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PROGRESSION RUNS: NOT JUST FOR KENYANS ANYMORE

by Mick Larrabee, PT, MS, SCS, EMT, CSCS | published 07.20.09

Have you ever been in a race, cruising along with no problem, when all of a sudden the wheels come off and you crawl to the finish line as if someone had just strapped a refrig- erator to your back? Me too! “What happened? Why did this happen to me?” you may ask. There are multiple rea- sons, but you may have actually trained your body to do just that – slow down at the end of a race. Sound crazy? Well, how many of you actually start most of your runs too fast only to slow at, or near, the end? The problem may/may not be mileage, intensity, intestinal fortitude or anything else of the like, but, rather, pacing.

To break this habit there are several different antidotes – but the one that will be discussed in this article is the progression run. Progression runs aren’t new – in fact Paavo Nurmi (one of the great Finnish runners of the 20’s) used them as
a core staple of his training program that lead him to 9 Olympic Gold Medals. Gabriele Rosa (the Italian coach of legendary Kenyan distance runner Paul Tergat) also implemented several progression runs into the training that lead up to his 2:04:55 world record marathon in Berlin in 2003.

2004 USA Olympian Dan Browne, member of the Nike Oregon Project, sees progression runs as “not only a critical ingredient” to his success but “as the key difference between American and Kenyan training regimens – and a necessary element in maximizing potential”. into progression runs. And they can be used at any time throughout the training cycle. The key point is that these types of runs start slow...so slow that you should feel as though the easiest and most relaxing run of your life is in store. Complete relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing should be the focus. Start easy and let the pace come to you. The real trick may lie in staying at a slow pace for longer than you think is necessary.

WHAT IS A PROGRESSION RUN?

There are many different versions of a “progression run” which will be discussed in detail later, but the defining characteristic is a steady acceleration throughout the run. These workouts start at a comfortable speed, gradually get faster, and wrap up at marathon, threshold, or even interval pace. This kind of acceleration offers your body an opportunity to warm up, helps develop your sense of pacing, and trains you to hold onto your speed – even when you’re slightly tired. Long runs, tempo sessions, and base miles can all be turned into progression runs. And they can be used at any time throughout the training cycle.

BENEFITS OF PROGRESSION RUNS

Keith Dowling, a 2:13 marathoner and 2003 World Championship Marathon US Team Member states “the number one benefit of a progression run is that they train you to react to surges in a relaxed fashion, which is important in marathoning.” He goes on to add “You never want to cross the threshold too often in a marathon, and this workout pushes that redline in a gradual manner. All pace changes are done gradually so that your nervous system isn’t all out of balance”.

Greg McMillan, the renowned exercise physiologist and running coach in Flagstaff, AZ, says progression runs are effective
for three primary reasons. “One, warming up your muscles by starting out slowly not only decreases your injury risk, but primes the physiological pathways you’ll use in faster running. Two, and most importantly, progression runs allow you to increase the total volume of faster, stamina-type training you do across your training cycle. And three, this increase in the volume of stamina training comes at a very small price – recovery is relatively easy given the invested effort”.


SAMPLE PROGRESSION RUNS

BASE BUILDER: Divide your run into equal thirds. Run the first third easy (up to 30sec/mile slower than “usual”), the middle section at usual pace, and the final third at half-marathon to marathon pace (roughly 89-85% of max HR). Start with these for 45min bouts and gradually increase from there. These runs should not be treated as tempo runs and should not be attempted when recovering from hard workouts done in preceding days.


DUSA (named for the Fila Discovery USA Program): Run the first 75-90% of your run at a steady but easy pace. Over
the final 10-25% pick up the pace signifi- cantly (10K-1/2 marathon pace) and then hit the last 1⁄4 mile hard. Experienced runners can use this workout for 90min runs...the main idea here is that the last 1/6 of the workout be done at 10K to half-
marathon pace.

SUPER FAST FINISH: Run a normal steady state run and then finish the last 3-6min “super fast” (like a finishing 5K pace).

FAST FINISH LONG RUN: After an easy warm-up accelerate 10-30sec/ mile until you reach marathon race pace. Hold that pace for the last 20-25% of run. Other examples include: five miles at a comfortable pace followed by 1 mile at 10K race pace; thirteen miles at comfortable pace followed by 3 miles at 1⁄2 marathon pace.

THRESHOLD PROGRESSION: A traditional threshold run consists of a short warm-up followed by a few miles of running at “lactate threshold pace” (fastest pace you could sustain for one hour in a race), and concluding with a short cool-down. In this progression run, the warm-up is greatly extended and the cool-down is removed. An example would be running 5 miles at ac omfortable pace followed by 4 miles at threshold pace.

MARATHON-PACE PROGRESSION: A good peak-level progression run, appropriate for 3-4 weeks before a marathon, is 2 miles at a moderate pace followed by 14 miles at mara- thon pace. If you’re training for a 5K/10K then these runs should be emphasized relatively early in the training process and then phased out in favor of runs that include even faster running.

HOW TO INTEGRATE WITH TRAINING

It seems to be reasonable to begin adding progression runs into your arsenal near the end of your “base training” phase. Gradually add one into each weekly session and allow ample recovery time leading up to and after the progression run (don’t do a progression run on the day after your long run). As you become more accustomed to this type of training you can then begin to include more in your weekly schedule based on your experience level, training frequency, and training phase.


One final note: Just because progression runs are beneficial, doesn’t mean that all of your runs should be progressions. This type of training is just one component of a well-balanced training system and can be used to temper any tendencies to start runs too fast while building in a good finishing kick. The workouts not only add variety and make training fun, but significantly boost your fitness without a lengthy recovery.

MICK LARRABEE, PT, MS, SCS, EMT, CSCS IS A BOARD CERTIFIED CLINICAL SPECIALIST IN SPORTS PHYSICAL THERAPY AND A USA TRIATHLON LEVEL 1 COACH. HE CAN BE REACHED AT (865) 806-8911 OR VIA E-MAIL AT mike@optimalperformanceinc.com

 

 

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