stress” ( or hard  work) part of the equation and underestimating  the equal importance of the  ‘rest’ (or recovery) part of the equation.

Therefore, understanding what  constitutes optimal rest (or recovery)  from hard training sessions ( or stress)  will be the primary goal of this article.  We will achieve this goal by providing  you with (1) a basic understanding of  the physiology of stress and rest, as  well as (2) a set of tools, methods and  guidelines to help you balance stress  and rest for optimal training progress.

Although the concept (stress plus  rest equals progress) is simple enough  to understand, it can in fact, be very  complex. This is because each person’s  body is different (general health,  basic muscle fiber type, body weight,  running economy, injury history, fitness  level, training history, etc .. ) and  therefore, responds to different types  of workouts (long runs, tempo runs,  interval workouts, speed sessions,  etc.) and other external stresses (suboptimal  weather conditions, altitude,  job stress, family commitments, financial  concerns, pollution, allergies, ~  inadequate sleep, poor nutrition, etc.)  in different ways.

All of these factors make it very  challenging to gauge how to best apply  certain types of training stress (key  workouts), manage various life-style  stresses, and use the proper amounts of  rest and recovery in order to ensure  optimal adaptation that ultimately  leads to better running performances.

Rest Is Absolutely Critical

Rest can not be separated from  stress. They are both equally important  factors in the same training equation.  Stress and rest each are parts of  the same whole: making up any complete  cycle of effective training.

Whether you realize it or not, rest  (or recovery) can be, should be, and is  taken after each and every unit of trammg that you perform. Rest is  taken between hard speed repeats on  the track. Rest should be, and is taken  on the easy day ( or days) that follow a  hard workout day. And an easy month  of rest is often taken (and recommended)  after any racing season.

Likewise, in sleeping every night,  rest is a natural part of the cycle of life  (especially for athletes). You could not  function very well (or even stay alive)  for very long if you did not sleep. In  the same way, if all you did was train  hard every day, it wouldn’t be very  long before you became injured,  exhausted, and/or “burned out.”

The Basic Physiology of  Training Stress & Rest  

We all know that either no training  stress or too little training stress will  not improve your running performance.  Likewise, too much rest could  eliminate any performance gains  you’ve worked hard to achieve.  Finally, too much stress – or too much  stress without enough rest is actually  counter-productive because your body  will become very tired, “run-down,”  and even chronically over-trained.

The diagram in Table 1  illustrates what  happens when training stress (in the  form of a difficult workout) is performed.  This is an easy-to-understand  (although somewhat over-simplified)  version of N.N. Yakovlev’s wellknown  explanation of the “over-com-  • pensation” cycle of training.

Note that in the diagram, this sample  runner’s starting fitness level is  about20:00 for 5K. However, upon  performing a challenging workout  (training stress), fatigue follows (see  downward-moving blue line) which  causes a temporary drop in fitness so  that after about a day or so, the runner  can only run about 20:50 for 5K. (If  you don’t believe this, try running a  challenging workout the day before  a race and see for yourself how slow  you race compared to your normal  race times ! )

After physiological fatigue (from  chemical imbalances, cellular trauma,  and muscular breakdown)  reaches its maximum, the body eventually  begins to recover from this  training stress-induced fatigue (see  upward-moving blue line), so that by  the end of the third day, this runner  has actually begun to exceed his or her  previous level of fitness by more fully  recovering from, and adapting to the  applied training stress.

As a result, this runner will be  able to either (1) perform better workouts  and races, and/or (2) perform the  same workouts with less effort ( or  greater ease).

“Over-compensation” occurs  when the body has reached the point  of greatest adaptation after an optimal  recovery cycle from stress. Simply  put, over-compensation is the body’s  way of preparing for future stresses  (in this case, challenging workouts)  by adapting to a new and higher level  of fitness.

By looking at the diagram, you  can see that the maximum benefit  gained (as a result of this training  stress and recovery cycle) occurs on  about the fourth day. At this point, the  body’s over-compensation response  has reached its peak – or optimal  training progress .

It is at this time that the runner has  fully recovered and adapted to the  hard training performed on the first  day and (as shown in the diagram) his  or her performance capacity has  improved to 19:50 for 5K.

This is the ideal point in time for  this particular runner to again apply  stress by performing another challenging  training session. As shown, if  he or she continues to rest another  day, his or her fitness will begin to  decline, and eventually fall below his  or her original fitness level.

However, if another optimal cycle  of training stress and recovery is  applied at this point, performance  potential can be further improved from  that already improved fitness level.

