Work in Progress
by Kevin Beck
Over the past dozen or so years, training programs for distance running have come to resemble the tax code: Founded on basic and long-standing principles, but wrought with increasingly complex terminology. As a consequence of the ever-more-popular segregation of harder workouts into discrete classes, such as “tempo run,” “VO2 max workout,” and “marathon-pace run,” a number of tried-and-true efforts that can’t be so neatly categorized have been largely ignored.
Perhaps the chief casualty is a type of workout most aptly classified as a “progression run.” Bound to the idea, implicit or otherwise, that repetitions and fast, continuous runs must adhere to a uniform or near-uniform pace, few who approach their training systematically are apt to regularly include runs that feature steady, programmed acceleration in their training regimens. Runners will diligently run four miles at 15K pace, 10×400 meters in 1:30, and 20-mile long runs at conversational pace, or perhaps with the last 10 faster than the first 10. Rarely seen, however, are runs, pace-programmed or otherwise, in which the effort is steadily ramped up from laughin’-and-scratchin’ easy to blitzkrieg.
The term “progression run” itself is gaining footholds in the running vernacular, but they’re nothing new. “The Boston-area runners certainly employed progression runs back in the ’80s and early ’90s,” says Pete Pfitzinger, M.S., a two-time U.S. Olympic Marathoner and now an exercise physiologist and Senior Writer for RT. “It’s an open question as to how many Americans do so today.” Given the success of Boston-based runners such as Bill Rodgers, Bob Hodge, Greg Meyer, Randy Thomas, and of course Pfitzinger himself, this is not a trivial observation.
Progression runs come in a variety of flavors and colors, spanning the duration, frequency, and intensity spectra. As fluid as their particulars may be, however, their benefits are solidly established. 2004 Olympian Dan Browne, a member of the Nike Oregon Project who has spent time in Europe and Kenya training with elite African distance runners, sees progressively faster runs not only as a critical ingredient in his improvement over the past several years, but as the key difference between American and Kenyan training regimens—and as a necessary element in maximizing potential. “In a tight race, you obviously have to speed up at the end,” says Browne, “and you have to do it when you’re at your most tired. The same thing applies to progression runs.” He notes that a typical elite American male might run 6:00 pace out the door en route to a 10 miler that takes an hour, but that a Kenyan might work from 7:00 pace to 5:00 pace in covering 10 miles in that same hour. “If you’re training to race and racing to win, this approach is something you need to include in your training,” says Browne.
Keith Dowling, a 2:13 marathoner and 2003 World Championship Marathon U.S. team member, has also gotten lots of mileage out of progression runs. He stresses the importance of “intense relaxation” in getting the most out of the workouts: “[Progression runs] are very ‘Kenyan’ in nature,” Dowling says. “You start slow and finish fast, but you never strain at any point during the run.”
Dowling’s history with progression runs began when he was preparing for the Boston Marathon in 2002. “That buildup was the first time I used progression runs in place of a normal Sunday long run.” To make sure he didn’t overdo things, he included progression-run workouts in every other long run. His normal routine was to maintain his typical long-run pace of 6:30 to 6:40 per mile for the first eight to 18 miles of a slightly rolling course; with eight miles to go, he’d increase the pace every two miles, starting at 5:50 to 6:00 pace and dropping down to his goal marathon pace of 5:00 per mile for the last half-mile. The distance of these runs progressed from 16 miles to Dowling’s longest run of 26 miles, the latter being four weeks before Boston.
Dowling echoes Browne’s comments about the role of progression runs in ensuring physical and psychological race readiness. “The number one benefit of progression runs is that they train you to react to surges in a relaxed fashion, which is important in marathoning,” he says. “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.”
Browne says that at first, progression runs—performed several times a week as a matter of course in Kenyan training camps —are taxing, but that, as with any training stress coupled with adequate recovery time, adaptation follows. In the context of frequent progression runs, this adaptation might entail a jump to an entirely new plateau of disposable power. “It becomes more natural,” says Browne, “and in effect you find yourself piling strength on strength.” Moreover, the progression run becomes not merely another weapon in a runner’s training arsenal but a day-to-day means of approaching training, whether what’s on tap is a recovery run or a hard track session. “My easy days are progressive,” says Browne. “The intensity is different but the approach is the same.”
That approach, says coach and exercise physiologist Greg McMillan (www.mcmillanrunning.com), can reach beyond the ranks of the world class and benefit anyone angling to race, from beginners with a less-than-perfect handle on day-to-day fatigue assessment to seasoned veterans accustomed to their own training and competitive rhythms. “Progression runs are effective for three primary reasons,” says McMillan. “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.”
McMillan recommends three different ways in which to perform structured progression runs. The first, which he calls “Thirds,” involves doing the first third of a run easy, the next third at a steady or “typical” pace, and the final third at half marathon to marathon pace—roughly 80 to 90 percent of maximum heart rate. Increases in pace are not “step-wise” but gradual, and McMillan suggests starting with a progression run 45 minutes in duration and working upward from there. “It’s likely that on some of your runs, you already do a Thirds progression run without even trying,” notes McMillan. “It’s just kind of how the body likes to run when you are fully recovered from previous workouts.” Especially useful for marathoners, Thirds runs should not be treated as tempo runs and should not be attempted by runners still recovering from hard workouts done in the preceding days.
