progression runs

5 Progression Runs to Boost Your Race Fitness

Progression runs are a useful tool in the competitive runner’s training arsenal. They include progressively faster running (negative splits) toward the end of a workout without accumulating excessive fatigue.

“Progression runs are potent but easy to recover from.”

In this article, I describe 5 types of progression runs in more detail and how you can incorporate them into your training. But first, a brief introduction on why you should ramp up some of your runs. 

What is a Progression Run

Simply put, a progression run starts slow and becomes faster in one, two, or three stages. Think of it as a continuation of negative splits. The duration and intensity may vary for different progression run formats, but these workouts always start slow and finish fast. 

There are three major benefits to progression runs:

  • It teaches your body to run fast on fatigued legs. A useful skill in sharpening up for races. 
  • It can include two or more intensities rather than relying on one specific pace.
  • It causes considerably less fatigue than dedicated tempo or speed sessions.

The type of progression run largely depends on your race distance and where you are in your training cycle. Some lend themselves better during the base period to introduce some faster running to otherwise easy runs, and other types as a tool to sharpen up for your next event in the race-specific training phase.   

The Easy Run Progression

Easy runs have a rather wide pace range. I refer to the upper end of zone 2 training as ‘moderate pace’ in my training plans. That’s about 10 – 20 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace. This is a safe intensity to enhance the training effect of easy runs. 

Timing: On 1 or 2 of your easy days throughout the training cycle. 

How: Start with an easy pace and then increase the pace to a moderate pace. For example, a 6-mile run could be split in the following manner: 4 miles easy + 2 moderate, or 2 miles easy and 4 miles moderate as the training cycle unfolds. 

The Long Run Progression

Long runs in itself have a significant training effect. But the long-run progression adds a layer of potency by magnifying the adaptation. Speeding up on pre-fatigued muscles recruits intermediate fast-twitch fibers and trains them aerobically. This is especially useful for HM and marathon runners to stay on pace towards the end of a race. Long progression runs are less relevant for 5K and 10K runners. 

Timing: On weekend long runs in the support phase and race-specific phase. Consider doing them every other week, and if done weekly, alternate moderate pace with HM/marathon pace. 

How: Do at least 2/3 of your long run at an easy pace and then finish with a faster pace. This can be a moderate pace early in the support phase and progress to a marathon or even half marathon pace as the training cycle unfolds. Those don’t have to be your longest long runs.

The Thirds Breakdown

This workout splits your run into 3 equal parts. It is great for accumulating mileage at an easy/moderate pace and a training stimulus in zone 3 between the aerobic threshold and lactate threshold. It’s not meant to be an overly demanding workout that requires more than 24 hours of recovery. 

Timing: When you feel under the weather on a scheduled tempo run. Or as an addition to your 3 key workouts if you can recover adequately from your weekly training load. 

How: On a 45 minute workout, run the first 15 minutes at an easy pace, followed by 15 minutes at a moderate pace (upper zone 2), and finish the last 15 minutes at tempo pace in zone 3 (HM/marathon pace). This can also be 20/20/20 split, of course. 

Alternative: For advanced runners, the “thirds breakdown” can also include faster paces. For example, the first 1/3 at moderate pace, the second 1/3 at marathon pace, and the final 1/3 at lactate threshold pace (about 15K pace). This, however, counts as a hard workout and requires sufficient recovery. 

Threshold Progression Sets

Unlike the “thirds breakdown”, threshold progression sets include intensities near and above the lactate threshold. Therefore, it is feasible to break this workout into sets and intervals to make it manageable. The rest between the intervals is intentionally short, as longer rest periods negate the training effect we want to achieve with a systemic lactate buildup. 

Timing: No more than twice during the end of the support/beginning of the race-specific training phase in the buildup to a HM/marathon. Ideally, you have an easy day or rest before and after this workout. 

How: Run 3 sets of (1600m @marathon pace, 1600m @HM pace, and 1600m @10K pace). Rest 1 minute between the intervals and 3 minutes between sets. This session is sandwiched between a proper warm-up and a cool-down. Start with 2 sets if this is more than you can chew. 

The Final Push

Run roughly 90 percent at an easy or moderate pace, followed by an all-out effort. The “final push” is a great way to prepare yourself mentally and physically to outkick your competition in the final stretch of 5K and 10K races.

Timing: Once a week or every other week during an easy or moderately long run in the late support/early race-specific phase in the buildup to a 5K or 10K race. 

How: Run 5 to 8 miles at an easy/moderate pace and finish with a 400m/800m/or 1600m all-out effort. Follow up with a 5 – 10 min cool-down jog to clear the accumulated lactate from your system.

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Sandro Sket, CSCS

NSCA-Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist.

Sandro coaches competitive distance runners since 2013 to set new personal records from the 5K to the marathon.

You can find his structured training plans on
TrainingPeaks and FinalSurge

Sandro Sket, CSCS

Sandro Sket, CSCS

NSCA-Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist.

Sandro coaches competitive runners since 2013 to set new personal records from the 5K to the marathon.

You can find his structured training plans on
TrainingPeaks and FinalSurge

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