Super-compensation The basic of physical training, how does it work?
First an interpretation of the term super-compensation: this means that an existing balance in your body gets “disturbed” through a training stimulus; in response the body will try to protect itself against any future disruption and this causes an adaption and it grows stronger, a bit above the old balance situation. That is quite simply put super-compensation.
If you want to improve, you need to know the basic principle of applying the next stimulus just in time: not too early because then the body will not be fully recovered, but also not too late because then the adaptation already has faded away. But it is also very important to take into consideration the law of diminishing returns: each additional stimulus will give less improvement above the current balance situation and eventually improvements will stop all together – you can only go so far!
Say someone runs a 5 km and it takes him 25 minutes. Immediately after that 5km his body is tired and even slightly damaged, so after this run he needs a rest. He takes a rest for a few days giving his body time to grow stronger. After that he runs a second 5 km, which he now does in 24.45 seconds. A third 5k time will be faster again, he runs it in 24.35 seconds, a fourth in 24.30 and after a while there will be no real improvement anymore. In the short run he will level off around 24.00 minutes.
Why is that? After a while the running is now a part of his new balance situation. It is not an incentive anymore for his body, but part of a new equilibrium. The body needs the incentive of running a 5 km every now and then to be able to run 5km in 24 minutes. To further improve further, other incentives need to be applied. The simple principle of super-compensation needs to be applied in a more complex way.
Lets look at what running a 5 km does to a body: the muscles are taxed, the heart must pump around oxygen filled blood, the blood needs to uptake extra oxygen in the lungs, our lungs need to take in enough fresh air, our knees, ankles and hips need to absorb blows from the ground, etc.hese effects are all part of that one single stimulus and the total effect of all these partly stimuli together gives the final result. This overall result is what we see, that being the time we achieve when running that 5 km. We don’t know exactly how the individual parts of our body respond. In practice this means that we can still make progress in some areas but in (almost) none in others. What is worse is that in some areas we might even already build some fatigue and we might not be able to fully recover anymore. In this running example the heart and lungs may still be improving, but the joints will adjust more slowly. This is in practice often difficult to assess. What we do know is that the whole training block of 5km does give an improvement but eventually it will not anymore in the short run.
Coming back to the example, we are stuck around 24 minutes on the 5 km run. A mistake often made at this point is training harder or more. This works counterproductive, the already tired body will only be more overloaded. So training harder at this point will not improve your performance but will make you over-train and you will burn yourself out. Don’t get me wrong, to improve you need to keep training harder and more, but this should be done in waves, just doing more and more training will not work.
The limitation is of course how much work the body can process and thus super-compensate. If you're close to your personal maximum, the solution is often not to train harder or longer but to slow down for a period, and give the body time to process the whole stimulus block and recuperate 100%. If you do that you will be fresh again and ready to process a new block of stimuli that will improve you further. In those periods of relative rest you keep training but at lower intensity and lower volume, so in this example not 5 km running but only 3 km, and also with a lower speed. In this period of rest, you will step back in terms of performance, but in that period you will give all parts of your body time to recover and totally respond to the given training stimuli. If this is done you are ready for a new period of harder training. And after this next block you wont get stuck stuck around 24 minutes, but will improve further. But again the law of diminishing returns applies and progress in this block will be less than in the block before.