The base principle that governs all physical training is the principle of stress and recover. This principle simply states that if we physically stress the body in a certain way and then allow it to recover, it will bounce back better adapted to that stress than it was before.
In running we stress the body by running either far or fast (or both) and then let the body recover by running short and easy or by resting, and once the body has recovered from that initial stress it becomes stronger and better adapted to that stress, and as such we become fitter runners. This is the essence behind what we are doing in training. Stressing then recovering to move our fitness forward in some specific areas such as speed, stamina and/or endurance.
It is important to note that this principle has 2 important steps: 1) stress and 2) recover, and that one without the other does not accomplish the adaptation (increase in fitness) we are seeking.
In the Figure 2-1, we start the base unit at our “orginal fitness level” and then we perform a “stress” workout. This stress workout breaks down the body and our ending fitness level is lower than where it started. It is easiest to see this through an example. If our stress workout is a 5k race, then at the end of the 5k we cannot then go out and run another 5k as fast as we just did, because our effort in the 5k significantly stressed the body so it is not as strong as when you started. But then we allow the body time to recover, and when as it does the body heals itself and adapts to the stress (in this case the 5k race). This adaptation and advancement in fitness is called the super-compensation. Through this super-compensation our body comes back after the recovery fitter than it was before in terms of the systems that the workout stressed.
If you do not allow enough recovery between stress workouts you will not get the full super-compensation you are seeking. So to get the most from a stress and recover cycle, you must do the proper stress workout to work the fitness area you are seeking to improve, and then allow sufficient recovery afterwards so that the body can get the full fitness gain that the stress workout earned you. A very simple concept but one that many runners, from beginners to elites, struggle with consistently executing to its fullest. This base unit (1 stress and recovery cycle) must be mastered in order for training to be as effective as it can be.
I refer to 1 stress and recover cycle as a “base unit” because it is the basic unit upon which all our training is built. In order for a runner to be as successful as possible it is imperative that they understand and master this base unit. So with that in mind, let's clearly define each aspect of it.
Stress workouts are running workouts in which we significantly stress a system or systems of the body in order to produce a targeted adaptation so as to improve certain aspects of our running fitness. Our goal is to do sufficient and specific enough work in order to elicit the adaptation we are seeking, while still be able to recover from that work relatively quickly so that we can soon after target another adaptation. In order to keep the training process moving forward and to be able to target all necessary systems with adaptations on a regular basis, a stress workout should usually be able to be recovered from with 1-3 easy/recovery days. In Chapter 3 we will explore the types of stress workouts I recommend for distance runners in more detail.
Recovery in running takes the form of recovery periods of time between runs and the easy runs we do between stress workouts in order to promote recovery, and to maintain or advance the body’s adaptations to running while we recover. These runs should be kept short and slow enough that they do not significantly stress the body, but with enough pace to them to maintain bio-mechanical efficiency. In Chapter 4 we will explore recovery and easy runs in detail.
This chapter and the basic concept of stress and recover is something we need to keep in mind as you go through the other chapters in this book. In order to get the most from all the stress workouts and training phases and training cycles we will discuss, it must be done through the successful use of the stress and recover principle. Master this base unit first and foremost in your training, and you will get the most from everything you do.