In my opinion, progression runs are one of the best ways to train, especially for longer runs. They help you improve your fitness, push yourself, and get a better feel for what different paces feel like.
If you’re wondering what they are and how to start including them in your training plan, this article will tell you everything you need to know. By the end, you’ll feel like lacing up your shoes and getting started on one!
What is a Progression Run?
The “progression” in “progression run” refers to pace. A progression run gets steadily faster throughout its duration, so that you end substantially faster than you started. In other words, it’s a slow start and a fast finish. There are a variety of ways to do this, but you will always end up at a faster pace than your starting one.
For example, one progression run might be running the first half of a 10k at a 8:30 pace and the second half at a 7:30 pace. Another structure might target each mile of a 10-mile run being 15-30 seconds faster than the last one. You could start at an 11:00 pace and end up around a 7:00 pace.
Benefits of Progression Runs
Progression runs have many benefits, and really no drawbacks. Best of all, they are an ideal way to make long runs more interesting. So what are these many benefits? First off, they…
Help You Properly Warm-Up
People are always telling new runners to not push too hard at the beginning. Otherwise you’ll be hurting at the end of your run. It’s best to go for negative splits – running the second half faster than the first.
A progression run ensures that you do this because the whole idea is to start off slow and get faster. This means that you will be properly warmed up before you start running hard. You’ll be able to push harder because your blood is flowing and your body is ready to go.
Slow Start Teaches You Pace and Patience
One of the things I love most about progression runs is that it has taught me how to set a pace. I’ve started to get a feel for how different speeds feel, and I don’t have to rely on my Garmin watch anymore.
By letting you experiment with different paces in order of their speed, your body will start to understand what slow feels like in comparison to fast at the end. Additionally, as I hinted at before, progression runs teach you patience to hold back from running too hard at the start of a race.
Progression runs are really Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare” fable lived out, with a few differences. The hare started faster than the tortoise, but the tortoise won the race. That’s what progression runs can teach you (also, don’t nap during your races. Unless it’s a really long ultra).
Fast Finishes Build Stamina and Willpower
Mark Fitzgerald asks in the title of his book, “How Bad Do You Want It?” Oftentimes, the answer is not bad enough. Doing progression runs will make you a stronger athlete because you’ll practice finishing strong.
Through training with them, you’ll learn how to dig deep and get the stamina you need. Running fast at the end of a run or race isn’t just a matter of physical endurance and strength. A strong finish takes mental fortitude as well. It’s not your body that typically gives out; it’s your mind. Progression runs train your mind just as much as they train your legs.
They Can Be Incorporated In Your Training Plan
Because progression runs are less demanding than other types of training runs, you can incorporate them more frequently into your schedule. I personally find them to be relaxing workouts because I don’t have to start out fast. I can ease into it and finish strong.
How To Do A Progression Run
Before you even put your shoes on, you need to have a plan. What distance are you running? What is the fastest pace you want to target? How long will you run at each pace? The answers to these questions will guide how you complete your run.
Once you’re out there, start at a slow, easy pace. I’d recommend ignoring what your Garmin says and just running what feels comfortable to you. Then you should gradually increase your pace in increments. Many runners love their Garmins, though, so you can also keep an eye on pace and/or heart rate on your watch.
Keep increasing your pace gradually until you’re running at a hard, but sustainable pace. How long and what pace you do your progression runs at will vary based on your overall fitness.
When Should I Add Progression Runs to My Training Plan?
While it’s good to have a base of running before you start adding progression runs to your training plan, you honestly can start them at any time.
When I was training for a half marathon, I didn’t start adding them until I was consistently running over 6 miles.
What Are Some Different Types of Progression Run Workouts?
As we mentioned above, any run that starts slow and gets faster throughout the run can be a progression run.
But you might want to try these progression run workouts in particular.
Out & Back
This is a simple progression run that you can do with any distance and for any pace. Simply divide your run in half. Run the first half 1-2 minutes per mile slower than the second half.
If you’re able, it’d be great to run a hill where you get the slow pace for the first time and the fast pace for the second.
For an 8-mile run, doing an out & back progression run means running the first 4 miles at a 9:00 pace and the second 4 miles at an 8:00 pace.
Personally, I love doing this type of progression run. I start at a very comfortable, even slow pace (for me, that’s a 10:00 or 11:00 pace) and then drop 30 seconds off my pace every mile. Often I’ll end up around a 7:00 pace, even though I’m running that on tired legs.
If dropping 30 seconds off your pace every mile sounds intimidating, try 15 seconds. An 8:45 pace is not too different from a 9:00 pace, but you’ll be slowly working your way down and training yourself to push hard even when you’re tired.
Thirds or The Traffic Light
This is another simple progression run like the Out & Back. Simply divide your run into thirds and run the first ⅓ slowly, the next ⅓ at a comfortable, normal pace, and the last ⅓ at a more aggressive pace. You can also think of it like a traffic light: red (slow), yellow (speeding up), green (go fast!).
A word of caution. The last ⅓ is supposed to be faster than your normal pace, but you shouldn’t be maxing out your energy. Pick something that is comfortably hard but not so tiring that you can’t sustain it. You should treat that last third more like a tempo run and less like a track interval.
You can also run a thirds progression run based on time, which might be easier. Divide your run into three 15-20 minute segments, depending on if you want to run 45 minutes or an hour, and then go slow, normal, and fast.
Race Day Finish
Start your long run at a pace that is 1-2 minutes slower than your marathon/half marathon/longer distance race pace. When you have 4-6 miles left to go (depending on how far you’re running), pick it up to your longer distance race pace. At 2-3 miles to go, pick it up again and then that last ¼ mile, push as hard as you can.
You can also personalize this race day finish progression run to the particular race you’re training for. If you’re training for a 5k or half marathon, you’ll definitely want to train yourself to push hard that last 0.1 mile. Likewise, you should run hard for the last 0.2 miles for a marathon or 10k.
Ideally, though, you should be training yourself to start pushing hard at the end of your runs so that you finish strong come race day. As you do more progression runs, keep pushing back how far you have to run hard if you can sustain it.
For a half marathon, you should push really hard that last 0.1 mile, but if you can push really hard the last 0.5 miles, why not do that? And as Matt Fitzgerald emphasizes, it all basically comes down to the mind. How bad do you want it?
Progression runs are great for training yourself mentally and physically. In order to perform at your best for a race, you need to get in the habit of pushing yourself harder at the end. Progression runs teach you how to run races: start disciplined, and finish fast.
I mean, we all want to be the one who wins, right? Even if that means starting as the tortoise, but beating out the hare. Progression runs will teach you how to do that. By training your body to be measured at the beginning and fast at the end, you’ll perform at peak capacity.