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Improve Your Fitness With Progression Runs

  • By Brad Hudson
  • Published August 9, 2012
Photo: Brian Metzler

Elite distance runners often use workouts known as progression runs to boost fitness, train their bodies to run faster while fatigued and speed recovery. The workout isn’t just for elites, however; it can also be a great training tool for competitive age-group runners and recreational runners alike. Not only can progression runs effectively improve your race fitness without requiring additional recovery time, they can add variety to your weekly training regimen and spice up your long, slow runs.

Simply put, a progression run is any run in which you begin slowly and gradually increase your pace to finish faster than you started. There are many different types of progression runs and each has a slightly different goal: building fitness, sharpening up for races, developing speed and endurance and even enhancing recovery.

A progression run allows the body to thoroughly warm up at a slower pace before speeding up to a pace that requires more muscle power, greater hip extension and more agile movements. If you try running fast from the start of a run before your respiratory, circulatory and muscular systems can warm up, you not only run the risk of injury but you also greatly increase lactic acid production by stressing your anaerobic system too much.

Another big benefit of inserting progression runs into your training schedule a couple of times per week is they allow you to increase your volume of up-tempo training more quickly than you would if you kept all of your recovery runs, maintenance runs and long runs at a slow, methodical pace. To race fast, you have to train fast, but progression runs bring on considerably less fatigue than a sustained long run at race pace or a hard track workout, and therefore require less recovery. In fact, a light progression at the end of a recovery run can actually speed recovery from a previous day’s hard workout and give your body a better chance to absorb the harder session.

Longer progression runs can be effective ways to increase mechanical efficiency by forcing a runner to increase stride length and stride cadence while the body is fatigued and form has started to break down. In essence, the increased pace and stride adaptations at the end of a progression run can act as the equivalent of dynamic stretching while you’re running.

Progression run workouts are best run by feel or perceived effort, but they can also be gauged by heart rate or actual pace. Developing that sense of effort takes time, and while it’s important to err on the side of slightly too slow instead of too fast, the most important consideration is to keep your up-tempo paces consistent so your body can begin to understand what it feels like to run at a sustained pace.

In the following article you’ll read about four types of progression runs, but the variations you can create are limitless.

Easy Progression Runs
These are often run without even being aware of it. On a recovery run the day after a hard workout or long run, most runners tend to start out slower than they ordinarily would because of lingering fatigue and possibly some soreness, and that’s a good thing. Aside from allowing the body to warm up, starting slow and then increasing your pace a notch on a recovery or easy maintenance run can also boost the aerobic system and aid active recovery. A slight progression during the second half of a recovery run can help flush lactic acid out of your legs and add a little more zip into what might normally be a slow, lethargic run.

When: Twice a week, when appropriate.
How: Run 15-30 minutes at a very slow pace on flat or slightly rolling terrain, followed by the same duration at a slightly faster (but still very easy) pace on the same type of terrain. In short: run slowly overall, but start out very slow.

Mid-Range Progression Runs
Medium to long in length, these workouts are geared at boosting the aerobic system by adding an increased aerobic stimulus once the body starts to tire halfway through a run. Studies have shown when a runner increases aerobic resistance after they’ve become glycogen-depleted (in other words, start running low on fuel), the body produces considerably more aerobic enzymes, which in turn helps the body do a better job of processing lactate. The net result is that it allows you to run at a faster pace longer before you fatigue. The mid-range progression run helps prevent long runs from becoming tight, monotonous shuffles in which the stride length gets too short and neuromuscular timing goes flat.

When: Once a week.
How: Head out for a 12- to 14-mile run in which the second half of the run is completed at a moderate pace, or a longer run done mostly at an easy pace, but with the final 30 minutes at a moderate pace. Try some variation of a moderate progression run one or two days after harder workout days such as an interval session. If you’re not doing aerobic work after those harder days, you’re not going to strengthen your specific endurance for your goal race.

Pre-Marathon Progression Runs
These are harder and longer progression runs that typically involve running at half-marathon race pace or faster for extended periods of time. They are used to briefly stimulate the aerobic and metabolic systems, but without putting either system in too much distress. These types of progression runs allow a runner to simulate the pace and some of the fatigue of a race without complete breakdown that an extended hard effort might bring on.

When: Once or twice late in a marathon training cycle.
How: Run 16 to 18 miles in which the first half is done at a moderate pace and the second half is at 80 to 95 percent of half-marathon race pace.

Threshold Progression Sets
These types of workouts will help boost your race-day fitness thresholds by running hard for relatively short distances at speeds faster than race pace with short rest.

When: Once every few weeks during a marathon race buildup.
How: After a thorough warm-up, run 3 x 3-mile repeats, running the first mile of the three-mile segment at marathon pace followed by a one-minute jog. Run the second mile at half-marathon pace followed by a one-minute jog, and run the final mile at 10K race pace. Jog easily for three minutes after the set, then repeat the set twice more at the same pace.

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