Progression Runs: Run Faster during Base Training

The overly-generalized approach to base building is to focus on just running easy miles and building up an aerobic base sufficient enough to support the demands of long runs and speed work. However, once you have been running for enough years, an easy-miles-only approach does not provide enough mental or physical stimulus unless you are coming back from time off from injury, long illness, or pregnancy. Even during the off-season, some variety in your training is required continue to develop your aerobic base and improve your running fitness.

The base training phase isn’t the appropriate time for intensely hard track workouts or long tempo runs. A small amount of hard running can go a long way in training, especially when you don’t have a goal race in the next 12-16 weeks. These short but hard runs can take the shape of hill workouts, fartlek runs, or my personal favorite – the progression run. 

Some runners define the progression run as having each mile faster than the previous one, but my approach to them is a bit more relaxed than that. After all, running each mile exactly 10 seconds faster than the last doesn’t account for terrain, whether you are running on steep hills or gentle rollers. Nor does it teach you to be in tune with your perceived effort – it teaches you to zone in on your GPS watch.

Rather, my favorite type of progression runs focuses on running faster during the final quarter of the run based on effort. Depending on how you feel, you can run at a moderate effort (marathon effort) to a hard effort (10K effort). Again, it’s not something that’s exact – you vary the intensity based on how hard you want to push yourself that day. 

The progression run doesn’t just build endurance and develop speed. The progression run fosters a mind-body connection and teaches you to be more intuitive about your running. By shifting the focus to effort rather than pace, you learn how to gauge your perceived effort and in return receive an honest indication of your fitness. The progression run also teaches you how to run faster when tired; whether you are racing a 5K or marathon, finishing strong is a valuable racing skill to have. 

That’s not to mention that progression runs are fun. There’s a factor of exhilaration that comes when you quicken your cadence and push harder during that final mile or two. Progression runs add an element of hard work and a sense of accomplishment to a week of otherwise easy running. Yet, unlike the structured workouts of race training, they don’t come with the pressure to hit certain splits or maintain a hard effort for more than 1-2 miles. 

Short Progression Run:

Run 3 miles at a comfortable, conversational effort. Run the final mile at a moderately hard to hard effort. If running on a hilly course, focus on maintaining an even effort on the uphills and downhills. 

Long Progression Run: 

Run 6 miles at a comfortable, conversational effort. Run the final 2 miles at a moderately hard to hard effort. If running on a hilly course, focus on maintaining an even effort on the uphills and downhills. 

Since progression runs keep the time spent running hard to a minimum, you can incorporate them once or twice per week into base training and once per week in race training (in addition to a harder workout or long run).  These are also my favorite twist to add to a long run during marathon or half marathon training

What’s your favorite workout to do when you’re not training for a race?
What is your run today?

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11 Responses

  1. I love progression runs! I like starting off easy during runs anyway and finishing faster. I usually stick to fartleks during base building, but sometimes Ill do a progression run as my long run.

  2. These are my coach’s favorites and, sometimes they are mine…mostly when they are over! Progression runs are hard but they work and have definitely taught me so much about effort. I can now dial in my 5k, 10k, and half marathon effort and nail the pace. I’ve worked hard for it and it’s so beneficial in a race.

  3. I really love the treadmill workout you gave us over a year ago, where I run hard for 8 min, recover for 4, hard for 6, recover for 3, etc. I use that one all the time to get through boring treadmill runs and to keep my legs familiar with speed when I’m not training for a race. I have to admit that I don’t do progression runs very often, if at all! Actually, that’s not true. I do them but not intentionally. Whenever Lora and I run together, we’ll run about an average of 8:30 min/miles for 10 miles and then finish it off with 3 miles at 7:30 pace.

  4. I haven’t done a progression run in a while, but I’m usually pleasantly surprised by how easy the “hard” miles feel. They are great for mental endurance/confidence.

  5. I can see the influence of Hudson at work here 😉

    I like to do a good deal of moderate-paced running during base-building. Since I’m not doing any hard workouts or high mileage that I need to recover from, and I’m only running 3-4 days a week, I find that I get more of a fitness boost from moderate paced mileage than I do from slow easy jogs, and at little cost to my body. As I’ve gotten used to regular running again lately, a lot of my running has unintentionally ended up at a moderate effort – I like to think it’s a sign that I’m regaining some fitness.

  6. I always love starting a run off easy and finishing faster. Most of my easy/daily runs do, I guess because it takes my legs awhile to wake up. It is helpful in racing because I don’t take off like crazy on race day and ruin it. I’ve made a point in my easy runs to take the first mile or two a little easier than I feel like I should just to practice that.

  7. Great website! I’m just finishing a training plan designed by a coach, which I have been following for about 5 months (for a half-marathon). My mileage was hard to track bc he often had me running for time, other than long runs, so I didn’t keep careful track. But the max was around 50 mpw. Maybe some weeks a little more. This was my first training plan with a coach (followed one from a book about 15 years ago also!) But I feel like I need a break mentally from structured training. I do want to build a base so I found your website and am trying to figure out what to do after this structured training. I don’t really want to hire a coach until the next race (probably next fall or winter) bc I don’t want structured training right now! I have a couple of questions, would love your thoughts: (1) I read an article that said runners should take 2 weeks completely off from running after a hard training effort, then 2 months of unstructured “do whatever you want,” exercise. I could never skip that much running (I’ve been a distance runner who doesn’t race much for 20 years). But do you agree about taking 2 weeks completely off any exercise?! (2) more important, base building after this plan: should I continue to increase mileage if that feels right (gradually of course), should I continue long runs (my longest run was 16 miles . . . I’m thinking maybe 10-12 mile long runs during a base phase)? And should I just plan on these progression runs 1-2 times per week, for the only speedwork, or should I also throw in short sprints weekly (like 10 x 20 seconds)? Do you agree about not hiring a coach when you don’t want structured training — suggestions would be great but I don’t want to follow another periodized plan right now. Thanks very much — love your site!

    1. Hi Tina, thank you! In regards to your questions, I do encourage most athletes I coach to take anywhere from a few days to two weeks completely off after a hard effort goal race, depending on a variety of factors (age, injury risk, recent training, etc). Many runners do find they thrive with long runs of about 8-12 miles during base building – again, this varies from individual to individual. I do coach athletes through the base period, but often it does have some structure to it – so ultimately, I think if you do not want structure, it’s best to have a loose plan of your own and go with what you feel each week.

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