If you’ve always wanted to finish a race with a negative split or you’re looking for a way to increase your overall speed, progression runs might be the missing link in your training. This type of run also works perfectly for anyone who has started a race too fast and blew up by the end—or halfway through, for that matter.
A progression run will help you fine-tune your pacing and finish your mileage faster. And it’s a workout that works for any pace, level, or goal. Here, how to make the most of this type of training run.
What is a progression run?
A progression run involves starting at a relatively slow or easy pace and getting progressively faster throughout the run. It’s a pretty broad term, says Jess Heiss, certified run coach and personal trainer in Portland, Oregon, so you have lots of options for how to make it work for you.
You can base your progression runs on pace or perceived effort—that means either increasing your pace by a very specific speed or going off easy, moderate, and difficult effort. You can also end up with a huge difference in starting and ending pace, or only a moderate increase in speed from start to finish.
That’s the beauty of a progression run: There are no hard and fast rules for how to accomplish it (besides actually starting slower than you end). Plus, run coaches say you can do these types of workouts at any point in your training. Just think of them as a solid option for moderate effort run days—not your easy pace, but not the top-level effort you might put in when doing mile repeats.
“I love using these as kind of the transition between the base-building phase and focused speedwork,” Heiss says. “It’s kind of that middle ground.” Progression runs get you playing with speed and exploring what different efforts and paces feel like, but they aren’t as complex or as physically and mentally taxing as, say, interval sessions.
Danny Mackey, head coach of Brooks Beasts Track Club, also suggests incorporating the progression run into a long run to improve the quality of those longer distances. You start at your easy effort (or easy pace) and then work your way up to more of a push pace/effort.
Mackey also uses them as a bridge workout—for days when you want to get a run in to maintain your aerobic fitness level, but have a hard workout coming up and need to be well-rested. You can also apply it to a tempo run, starting 15 seconds slower than your tempo pace and then working up to your tempo pace or ending even quicker than tempo pace if you’re feeling confident, he says.
No matter how you do it, all you have to do is make sure you’re starting slow and getting faster.
What are the benefits of a progression run?
So, why would you want to do a progression run versus a run where you hold a steady pace or one in which you do actual structured speedwork? There are a handful of benefits to running this way.
1. It’s less intimidating speedwork
“Sometimes beginner runners are new to or just intimated by the idea of speedwork,” says Alison Staples, certified run coach and physical therapist assistant in Baltimore. Many experienced runners also just dread speed sessions. A progression run can take away some of the anxiety that comes with these fast-paced interval workouts, Heiss says.
Progression runs can also (sometimes) feel gentler on the body than those faster-paced interval sessions. And you don’t have to worry quite so much about recovery time, as you would with harder, faster runs, Staples says.
Speedwork is typically both mentally and physically rough, and you have to give your body time afterward to rest and recover. With a progression run, you’ll likely spend most of your workout at a pace that requires an easy or moderate effort. You may choose to really push the speed at the end (or even just at the very end), but it will be for a shorter portion of the workout as opposed to the entire workout being all about intensity and speed.
At the same time, progression runs do help you tune into your speed and get you more comfortable with pushing the pace, just without taxing your body in the same way a 8x400m workout might.
2. It builds in a warmup
“It’s important to warm up your body before you get into a hard and fast pace, so [a progression run is] a nice way to ease your way into those harder efforts,” Staples says. Think about those first miles or minutes of a progression run as a way to get your body and brain on board for the workout. When it comes time to push the effort and pace a bit more, you’ll be warm and it’ll feel easier—natural, even—to progress things.
3. It teaches you to pace smarter
“Starting a little more conservatively helps make sure you’re keeping the workout in that moderate-to-intense zone,” Mackey says. Figuring out your moderate-effort pace is challenging, especially on a long run. Most of us know what going hard feels like, but “moderate” is harder to figure out, he says. It’s easy to start too quickly out of the gates and suddenly be at a race pace that’s unsustainable (and too taxing) for a long run.
If you’re doing a progression run based on effort level, it can help you stop relying so much on your tracker and get you feeling confident in what different paces feel like, Heiss says. Over time, you’ll learn what easy, moderate, and hard efforts really look and feel like for you pace-wise. And then you can integrate that knowledge into race day, so you start at a pace that leads to a strong finish (without any bonking).
4. It's mentally refreshing
The mind plays a big role in running. As mentioned, progression runs can seem easier than straight-up speedwork, and that makes them mentally easier to do too, Mackey says. Knowing you get to start off easy and it only gets hard toward the end can make it easier to do than knowing you have to run the whole thing at a challenging pace. “It’s a lot easier mentally to bite off segments of a run,” he says, adding that progression runs are particularly good when you’re gearing up for a hard race and feeling mentally fatigued from the training.
5. It get you more comfortable with pushing at the end of a run
It’s fine to feel totally spent at the finish line of a race, but you don’t want to feel depleted at the end of every long training run, Staples says. Progression runs are great for learning how to conserve energy so that you have some left to give at the end. It’s also a nice mental boost when you find you can successfully speed up at the end of a run instead of feeling like you can’t wait to stop.
5 Ways to Do a Progression Run
Staples, Mackey, and Heiss share six examples of how to structure a progression run.
1. The 80/20 Breakdown
Run 80 percent of the run really easy, and the last 20 percent at tempo pace or a 6 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Think of 1 as being on the couch and 10 being your all-out speed.
2. The Thirds Breakdown
For a 45-minute run, run the first 15 minutes at an easy pace (RPE of 2/3), the second 15 minutes at a moderately easy pace (RPE 4/5), and the final 15 minutes at a moderately hard effort (RPE 6/7). “Think about going from a conversational pace to ending at a tempo run pace,” Staples says.
3. The Final Push
Go at an easy or moderately easy pace (RPE around 3 to 5) for 90 percent of the run and do the last 10 percent at all-out effort. That could mean the final two or three minutes, or even the final mile, depending on the length of the run. “This one is good for practicing to finish fast and learning to conserve energy until the end,” Staples says.
4. Play With 10s
Every mile, try to take 10 seconds off your pace. Or every 10 minutes, speed up by taking 10 seconds off your pace.
5. Faster Every Mile
Mackey sometimes challenges his athletes with a tempo run progression. He tells them to run each mile faster than the previous one. That’s the only rule. “If that means you go really slow first, that’s OK, but if you go really hard you have to pay the price for that,” he says. “You really have to check in with yourself mentally and be aware of how you’re actually feeling and how to pace.”