I have some time so I want to talk about progression runs. These are my favorite workout. I think that they have applications at every level for every event. They are for my money the best workout you can do to improve your overall fitness level. I only started using them a year and a half ago and I haven’t fully utilized them like I should but I’m working hard to correct that.
So first what is a progression run? Well they are really any run that starts slower and progresses to finish faster. More specifically they are any time you steadily increase the pace of your workout to finish at a hard fast pace. They can be any distance and should be varied in length in any program but the bigger variations should be depending on your event. As I am focused on marathons my progression runs generally range from 40 minutes to an hour and a half, though I do do some runs of more than 2 hours that could qualify as progression runs but they are more structured and varied in pace so for this forum I’ll keep them separate. Also for this forum I’m going to stick to progression runs as a workout for distance and mid distance runners so generally speaking from roughly 3 to 20 miles and 15 minutes to 2 hours plus.
Some people like to start them at a jog, 8 min pace or slower even at the elite level. Personally I like to warm up with a light jog for 2 or 3 miles then jump in a decent clip. I don’t generally do the strides and stretching I would do before a interval workout, tempo run or threshold run for two reasons, first because I’m only starting at 80% to 90% of marathon pace I really don’t need to be all that well warmed up, second and more to the point if I do all that I tend to be too keyed up and I go out too fast and screw up the workout.
Now what makes a progression run so great? They teach you to run your fastest when you are at your most tired. In a nutshell that is the main reason that they are important. But Nate I run the last interval of my workouts faster then all the rest isn’t that the same thing? NO it isn’t, it is a good thing and keep doing that but the fact is you have rested since finishing your previous effort, you are less tired then you were then, often you end up packing away time in the first part of the effort and finishing slower, we have all gone out 4 seconds faster for the first ¼ of a mile then the pace we finish it at.(stop doing that by the way all you are teaching your body is how to do the slower running) But even if you run that last mile repeat in 75, 73, 72, 65 it still not as good as the progression run because again you had a rest after the last interval. Why is this important, because there is no time out at the 2 mile mark of your 5k state cross country meet or the 4 mile mark of your 8k college cross country race. But Nate if I’m trying to simulate the finish of a race why don’t I just go out and run a race in practice. Two reasons again, first without race day adrenaline you can’t run race pace for a full distance, can’t do it. Second there is no guarantee of success. This is the beauty of a progression run, if you think your going to slow down, kick like hell and finish, you are done. But you were planning on going 9 miles and you have only done 5, doesn’t matter, except the workout for what it is. Now I’m not saying the progression run is the only way to simulate the problems you will face in the last part of a race, far from it. I’m just saying that it is the best.
The next reason to love the progression run is the simplicity combined with its natural adaptability. You don’t need a track or a measured loop, or even a loop really (though I really really recommend using a loop). Just go out and start at an ok effort and keep picking up the pace until your running as hard and fast as you can. You can go measure it after. That’s the simple part. The adaptability is that it is always the perfect effort, why? Well because you run as hard as you can and finish strong. (if you just run as hard as you can from the gun all you teach your body is that when the going gets tough it should rig up and die)
Now the downside. The first time I did a progression run I did it all right found a loop that was like the courses I was racing, it was on one of them actually, and I started slow and finished as hard and fast as I could. It was a total disappointment. It was cross country season when I was in college and I ran about 40 minutes and covered barely 7 miles. Worse yet when I measured the loop I found that at my fastest I was only running 5:15 mile pace, now I was trying to run 25:00 or so at the time so this seemed like a total waste of a workout, hell my pr was already under 25:20. So I went back to my next workout happy to return to mile repeats with long breaks at something around 4:40 pace and felt I had wasted a workout by doing that stupid progression run. I had missed the point, the progression run had shown me my weakness I couldn’t run a sustained hard effort and finish well. I never ran under 5:10 for my last mile that year except in races where I ran super slow for the 4th mile (5:20 or worse). So if your first progression seems like a flop then understand two things, one they aren’t about averaging some super fast pace, no pr’s in these workouts, and if you really sucked then you should probably do some more because they are just what you need.
Ok so I hope that I have got my love for progression runs across to you but to sum up. Progression runs teach your body to run its fastest when its tired and to be able to finish races off of a sustained hard effort. They are best if left unstructured because this enables you to run by how you feel so that the effort automatically adapts itself to your exact condition that day. To illustrate what I’m talking about I’m going to put the last three progression runs I have done below in detail (these have been in my last couple of training logs the only difference is that I finally measured the loop so I can give you paces to go with the times) and I’ll talk about the positives and negatives of each workout.
Progression 1 September 13, 2007 (all done on Factory loop at Mines falls (2 3/8 miles pre loop)
Loop 1 13:24, loop pace 5:38.5
Loop 2 13:00, 5:28.4
Loop 3 12:36, 5:18.3
Loop 4 12:08, 5:06.5
Loop 4 11:48, 4:58.1
Total 1:02:59, average pace of 5:18.2, total distance 11 7/8 miles
Ok first great workout because each lap got faster. What I didn’t like is that my hamstring flared up and I didn’t get to do a real hard loop to finish up but I was looking to do about an hour and a quarter so if the hamstring hadn’t started to be a problem I think it would have been a great workout. But even with it I think it’s a real good go, I ran almost 12 miles at under 5:20 mile pace and the last 4.75 miles averaged marathon pace and I finished feeling easy, other then the hammy.
Progression 2 September 20, 2007
Loop 1 12:49, pace 5:23.8
Loop 2 12:30, 5:15.8
Loop 3 12:09, 5:06.9
Loop 4 11:47, 4:57.7
Straight away (.87 mile) 4:08, pace 4:45.0
Total 53:25 average pace 5:09.1
Total distance 10.37 miles
Ok once again first it’s a great workout simply because each lap got faster. Now what I didn’t like is that I went out too fast, I knew it by the end of the straight on the first lap by seeing the split but I make a policy of never slowing down in a progression run and I felt easy so I stuck with it. So what happened? I was aiming for an hour and a quarter or so again and I fell way short. I finished very fast but I didn’t have the volume of work under my legs to properly tire them that I would have liked, also I gave up on myself and only did the straight on the last one. I was right to tell myself I could stop at the end of the straight to get myself to pick it up but then I should have picked another marker and another until the lap was done, also although my last 3 and ½ laps averaged about marathon goal pace only my last lap and a half was actual at or under goal marathon pace. Pluses, well the average pace looks real good and for ten plus miles it is good but honestly I think the first workout was better simply because I exercised more control and had more miles under my legs before I started to run fast.
Progression 3 September 26
Loop 1 13:32, pace 5:41.9
Loop 3 12:50, 5:24.2
Loop 4 12:32, 5:16.6
Loop 5 11:54, 5:00.6
Loop 6 11:35, 4:52.6
Total 1:15:40, average pace 5:18.6
Total distance 14.25 miles
I’m really happy with this run, I wanted to do an hour and a quarter or more, I did that, I wanted to finish at something close to half marathon pace for a full lap and I did that. So this is a great workout all around. Yes my average pace is slow but the distance is real long and I was under marathon goal pace for two full laps (4.75 miles) and averaged mp or better for the last 7.12 miles and averaged under 5:09 (the pace of the last progression for the last 9.5 miles, so almost the same distance as that whole workout). Most importantly each lap was faster then the one before it, even lap 4 when I had to stop and tie my shoe (the watch never stops during a progression run!). I had almost ten good miles of running under my belt before I started running fast and still I was able to run nearly five miles at 5 min pace or better.