Like many runners, Stephanie Hammond had no problem cruising through the first 20-plus miles of a marathon—but then she'd crawl through the rest.
"I was still moving," she says of her typical race finishes, "but I wanted to cry." Was she doing too few long runs? Not running far enough?
It wasn't until roughly a decade later, when she enlisted the help of a coach, former Marine Corps Marathon champion Peter Sherry, that she discovered the surprising culprit: her pace. Hammond had been starting most of her runs too fast and then slowing down at the end, which taught her body to do the same thing on race day.
To break this discouraging habit, Sherry suggested that Hammond try progression runs, whose defining characteristic is a steady acceleration. 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.
Progression runs aren't new. Paavo Nurmi, who won nine Olympic gold medals, used them back in the 1920s. Over the last few years, they've seen a resurgence, popping up on the schedules of top athletes and in programs designed for recreational runners. Why? Their versatility.
"You can do an infinite number of progression runs, different lengths and different intensities," says Greg McMillan, who coaches elite and recreational runners in Flagstaff, Arizona.
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 (see "Pick It Up" on the next page).
One key benefit of progression runs, says McMillan, is that they increase the volume of your fast-paced miles without the added fatigue of a full-length quality workout. If you end two of your usual easy runs with 10 minutes at half-marathon pace, you've added 20 minutes of tempo work to your week. Over time, this extra quality work will make you a stronger runner.
The Multiuse Workout
McMillan learned about progression runs from Gabriele Rosa, the Italian coach of legendary Kenyan distance runner Paul Tergat. Tergat had been famous for his string of silver medals in the Olympics and World Championships, and for faltering in the final miles of his first few marathons.
Beginning in 2002, Rosa had Tergat turn virtually every effort into a progression run, accelerating until he was running as hard as he could over the final mile. The result was a world record of 2:04:55 (since broken) at the 2003 Berlin Marathon.
McMillan found that Tergat's approach—making every run a progression run—was too demanding, so he uses these workouts primarily as a transition from base work to speedier work. These runs start at an easy pace, increase to regular training pace, and finish about 30 seconds per mile faster.
The bit of speed conditions the heart and lungs, and strengthens muscles, ligaments, and tendons, preparing the body for the demands of intervals. For beginners, this type of progression run can serve as a safe introduction to speedwork.
A progression run can also be used to add a bit of quality work to what would otherwise be an easy run. For Peter Gilmore, a 2:12 marathoner who was the top American at the 2006 New York City and 2007 Boston marathons, this is a way of squeezing in some extra training once a week without the rigors of a typical tempo workout.
He'll often do an easy 10-miler with the last three or four miles at marathon pace the day before a harder run. While the pace isn't superfast, it's enough to keep his fast-twitch muscle fibers engaged—to prep for his interval or tempo session the following day.
Getting the progression run right does take practice. Gilmore calls this challenge "slicing the baloney" because you have to increase the pace in thin increments; cut off too big a chunk—that is, step up your speed too quickly—and you'll be in trouble by the end.