Why Progression Runs Are Vital For Endurance Success

Progression Runs

There is not one runner on the planet who has tried to race and got frustrated by having to slow down.

Progression runs teach you the exact opposite.

The name of the game in this sport is being able to handle ever-increasing amounts of lactic acid building up in the blood stream.

The real culprit is the hydrogen ion within lactic acid that causes the issue of inhibiting muscle function, but we won’t go into specifics here.

How do we get better equipped to handle holding our goal pace for long periods of time?

How is it that the Kenyans or Japanese, any top runner for that matter, make racing look so easy?

Are they really that much better then you and I or have they just consistently ran at a higher level of their overall maximum oxygen uptake for a longer duration of time.

Success in endurance sports involves two characteristics.

Patience and persistence.

Runners don’t fail because they lack the talent.

Are there athletes that simply were for with a little more genetic ability then you and I?

Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean we cannot create our own reality of excellence when we race.

Delayed Gratification

We live in a give-it-to-me-now culture.

Everyone wants things easily and although wanting is easy, the process, often times,  becomes far too painful and people, naturally, give up or move on to other things.

I have always used progression runs in my own training over the years.

The little success I have enjoyed and experienced over the years has been on account of conducting gradually longer and longer progression runs.

I will get into specifics of these runs later in this article.

Athletes that were born with more physiological ability may gets results faster then you and I and that is where believing in delayed gratification comes into play.

You have to expect and be willing to wait years or decades where, perhaps, a more physiologically talented athlete may reach in a year or less.

It took me 18 years to break 2.20 for the marathon distance yet in Kenya, there are hundreds of men who run 2.19 or faster for the marathon every year.

Here in the United States we may be lucky to have 80 to 120 men in the entire country run that fast most years.

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distance runningTraining Environment

One thing I have noticed with some of the world’s top athletes that I have trained with is their inability to understand the word ‘quit’.

I was able to train for 3 years in Colorado Springs with Dan Browne, a two-time Olympian, who is now the head coach of the US Army World-Class Athlete Program.

Dan was able to push his body to levels few individuals can.

That being said, everyone has that capacity.

We all can run far faster than we think we are capable of but we have to set up our training correctly in order to make that a reality.

I have trained with top Kenyan, American and European middle to long distance runners and they all have a common trait.

They understand the importance of running easy when it counts and implementing extremely high, anaerobic-style workouts into their weekly routine.

It is consistent, timely, focused work and there are no short cuts.

Progression runs are a part of distance running success.

Why Are Progression Runs So Important

You want to teach the body to burn fat more efficiently at race pace.

The aim is to conserve carbohydrate stores and gradually lengthen the amount of time you spend at and even below goal race pace.

If an athlete has a goal of running a 2.37 marathon (6.00 mile pace), doing 80% of their weekly mileage at 8.30 mile pace isn’t going to do the job.

Progression runs are extremely strenuous so the rule here is to not try to go too fast or too far, too soon.

They are important because, over time, and the longer you run, the more you teach the body to convert lactic acid to energy.

If you have not trained at a high anaerobic level for a long enough period of time, the chances of success lessens.

Specific race goals requires specific training, period.

Teaching the body to increase pace despite being fatigued is where you make your money.

Focus On Recovery

Equal focus on recovery is just as important.

It takes approximately three weeks for the body to adapt to any stress you place on it.

You cannot continue to push the body and expect a return.

It will super compensate, meaning 36-48 hours after the initial workout it will come back (if rested well) stronger then before.

This is where patience comes into play.

I’ve trained with plenty of athletes who get so caught up with amount of miles they run, what pace they are conducting their recovery days at, it has caused them to overanalyze themselves.

Want success in this sport?

Be Patient

There are far too many athletes who want results quick who won’t practice this fundamental.

They will grow tired and give up, jump to the conclusion that they simply don’t have the talent when persistence is what was needed.

It may take a decade to achieve what you want.