Theoretically, small training progresses  on top of previously achieved  training progresses will produce a  continual increase in one’s fitness  level – or performance potential.

Obviously, this progress will eventually  plateau so that it will be necessary  to take an extended period of rest  in order to rejuvenate the mind and  body from the cumulative stress of a  long training and/or racing season.

Mileage-Based  Training Stress

In order to be able to best manage  the stress/rest relationship in your own  training, we’ve developed several  tools that can help give you a better  understanding_of what types (or levels)  of training stress require what  amounts of rest or recovery.

Table 2 is a chart of different  levels of stress associated with different  amounts of daily mileage. It is  based on any runner’s average weekly  mileage and the number of days of running  per week (see two left columns).

The four columns on the right side  list the number of daily miles of running  which represent (]) an average  mileage day, (2) an easy or rest day of  running (significantly lower-than-average  mileage day for recovery from a  more stressful training day), (3) a moderate-  stress mileage day (above-average  daily mileage), and (4) a high-  . stress mileage day (a significantly  higher-than-average mileage day).

For instance, let’s look at the 30-  mile-a-week runner who runs 6 days a week. Reading across from the left, this  runner has an average training day of 5  miles. His or her easy or rest day  would be between O and 3 miles of running.  A moderate-stress training day  (based on mileage alone) would be 6 to  7 miles. Finally, a high-stress training  day would be 9-11 miles.

For another example, let’s take  someone who runs 45 miles a week on  7 days of running per week. Looking  at the chart above, this runner’s average  day is 6.5 miles; their easy, rest  days would be 3-4 miles; their moderate-  stress mileage day would be 9-  10 miles; and their high-stress  mileage day would be 12-13 miles.

Variations in daily training  mileage above or below a runner’s  average day of training would obviously  be either more or less stressful than  what that runner’s body has become  accustomed. Hence, daily training  mileage that is less than average represents  a recovery day. Likewise, running  more than the average daily mileage  will place a greater amount of stress on  the body and would be a moderate- or  high-stress mileage day.

Intensity-Based  Training Stress  

Variations in the level of daily training  stress not only occur as a result of  different daily mileage, but also take  place as a result of variations in the daily  intensity of training. Any of the challenging  workouts that performance- ori ented runners regularly plan into their  training (i.e., fartlek, intervals, tempo  runs, speed work, time trials, races, etc.)  – represent a significant increase in the  intensity (and stress level) of trainingversus  normal training days.

General Rest Guidelines  

Since, these types of high-intensity  training days also place increased stress  on the body, we need to be able to identify  the various levels of stress associated  with them. We will only benefit from  these days of greater training intensity  (and stress), by balancing them with easy,  low-stress days of rest so our bodies can  fully recover and move to a higher level of  fitness.

Table 3 lists both  mileage-based and intensity-based days  of training stress. It provides some general  rest (or recovery) guidelines based on  various levels of daily training mileage  and/or training intensity.

Table 2 lets you determine what constitutes  various daily mileage-based stress  level. Table 3 provides the suggested number  of easy, rest days ( either pure recovery  days or average training days) that should  follow moderate- to high-stress days.  These stress days (which include race  days) can be based on the stress of  increased mileage and/or intensity.

Looking at the top of Table 3, a  “Moderate-Stress Mileage Day” requires  only “1 Easy Mileage Day” for recovery.  In addition, the second and third lines  show us that both a “High-Stress Mileage  Day” and a “Moderate-Stress Intensity  Day” each require “2-3 Easy Mileage  Days (although one of those days can be  an Average Mileage Day).

However, a “Very High-Stress  _Intensity & Mileage Day” might require  3-5 Easy Mileage Days,” while 6-7easy,  recovery days (1 of which can be a  “Moderate-Stress Day”) are suggested  following the stress of a lOK race.  Obviously, the suggested recovery  cycles are in direct proportion to the level  of mileage- and/or intensity-based training  stress that you choose to undertake.

Table 3 is primarily geared to runners  ages 35- to 50-years old. Since younger  runners’ bodies recover more quickly,  most of them can probably use the lower  number in the range of suggested recovery  days that are listed in the chart below.

Nutrition (immediate fluid/carbohydrate replacement, vitamins, adaptogens,  overall diet composition, etc.),  therapeutic recovery practices (massage,  rolfing™, whirlpools, stretching,  etc.), muscular differences (imbalances,  fiber types, connective tissue strength,  etc.), as well as training capacity and  injury history – all play a major role in  how much recovery each individual  runner requires. as well as training  capacity and injury history – all play a  major role in how much recovery each  individual runner requires.

