What Is a Progression Run? Plus How to Incorporate Them Into Your Training

Updated:

Every training plan features different types of runs. Doing the same distance at the same pace won’t help you improve, so it’s essential to incorporate a variety of runs to help you progress.

One of the runs you should be doing is a progression run. Whether you’re new to running or just looking to boost your training, keep reading to learn about progression runs.

What Is a Progression Run?

A progression run is a type of speed workout. It starts fairly relaxed but progresses, so by the end, you’re running faster than you started. This is the opposite of how it usually happens in a run, because you’re usually tired and slowing down at the end.

There’s no specific format for a progression run other than that it has to progress in pace. You can use your actual pace to gauge your progression, or you can simply use your own perceived effort.

You can also start really slow and end fast, or just start at an easy pace and end at a slightly more speedy pace—there’s no real right or wrong here, as long as you’ve sped up throughout the run.

Can Progression Runs Help You Become a Better Runner?

Progression runs are a great tool to help you run faster, longer. Incorporating these into your training regularly helps to improve your overall fitness, but it has more specific benefits that can boost your running performance.

These types of runs improve everything from speed and endurance to mental resilience. Of course, it depends on how often you do them, how intensely you run, and how well you recover.

But overall, you can expect to see an improvement in your running if you stay consistent and incorporate other types of runs in your training.

How Often Should You Do a Progression Run?

This depends on a few things, like your experience, current training plan, and goals. If you’re just starting with progression runs, add one per week to your training schedule.

They fit best between two easy runs, so you aren’t too fatigued when you start, and you don’t tire yourself out too much before the next run.

Benefits of Progression Runs

We already know that doing progression runs can make you a better runner. But here are some specific benefits you can expect if you start doing these kinds of runs often.

Increased Aerobic Fitness

Progression runs start slow and easy and gradually increase, upping your heart and respiratory rates. Running regularly helps your body learn how to use oxygen more efficiently, ultimately increasing your aerobic fitness so you can run further and faster on less oxygen.

Stamina and Endurance

As you get used to maintaining a higher pace for longer periods, your heart, lungs, and muscles get stronger. This means you can run faster for longer before fatiguing—a great stamina and endurance boost.

Improved Pacing

Progression runs are a great way to help you learn control over your pace. They also help you get used to the feeling of starting slow, which is hard to do for many runners but is an essential skill that helps you avoid burnout during a race.

Reduced Risk of Injury

While you’ll still warm up before a progression run, the slower-than-usual start gives your muscles a nice ease-in to the exercise. You’re less likely to get injured during a progression run thanks to this easy start.

Mental Toughness

Progression runs challenge you mentally and physically. The first challenge is likely to be starting slow—most runners naturally set off faster than they should, so sticking to a pace that feels almost too slow will be tricky initially.

Once you begin to increase the pace, you’ll feel better, but you’ll also start to fatigue as you near the end of the run. At this stage, you’ll have to dig deep to increase your pace or maintain a faster pace.

While this is a physical challenge, it’s also a mental one. It’s tempting to slow down and try again in your next run, but push through—you’re building both physical fitness and mental toughness.

Encourages the Use of Stored Fat As a Fuel Source

Progressing from low to high intensity through progression runs can help train your body to get used to burning fat as a fuel source instead of relying completely on carbohydrates and muscle glycogen.

Can Simulate Race Scenarios

Getting used to the feeling of progression runs can train you to start slow, conserve energy, and finish strong. The more you practice this way of running, the easier you’ll find it in races.

Enhances Speed

Although you aren’t increasing your speed to the max, the slow, steady pace helps train your body to go faster with less effort. Keep up this kind of training, and you’ll eventually be able to hit new PRs without even reaching for it.

Types of Progression Runs

You can choose from various progression runs, depending on your goals and your mood at the time.

Thirds Progression Run

This is a fairly easy way to break into progression runs. Depending on your preference, you’ll split your run into three sections of equal length, either time or distance.

For the first section, you’ll stick to a slower pace. As you move into the second section, you’ll increase your pace slightly and maintain it throughout that section. For the third section, you’ll increase it even more and maintain that until the end.

Try to increase smoothly into your higher pace rather than abruptly jumping up in pace. Here’s an example of a thirds progression run based on time:

  • Section 1: 20 minutes, easy pace.
  • Section 2: 20 minutes, ½ marathon race pace.
  • Section 3: 20 minutes, 10 seconds faster than race pace.

Here’s an example based on distance if you feel more comfortable doing it that way.

  • Section 1: 2 miles, easy pace.
  • Section 2: 2 miles, ½ marathon race pace.
  • Section 3: 2 miles, 10 seconds faster than race pace.