Are you willing to make that commitment?

Most are not and fall into the ‘want’ category.

‘Do’ takes far more then just ‘kind of’ wanting it.

This idea that it make take 1, 5 or even 10 years to achieve a goal just doesn’t seem to extravagant now does it?

I have been training for 7 years come this December trying to better my 2.19.35 marathon PR.

You have to be patient enough to your goals through, more so then anyone else would care to take on.

Progression Runs To Consider

Now that we have covered the bases of mindset and drive let’s discuss a few progression runs that can help you in your own preparation.

Lactate Threshold Runs

The first type of progression run you can use is lactate threshold progression runs.

This form of run can consist of a 2 to 3 mile easy warm-up, followed by 3 to 5 miles at lactate threshold pace.

Lactate threshold is a high enough exertion where your body can still convert lactic acid back to energy but no so anaerobic that it fails to do so.

It basically is the period of time where lactic acid begins to build up in your bloodstream.

We were a very heart rate training focused team while I competed for Malone University.

Coach Jack Hazen, who has coached at Malone now for over 35 years and Olympic coach, had us practice these forms of runs all the time.

Lactic Threshold varies from person to person but generally occurs at a heart rate between 163-172 beats per minute.

It takes time to adapt to this intensity so be patient, do not be in a hurry.

If starting out, try doing a 2-mile warm-up, 2 miles at 163-72 beats per minute and gradually extend your distance over time.

Marathon Pace Progression Runs

These are essential not only for marathoners but also for 5K to 10K specialists as well.

They also demand quite a bit more effort on the part of the athlete.

A good example of marathon progression runs would be a mile warmup, 2 miles at moderate effort (145-60 beats per minute) followed by 14 miles at marathon goal race pace, followed by a 2-mile cool-down.

The warm-up is important but studies have shown that cooling down isn’t necessarily needed in recovery, conducting a warm-up, however,  prior to the workout itself does enhance recovery speeds.

You want a nice, consistent effort for a long period of time.

It could be 25 minutes of sustained effort early in your training block branching out to an hour to an hour and half or longer when fitness gains have been made.

It has to be a systematic process though. It cannot be rushed and as much as I would like to write that it is easy, it is not.

That being said, with time, these runs will feel controlled and much more sustainable as you gain fitness.

Cut Down Progression Run

One of my least favorite yet most potent progression runs are runs gradually increasing in pace every mile.

progression runningA common workout I’ll do when preparing for marathons is doing an easy two-mile jog warm-up, followed by cut-down miles 5 seconds per mile faster each consecutive mile.

The workout would look like this:

2 mile jog warm-up

10 miles, 1 mile at 6.15,6.05,6.00,5.55,5.50,5.45,5.40,5.35,5.30, 1 mile jog cool-down

This would be a very demanding workout even for me early on in my training block.

Later that same workout may look like this:

5.45,5.40,5.35,5.30,5,25,5,20,5.15,5.10,5.05,5.00 and at the same heart rate.

Regardless what your ability level is, this is one workout you need to implement that will yield enormous results.

These progressions runs are great for teaching the body to increase pace when fatigued.

Keep in mind, we get no breaks in a race.

Our competitors are not going to slow down when they pass us and allow us to maintain pace with them so you have to train in such a way that you can react when moves are made.

Closing thoughts

The name of the game is teaching the body to burn fat at race pace and conserving carbohydrate stores longer then our competition.

As long as the body can convert lactic acid back to energy, we are on the right path to success.

The problem is easy running doesn’t create this effect, only faster, higher anaerobic efforts.

I can think of no workouts I have done over the years to date that have helped me cut time off my 5K to marathon personal bests.

Progression runs were a huge factor in how I went from having a 2.43.36 marathon best to 2.19.35.

These workouts, coupled with equal attention on recovery and nutrition, made the difference.

I hope these tips can assist you in your racing and have given you some additional ideas on why progression runs are so important.

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