Keeping a Training Log  

Although these guidelines are safe  ranges to use, it is essential for each  individual to know their body well  enough to find the optimal stress/rest  patterns that seem to work best for  them. This can be done by continually  monitoring how your body feels and  responds to different types of  stress/rest cycles.

For instance, three easy days following  a moderate-stress intensity day  (i.e., hard track workout) may work  better than two easy days. In this case,  two easy days might still leave you a  little tight and/or sluggish. However,  another runner might find that two  easy days after this same workout is better than three easy days. This is  because they may find that three easy  days is too much rest – since they  seem to make more progress on two  rest days.

Every runner is different. Your  own optimal recovery cycle will vary  depending on how many easy or rest  days allow you to gain the most  progress after a stressful workout.  Keeping detailed notes in a training  log (diary) seems to be the most  systematic way to learn more about  your body. In fact, most runners can  use their training log to adjust and  improve their optimal stress/rest  cycles within three to four months of  careful observation and analysis.  V  For instance, three easy days following  a moderate-stress intensity day  (i.e., hard track workout) may work  better than two easy days. In this case,  two easy days might still leave you a  little tight and/or sluggish. However,  another runner might find that two  easy days after this same workout is

The diagram in Table 1 illustrates this concept, but it is only  an example. Each runner’s point of  “Optimal Training Progress” after any  given training stress varies depending  on a wide range of factors such as age,  training ability, muscle fiber type,  nutrition, and life-style stress.

Keeping detailed notes in a training  log (diary) seems to be the most  systematic way to learn more about  your body. In fact, most runners can  use their training log to adjust and  improve their optimal stress/rest  cycles within three to four months of  careful observation and analysis.

Resting heart rate in the morning,  leg heaviness, muscle tightness, heart  rate during running, heart rate oneminute  after running, and overall  energy ( or fatigue) level are some of  the key areas you will want to monitor  and record in your log. For example, if your resting heart  rate in the morning is more than six  6  beats higher than normal, you are  probably not recovered and would be  wise to take additional rest days until  it returns to normal.

Weekly Stress and  Recovery Patterns  

As we’ve just discussed, optimal  training requires a delicate balance of daily  stress and rest. Likewise, the body needs to  stay in balance throughout each weekly  cycle of training. As a result, it is important  to employ a weekly training pattern that  keeps your body well-rested but making  progress each week.

Table 4, lists seven  different weekly stress/rest training patterns  or cycles. Most people operate on a  weekly training cycle because of practical  considerations such as typical work,  school, and/orgeneral life cycles related to  our calendar.

It is often less constraining (and usually  more optimal) to train in cycles that  are 10-20 days in length, since you can  then fit all of your key stress/rest workout  cycles into whatever time frame is optimal  instead of forcing them into the standard 7 –  day (or weekly) cycle.

However, since most of our readers  are limited to the life-style constraints of a  weekly pattern, we are presenting seven  possible weekly training patterns for you  to choose from.

Pattern #1 is the traditional hard day/  easy-day training pattern typical of  most high school and college programs –  where one easy, recovery day is taken for  every hard training day (except for two  easy days prior to a weekend race).  Weekly mileage should remain relatively  low in order for this pattern to work well.

Pattern #1 is most practical for physically  mature, injury-resistant, and/or elite  • runners. When weekly mileage is fairly  (‘”‘ high, this hard-day/easy-day pattern can  cause injury and burnout problems even in  younger, elite high school, college, and  post-collegiate runners. Older, less talented,  and/or more fragile runners should not  attempt this pattern, especially while  maintaining relatively high weekly  mileage (morethan 40 miles per week).

Pattern #2 is probably a better weekly  pattern for most older runners (above  30-years old), who want to run two hard  workouts a week. Pattern #3 is for those  who want to get in three somewhat stressful  training days but can not handle three  hard days, hence one hard (or high-stress)  day and two moderate-stress days.

Pattern #4 might be used during a  build-up period or general conditioning  phase of training or by the runner who  wants to perform stressful workouts but  for whatever reason (injury history, preferences,  etc.) does not want to do anything  really hard or highly stressful.

Pattern #5 is the most stressful pattern  that masters runners ( over 40 years old)  should ever attempt to handle. Pattern #6  may be the most well-rounded and recommended  pattern for older runners holding  fairly high weekly mileage levels ( 40  miles per week or higher). However,  Pattern #7 is a safer alternative formasters  runners (especially women) if weekly  mileage is high (40 or more miles) and  there is a tendency to get injured.

Notice that we did not list the days  (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.)  of the week on this chart. This means  that Monday is not necessarily Day 1  and Tuesday is not necessarily Day 2  and so forth. Instead, we listed 7  generically-numbered days for a very  important reason.

