HowTo: Progressive Overload Training for endurance athletes

Beginning or intermediate swimmers considering a long or marathon swim nearly always start with two area of concern: Worrying about their capacity to endure cold water, and asking what training is required.

I’ve covered cold water extensively, probably more so than elsewhere, and will continue to so do as long as I find things to write about it. I’ve got to run out at some point, right?

But I have been a bit wary about covering training, because there are people out there who can cover it better from a theoretical and coaching point of view, and because, though I haven’t mentioned it in a while, those who train under Coach Eilís agree to keep the program to ourselves (apart from bitching about it to family, friends,  the others in the same group, the Postman, distant relatives, those unfortunate enough to share dressing rooms and beaches, etc).

Swimmers who train exclusively and competitively in the pool usually use a periodization system, the training year is broken down in macro and meso-cycles, and even micro-cycles (for example a season, a month, a week).

For distance open water swimming a Progressive Overload approach seems to work well. 

Progressive Overload is the gradual increase of muscle resistance or stress over time to stimulate muscle adaptation more effectively. It is combined with a predetermined regular reduced stress period.

Lactic production, lactic threshold and lactic tolerance are all improved while still allowing for essential recovery and reducing the chances of over-training or injury.

So how does Progressive Overload Training (POT) work?


It’s quite straightforward:

  • The cycle is usually be three or six weeks long, (four or five are most common).
  • The athlete (swimmer or runner or cyclist) increases the weekly training load by the recommended amount. In swimming volume this is about five percent per week for swimmers, for three weeks (assuming a four-week cycle).
  • On the fourth week, the step-back week, the athlete drops back to the amount of the second week.
  • The next cycle of four weeks starts from the second or thereabouts volume of the previous cycle.
  • The sequence reads as; 1,2,3,4…2,3,4,5…3,4,5,6…6,7,8,9…etc

Each cycle therefore increases on the previous with the final week being easier to recuperate. The step-back final week can be the same as the second or first week, but the next cycle always starts at a higher level than the previous cycle started. 

For example, Week one is 10,000 metres, week 2 is 11,000 metres, week three is 12,000 metres. Week four returns to 10,000 metres. Week five then starts at 11,000 metres.

A key feature that can be missed is in the question of how you increase the muscle stress. For endurance swimmers that typically involves increasing weekly swim mileage. Here’s a reminder again that you shouldn’t be increasing mileage by more than five percent per week to avoid injury. Another key feature of POT

There are some points to note about Progressive Overload Training.

  • The stress increase can be of volume (total distance), intensity (increased speed or reduced rest intervals), frequency (number of training sessions) or time.
  • Adaptation results aren’t linear. Though you are using a linear system for training the product is less likely to be linear, as the body responds non-linearly, more simply in bursts or waves and sometimes you even go backward.
  • A feature of POT is reduced injury risk.
  • Results are more obvious at the beginning or for beginners. The more you do it the less likely you are to notice any significant gains (other than fitness).
  • Progressive Overload assumes you have good or at least consistent technique to begin with.

This isn’t by any means a definitive instruction on How or What training plan you should be using. That’s up to you and/or your coach. But Progressive Overload is a training plan with widespread recognition and scientific validity that may be of use for you.


3 thoughts on “HowTo: Progressive Overload Training for endurance athletes

  1. Pingback: Here’s the Plan: There Is No Plan | 10 mile swim

  2. Donal, this year I’m trying out the periodised training. Based on readings from Complete Conditioning for Swimming. My structure is something like this:
    Active Rest Phase 2 wks – 5k p/wk.
    Lazy Phase 4 wks – 15k p/wk.
    Build Phase 12 wks – 20-30k p/wk.
    Big Swim Phase 8 wks – 30-70k p/wk.
    Active Rest etc. Repeat.
    So far I’m feeling good and most importantly very motivated. Holding back the km’s in the lazy & build phase helps me focus on technique & quality.
    I do feel like I’m not doing enough, but look forward to the Big Swim Phase.
    Next year I’m planning on trying out the progressive overload method. Any good books you can recommend?


    • Hey Craig. Sorry for delay replying. Your structure looks like something I might try next year, unlike you I’m not particularly motivated. That’s mostly due to external reasons though.

      The only thing I have on POT is in Maglischo’s Swimming Fastest. I can scan those pages (about 6) and email you? I talked (email) with a couple of coaches also and we structured Alan Clack’s training that way. I’ve guessed that if I was to collate Eilis’ training plan and go through it, that’s the way she was structuring it also, just that she used the extra day off every 4 weeks (in 2010 anyway) instead of an step-back week.


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