80/20 Breakdown

This might be easier for beginners who are new to progressive runs. You’ll run 80% of your run—either time or distance—at an easy pace. When you’re into the last 20%, you’ll kick it up to about a seven on the rate of perceived exertion scale.

Here’s an example of an 80/30 progression run of 1 hour in length:

  • First 80%: 48 minutes at an easy pace.
  • Last 20%: 12 minutes at a moderate pace.

And here’s an example of one based on a distance of 5 miles:

  • First 80%: 4 miles at an easy pace.
  • Last 20%: 1 mile at a moderate pace.

Continuous Build-Up Run

Once you’re familiar with progression runs and your fitness level is such that you can comfortably try this one, you can aim for a continuous build-up progression run.

An easy way to think of this is the “faster every mile” training method. Set an alarm or reminder to go off every mile and increase your pace slightly whenever you hear it.

The best way to do this is to keep increasing until you can no longer continue. It’s a great way to push yourself, but keep in mind that it’ll be more intense than a regular progression run because you’ll most likely end up running faster in the end.

Fast Finish or Final Push

This is similar to the 80/20 method. Go easy for 90% of the run and then push hard for the final 10%. It’s a great way to practice conserving your energy during a race and finishing strong. Your final stretch could be a few miles or a few minutes, depending on how you’re structuring it.

How to Do a Progression Run

Whichever run you choose, here’s how to do a progression run in the safest, easiest, and most beneficial way possible.

Warm Up Properly

Warming up is essential, no matter what kind of run you’re doing. Do 5 to 10 minutes of light jogging or walking, and some dynamic stretching to loosen up your muscles and increase circulation.

Choose the Distance/Time You Want to Run

This may change depending on the time you have available. Once you’ve decided on your time or distance, pick the type of run you want to do and set up your alarms/alerts on your watch depending on your splits.

Start at an Easy Pace

Begin at an easy pace. You should have a conversation easily. It’s slower than your regular race pace, which might feel excessively slow, but stick with it—you’ll be glad you did later.

Increase the Pace

At your designated points, increase your pace. You don’t need to increase by a lot—just enough for you actually to feel it and to have to maintain the new level of pace.

Find a Comfortable Rhythm

Once you’ve increased your pace, find your rhythm and settle in. If you’re doing a mile-by-mile increase, it might be harder to get into a rhythm. But if you’re doing a thirds split or a 80/20, you’ll need to find a way to settle into the longer stretches and maintain that pace.

Maintain Effort Throughout the Progression Run

If you’re not experienced with pace, focus instead on perceived effort. You don’t have to keep an eye on your pace throughout your run, but make sure you can feel that you’ve increased your effort every time you increase.

Finish Strong

By the end of your run, you should be hitting close to your race pace or faster, depending on your goals and fitness level. The aim is to finish fairly fast but not be completely exhausted by the end of it.

Cool Down

Don’t forget to cool down after your run. Take a few minutes to jog slowly or walk, and finish with some static stretches.

Tips for Successful Progression Runs

Progression runs can be tough. Follow these tips for the best chance of a successful progression run. Once you’ve got a few under your belt, you’ll find it easier to continue with more.

Know Your Current Fitness Level

Understanding your current fitness level will help you to set appropriate goals. Having a good idea of your race pace and your stamina will give you a great starting point for both your time/distance and your pace.

Start Slowly

Start slower than you think you should be. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’ll help you conserve your energy for later in the run when you need to increase your pace.

Set a Pacing Plan

Planning your pace increases can help you run a better race. This depends on what type of progression run you choose, but having an idea of how much you’re going to increase can give you more tangible goals to aim for.

Monitor Your Effort

If you’re comfortable with the pace, then focus on your pacing. If not, choose to focus on effort instead. You’ll know if you’ve increased your effort without looking at your watch, so it could be a less stressful way of keeping track of your progress.

Hydrate Properly

Proper hydration is essential, so don’t forget to hydrate as you would on any other run. It can be easy to get so focused on your pace/effort that you forget to drink, so make an effort to keep sipping.

Prioritize Rest Days

Stick to one or two progression runs per week. Follow them up with an easy run or a rest day to allow your body to recover properly. Remember, you need at least one full rest day per week—you can also do an active recovery or cross-raining day once or twice a week.

Mix It Up

There’s no need to do the same progression run time after time. Vary each run’s time, distance, type, and intensity to keep things interesting and challenge yourself.

Stay Consistent

Do at least one progression run each week. You might not see the effects immediately, but consistency is essential. Keep up with your progression runs for at least a few months and you’ll start to see positive changes in your performance.

Listen to Your Body

If you feel pain while doing a progression run, stop. Listen to your body—pain means something isn’t right. Don’t push yourself past your limits.

Photo of author

AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.