This allows you to first pick a  stress/rest pattern that works best for you,  and then to fit that pattern into your weekly  schedule of work and family commitments.  In other words, since each person’s  weekly schedule of commitments are  unique, each person can start their weekly  pattern on any of the numbered days.

For instance, if you think the  stress/rest cycle in Pattern #2 works best  for you, then you would select that pattern  as your basic weekly training cycle. Once  you have decided on the best weekly program  for you, you can then consider how  to overlay that pattern to fit your weekly  work, family, and/or school schedule.

If Pattern #2 has two hard days ( on  Day 1 and Day 4 ), and you need to do  your long run (which is a High-Stress  Mileage Day or Hard Day) on a Sunday,  then Sunday’s long run would have to fall  on either Day 1 or Day 4 in the weekly  pattern.

In this particular case (see Table 4),  let’s say you decided to use Day 4 (a hard  day) as your Sunday long run because you  need three non-stressful recovery days  after your long run (note that Pattern #2  has three easy days following the hard day  on Day 4). Therefore, Day 5 (an easy day)  would actually be Monday (instead of  Friday, the usual fifth day of the calendar  week); Day 6 (an average day) would be  on Tuesday; Day 7 (an easy day) would be  on Wednesday; Day 1 (your other hard  day – i.e., hard track workout) would fall  on Thursday; Day 2 (an easy day) would  be on Friday; and Day 6 (another easy  day) would fall on a Saturday.

In this way, you’ve first identified the  weekly stress/rest training pattern that is  optimal for you and only then do you  adjust it to best fit into your life-style  schedule. This basic approach can be  applied to each of the weekly stress/rest  training patterns that you might choose  from in Table 4.


This article has provided a general  overview of the first and most basic law  of training: optimal stress coupled with  optimal rest produces optimal  progress. Although this simple training  law is not new to most runners, it is  rarely put into practice in an effective  way. Distance runners (or coaches) who  wisely balance well-planned training  stress with equally well-planned rest or  recovery will have a much higher probability  of achieving their goals.

Table 1 illustrates the way  our bodies respond to a hard training  7  stress and recovery cycle. Finding the  optimal amount of recovery that your  own body needs for each type of training  stress is necessary in order to reap  the most benefit from your hard (stressful)  training sessions.

Table 2 lists the daily  mileage levels that make up (1) an easy or  rest day, (2) an average mileage day, (3) a  moderate-stress mileage day, or (4) a  high-stress mileage day – all based on  your average weekly mileage and the  number of days you run each week.

Although daily mileage is one form of  training stress, daily intensity or the difficulty  of certain challenging workouts is  another way to gauge the amount of training  stress you place on your body.

Table 3 provides a range of  suggested rest ( or recovery) guidelines for  different types of training ( or stress levels)  related to various daily training mileage  and/or intensity levels. Each type of moderate-  to high-stress training day (including  frequently run race distances) lists a  suggested recovery cycle for that particular  type, or level of, training stress.

A range of easy, rest days are listed  because each person’s physical and mental  make-up is different, and therefore each  individual requires different amounts of rest  following different types of training stress.

Finally, Table 4 provides  seven different weekly stress/rest training  patterns. You can use this table to choose  an optimal weekly cycle of stress and rest  that enables you to gradually and safely  improve your fitness or performance level.

Keeping a detailed training log on  how your body responds and adapts to  different combinations of stress and rest  will help you determine which patterns  work best for you. Some key areas to  watch closely in order to monitor your  recovery from stressful training sessions  are your (1) resting, training, and posttraining  heart rates, (2) general energy  and/or fatigue levels, (3) muscle soreness  and/or tightness, and (4) leg sluggishness.  By doing this, you will be able  to observe those stresses and rest trends  or patterns that work best for you.

Once you determine the optimal  weekly stress/rest pattern that works best  for you, you can then easily match it to  your weekly schedule of work, family, and  other commitments.

This article is not a quick-fix for your  training frustrations, but it will help you  learn and understand more about your own  unique response to training stress and  recovery.

By doing your best to better understand  and apply some, or all of the practical  tools, charts, suggestions, and guidelines  we’ve discussed, you can slowly but  surely reduce your training frustrations,  begin to train smarter and more effectively,  improve your overall fitness and performance  dramatically, and ultimately  achieve some reasonably challenging running  goals.

Reprinted with permission from Peak Running Performance. Learn more from Coach Guy Avery




“I got my first Boston Qualifier today with a 21 personal record!”

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