The second type of progression run McMillan advocates is a “DUSA,” named for the Fila Discovery USA program in which McMillan played an advisory role. A DUSA entails doing 75 to 90 percent of your total run at a steady but easy pace. Over the final 10 to 25 percent of the run, pick up the pace significantly; well-trained competitors should aim for half marathon to 10K race pace and finish up hard over the last quarter mile. Afterward, jog or walk for five minutes as a cool-down. “Compared to a Thirds run, a DUSA involves a slightly faster pace for a slightly shorter amount of time, providing a slightly different stimulus to the body,” says McMillan. He recommends that experienced marathoners do 90-minute DUSAs with the last 15 to 25 minutes hard; the main idea is that regardless of the total distance covered, about one-sixth of this type of run should be done at 10K to half marathon race pace.
The third type of progression run, aptly dubbed “Super-Fast Finish” by McMillan, was a staple of Paul Tergat when the Kenyan legend was preparing for his world-record 2:04:55 at the 2003 Berlin Marathon. “The name says it all,” says McMillan. “You run a normal, steady run but run super fast in the last three to six minutes of the run. And when I say super fast, I mean super fast—pretty much like a 5K race to the finish.” McMillan says that these runs are fast enough to develop speed and sprinting ability through muscle recruitment, coordination, mental focus, and lactic-acid-tolerance mechanisms, but short enough for runners to avoid fatigue-related effects on subsequent runs. “That said,” he notes, “you must be accustomed to fast running before trying to run a Super-Fast Finish progression run; otherwise you’ll likely be sore from the speed.”
McMillan emphasizes that the “recoverability factor” of progression runs is what makes them special. “My experience has been that the athletes who most often suffer from overtraining, undue fatigue, and poor racing are those who push too hard, too soon, and for too long in their runs, particularly their easy and recovery runs,” says McMillan.
Browne agrees. “People who over-train do so because they add too much hard running in a typical easy day,” he says. “Progression running does help you to avoid that by forcing you to start slowly. Getting some good hard running each day—but not too much—is one of the keys to avoiding overtraining and injuries.”
Progression runs can also be incorporated into runners’ programs in a less structured fashion—even by those accustomed to meticulous schedule management. “I’ve found that I race best if I don’t do a programmed workout twice a week,” says Brian Erb of Wise, VA. As a year-round racer, Erb says he’s repeatedly discovered this by accident; when he starts racing well, he’s inclined to start doing programmed workouts more often, which at times has only led to sub-par performances. “I just ‘run to the barn’ when I feel like it,” says Erb. “They’re good for me when I haven’t been feeling well and don’t want to pre-plan workouts, but wind up feeling okay on days I don’t expect to.” As a larger (6 feet 4 inches, 170 pounds) distance runner with a 1:08 half marathon to his credit, Erb puts a premium on recovery and notes that progression runs “pack a lot of benefit for the fatigue investment.”
On or Over the Threshold?
For long-time, high-mileage runners still in search of faster times, improvements in lactate processing often mark the clearest path to a final breakthrough. Physiologically-minded runners commonly ask whether an improvement in lactate threshold—i.e., a positive shift of the effort range in which lactate is metabolized faster than it is produced—is best achieved by running primarily on the “lactate-production side” (tempo runs) as opposed to working on the “lactate-clearance side” (faster than lactate-threshold repeats). In theory, the former focuses on aerobic metabolism and limits metabolic stress within muscle fibers, while the latter kicks various cellular metabolic reactions resulting from excess lactate into overdrive, thereby teaching the body to dispose of lactate more quickly.
“It’s unclear whether an improved lactate threshold is due to reduced production or increased clearance, but both of those are due to improved aerobic metabolism,” says Pfitzinger. “Increased clearance is related to an improved ability to move lactate from its site of production to other muscle fibers which convert it back to pyruvate and then oxidize it aerobically.” Regardless, running at or slightly above lactate-threshold pace has been shown to provide the greatest stimulus for increasing the pace at which lactate threshold is reached. By allowing you to slowly reach lactate-threshold pace, progression runs provide a low-stress option for improving your lactate threshold.
Pfitzinger adds that from a physiological standpoint, starting a run easy, inducing some fatigue, then working at a higher workload may confer benefits similar to running at the higher workload for the whole way. For example, a three-hour marathoner doing a 20 miler might run the first five miles at 8:30 pace, the next five at 8:00 pace, and the next five at 7:30 minute pace, and then progressively increase the pace over the last five miles so the last two miles are run at 7:00 pace. This would all be below lactate threshold, says Pfitzinger, so recovery would be relatively quick, yet the workout would provide an excellent training stimulus. Another example would be to do a 15-mile run, winding up the pace to 10-mile race pace (about lactate threshold).
Pfitzinger cautions that regularly going all-out at the end of such workouts would be inadvisable; the resultant lactate accumulation would prolong the necessary recovery period to a degree not justified by the potential training benefit.
Questions of physiology and detail-sweating aside, it’s clear that competitive runners can benefit not merely from mixing in a few programmed progression runs along with the harder workouts they’re accustomed to, but from embracing and applying an everyday philosophy of starting slowly and focusing on relaxation, a valuable policy whether a given day’s training is a harder session or an easy recovery run. Be honest with your body, trust in the process, and soon enough, nothing will stand in the way of your personal progress.