The Magic Progression Run

Man running along a river

A Key to Good Marathoning

It is every long-distance runner’s nightmare. You’re running through the streets of a beautiful city. The crowds are pulling you along, a tunnel of supporters one million deep over 26.2 miles. Every time you look at your watch, your goal pace is spot on. It’s incredible how easy this feels. Guess those long runs and tempos paid off.

Then, it’s over. Just like that. It could be mile 18. It could be mile 22. Either way, there’s no gas left in the tank. The legs are done. They scream with the agony that only fuel deprivation and repeated pounding can create. You pump your arms like an explorer sinking in quicksand, grasping for anything to keep you afloat. But it’s too late. You put your head down, your heart heavy with defeat and do the saddest shuffle ever to the finish line.

As you sit uncomfortably in your too-small airplane seat the next day, you wonder where it all went wrong. You did the long runs. Your fueling was good. But when push came to shove, your legs acted like they didn’t know how to run when they were tired.

Maybe that’s because they didn’t. Prepare to meet your new best friend: the progression run.

The Progress-O-What?

There is nothing inherently new about the idea of finishing a run faster than you started. Discounting the effect a saber tooth tiger might have had our ancestors’ pace at the end of a day’s journey, modern progression runs date back almost 100 years to the days of Paavo Nurmi and the Flying Finns. Frank Shorter, the 1972 gold medalist in the marathon and main protagonist in the first running boom, often liked to run two 10-mile loops around a lake in training. The first lap was leisurely with friends; the second was marathon pace.

The idea of incorporating progression runs into regular training was sparked by runners in another pocket of the world. Kenyan runners for decades have started most every run at a pace barely exceeding a walk. Over the course of the run, that saunter became a jog that became a full-on run. Somedays it ended in a crisp but comfortable finish; other times runners turned the last few miles into an all-out race. The overwhelming success of Kenyan athletes on the roads and the track has made coaches around the world consider their benefits and then try and codify their efforts.

Today, many training programs for runners promote progression runs in one form or another. But making it work for your marathon training requires understanding the basic tenets.

Why the Progression Run Works

To get the most out of your race day, you need to plan for the specific needs of your race. That’s called “specificity,” and few workouts can better mirror the marathon than the progression run. Consider these two workouts.

Workout A:

2 miles easy

10 miles at marathon pace

1 mile easy

Workout B:

10 miles easy

2 miles medium pace

6 miles marathon pace

2 miles tempo pace

1 mile 10K race pace

1 mile easy

There is nothing inherently wrong with Workout A. By its design, it should help you find a good rhythm and get comfortable with the type of pace you’ll encounter on race day. Workout B, though, is going to help you a lot more on race day for several reasons.

1.) Duration. Workout A is 13 miles; Workout B is 22. The increased time on your feet will aid your body in making the adaptations necessary to race 26.2 miles.

2.) Increased demands. Forcing yourself to methodically up the tempo over the course of a long run better replicates the steadily increasing fatigue you’ll encounter on race day. This improves your stamina, or the amount of time your muscles can function at a high level.

3.) Pre-fatigued muscle adaptations. It’s one thing to be able to run fast at mile four of a race and quite another to be fast at mile 24. Replicating the degree of fatigue your legs and lungs will be encountering at the end stages of a race is hard, but by pre-fatiguing – or purposefully tiring yourself before starting the faster portions of a workout – you’ll be able to better simulate it. Learning to run fast on tired legs is a skill, and progression runs of this nature will help develop it.

Variations on the Progression Run

Like other speed workouts, one of the beautiful aspects of a progression run is its infinite adaptability to an individual’s talent level and circumstances. One runner’s natural 20-mile progression run is another runner’s highly structured 14-mile session. When it comes to progressions, there are no right or wrong answers, just different ways to personalize it.

Below are four examples.

The Pfitzinger Long Run

The tamest of the progressive bunch is also one of the most effective. Two-time Olympian and bestselling author Pete Pfitzinger has popularized the idea of doing long runs with an emphasis on starting slow the first half, then finishing the second half about 30 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace. These runs are challenging but still very much aerobic, making them easier to recover from. The faster aerobic pace also better mirrors the running mechanics you’ll use in the race, getting you accustomed to holding a quicker and longer stride pattern for an extended period of time.

Cutdown Run

While not its originator, Jeff Gaudette at Runner’s Connect has done much to popularize the idea of the cutdown run, or a structured progression run that changes speeds at precise times. Gaudette recommends that after a good warm-up, the runner finds a pace 20 to 30 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace and begins there. Over the course of the next six to eight miles, the runner will drop the pace 10 seconds per mile until they are running at or below half-marathon pace. The benefits are clear, according to Gaudette.

Hansons Fast Finish

Brothers Keith and Kevin Hanson have been at the forefront of American coaching for almost two decades now. Their hard-working, blue-collar athletes have made Olympic teams and won the Boston Marathon. One of the staples in their program is a fast finish workout. Unlike the more subtle progression runs, this emphasizes ending a long run with two to four miles at a really fast pace – well below marathon pace. The psychological boost of pushing through fatigue to nail some quick miles also can’t be overlooked, while changing gears on pre-fatigued legs offers a chance for some marathon-specific adaptations.

Kenyan Run

As mentioned previously, another popular progression run is one that listens to your body and adjusts the pace accordingly. The Kenyan progression is not one of specific splits and energy zones, but rather one that starts comfortably and ups the ante as the body allows. Instead of responding to external cues, Kenyan progression runs force you to use internal points of reference to determine what speed and effort you feel capable of.

The Kenyan run also reminds us of an invaluable lesson: GPS watches and mile splits are nice, but at the end of the day it’s going to be your preparation and the willingness of your body and mind that determines success on marathon day.

By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, and He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).