Progression runs fine-tune your pacing, boost your fitness

by:Awards Medal     2020-07-11
Like many runners, Stephanie Hammond had no problem cruising through the first 32km 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. Long runs, tempo sessions, and base kays can all be turned into progression runs. And they can be used at any time throughout the training cycle. One key benefit of progression runs, says McMillan, is that they increase the volume of your fast-paced training 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 kilometres 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 kilometre. 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 20 seconds per kilometre 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 16km with the lasts or 6.5km 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 tempo session the following day. Getting the progression run right does take practice. Gilmore calls this challenge 'slicing the salami' 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. For Hammond, the challenge was learning to start her 26km progression runs slowly enough so that she'd end at a manageable speed. Practicing on a 6.5km loop helped: She was able to cut her time by two minutes per loop (or 20 seconds per km). The payoff: Over the course of several marathons, Hammond slashed more than 20 minutes off her decade-old marathon best, eventually clocking a 3:12 at a marathon in 2006. Now that's progress.
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