Progression runs, a great way to build strength, speed and toughness, provide a multitude of variations to fit every training program.
PublishedNovember 18, 2013
Diane Nukuri-Johnson trains in Iowa City, Iowa.
A decade ago, Running Times published a story on progression runs, calling them a “Kenyan secret everyone can use.” Today, they’re no longer a secret; many runners and coaches use them, and the term is common among runners. But exactly how and when to run them is often unclear.
Micah Porter, a top coach for 18 years at the Denver metro area’s D’Evelyn High School, likes to use progression runs early in the season, to quickly build strength in runners coming off easy summer miles. “This type of run gives me the biggest bang for the buck in terms of getting them ready for racing,” Porter says. Many others, from high school coaches to elite marathoners, sing progression run praises.
The name “progression run” designates only that the run advance from a slower to a faster pace. It can have one gear change or many, can be a sub-threshold workout or an intense, faster-than-race-pace workout, or both in the same run. That variability is part of the value, making progression runs a versatile tool in a runner’s box of workouts. Also valuable is the fact that you work various paces and systems in the same routine and needn’t know your specific threshold or VO2 max pace. (See “Find Your Tempo” on p. 40 for more on how progression runs can be used to improve your anaerobic threshold.)
But runners need some guidelines on what pace and distance to run. The following are a few favorite progression runs from top coaches and athletes, which you can adapt for any training plan.
From: Trina Painter, boys and girls cross country coach at Flagstaff High School, Flagstaff, Ariz.
The Run: Run out for 10 to 20 minutes easy. Turn around and return 2 to 5 minutes faster (depending on distance and fitness) at threshold pace.
When: A few times in the first half of the cross country season or preparing for a 5K race.
Coach’s Notes: “The goal is a moderate, less-than-race-pace effort, but sometimes it gets faster if the runners are frisky and feeling good. The effort should be comfortably hard, with runners able to hold one-word conversations. It is fun to watch the runners who turn sooner take the lead and try not to get caught by the other groups. Running in the front changes the mental focus and confidence of some runners, and they surprise themselves in how well they run to stay up front as compared to feeling like they are hanging on in the back of the pack.”
5K Race-Pace Fourths
From: Micah Porter, coach of boys track and field and cross country at D’Evelyn High School in Denver.
The Run: During a 45-minute run, do the first 15 minutes at 50 percent race-pace effort, then 13 minutes at 75 percent race-pace effort, 10 minutes at race pace, and 7 minutes at faster-than-race-pace.
When: Primarily early in the fall, with some athletes running these throughout in lieu of structured intervals.
Coach’s Notes: “With just a 13-week season, developing a solid aerobic base for athletes can be challenging. Progression runs are a perfect solution. For athletes who have developed a good aerobic base through the summer, progression runs help them test their endurance, strength and aerobic limits. Most of the time, my runners have a difficult time running the last part faster than race pace for the whole 7 minutes; however, it is crucial in developing and improving their lactic threshold.”
Steady Tempo Drop
From: Layne Anderson, coach of University of Iowa distance runners and Olympic marathoner Diane Nukuri-Johnson.
The Run: A 9-mile progression run with a drop in pace each 1.5 miles. Start at just under marathon race pace and work down, approximately 5 seconds per mile faster per segment, until the last 1.5 miles hit goal half marathon pace. When: Later in a marathon training cycle.
When: Later in a marathon training cycle.
Coach’s Notes: “I like progression runs from the standpoint that you can get some good, controlled volume and prime the pump a little at the end with a measured amount of fast-relaxed running. They are also easily tailored to the ability level of the groups and can be adapted in preparation for specific distances. Diane did this run late in her training for the LA Marathon. I was able to get a lot of great feedback, as I had overall time for the 9 miles, 3 × 3 miles segments to compare, and then each 1.5 miles. It is a really great confidence booster as well.”
Long Run Natural Cut-Down
From: Pete Pfitzinger, 2:11 marathoner, U.S. Olympian, coach at High Performance Sport New Zealand.
The Run: 20–23 miles. The first 5 are easy (2 minutes slower than marathon pace). Slowly increase the pace to a minute per mile faster by 10 miles and another 30 seconds per mile faster by 15 miles. The last 3–4 are run at close to marathon pace.
When: Every other week during the last 12 weeks leading into a marathon.
Coach’s Notes: “We had an outstanding training group training in Wellesley in the mid-to-late 1980s. None of this was necessarily planned or discussed in advance, unless one of the marathoners had a need to put in a particularly hard session. Our loops were out and back, and the sense that we were heading home seemed to stimulate the effort.”
Fast-Finish Long Runs
From: Greg McMillan, coach and physiologist (workout learned from Gabriele Rosa, coach of Moses Tanui and other Kenyan champions).
The Run: Start at your normal easy-run pace, 1 to 2 minutes slower than marathon pace. Six miles from the end of the run, increase to marathon pace. During last 2 miles keep increasing the pace to end with an all-out 400m.
When: Three to four times on alternate weeks later in a marathon training program, after doing several steady long runs.
Coach’s Notes: “The last 10 to 30 minutes of the fast-finish are like a race. You run as hard as you can and sprint at the finish. It is grueling but very race-specific training. This is a true test-run for the marathon.”
Medium-to-Hard Long Run
From: Ryan Hall, sub-2:05 marathoner, U.S. Olympian.
The Run: Start with 1 hour to 70 minutes at a medium effort (approximately a minute slower than marathon pace), then go into 50–60 minutes of hard running at around marathon pace.
When: As a marathon simulation, mid-to-late in a training program.
Coach’s Notes: “This is a very hard run for me. After a warm-up and cool-down I will have run between 20–26 miles, most at a very high level. I like this run because it teaches my body to run its fastest at the end of a long run when my legs are already tired.”