Start Slow – Finish Fast: How Three Types of Progression Runs Boost Your Fitness

Greg McMillan, M.S. | McMillianRunning.com

In a progression run, you begin running at a slow, easy pace but finish at a fast pace. Not only will you find progression runs to be fun, but they are a great way to boost your fitness without any lasting fatigue. And, the benefits are the same no matter if you’re a 2:15 or a 4:15 marathoner.

Three Types of Progression Runs

While the idea of the progression run is simple – start slower, finish faster, I recommend that you begin with structured progression runs until you learn how to properly gauge your effort throughout the run. Below are the three structured progression runs that I have used successfully.

1) Thirds

The first type of progression run is called Thirds. As the name implies, you break your run into three equal parts or thirds. For the first third, you run at a relatively slow, comfortable pace. As you progress to the second third of the run, your pace will have gradually increased to your normal steady running pace. Over the last third of the run, you increase your speed so that you’re running a strong, comfortably hard pace. For many competitive runners this effort corresponds to somewhere around marathon race pace to as fast as half-marathon race pace and a heart rate between 80 and 90% of maximum. This strong running significantly improves your Stamina which raises the pace you can run before you begin to rapidly accumulate lactic acid.

For your first thirds progression run, choose a 45-minute easy run. Run the first 15 minutes slowly, the second 15 minutes at your normal pace and finish the last 15 minutes at a strong pace. While I break the run into thirds, your pace doesn’t radically change after each third. Instead, it is a gradual but steady increase across the run. After getting your feet wet with this first thirds run, you can adapt the concept to any duration/distance.

It’s important to note that the pace of the final third is NOT all-out running. An appropriate pace for the last third is approximately your marathon race pace.* Could you run faster at the end? Of course! But that’s not the goal of this particular progression run. In fact, if you run too hard in the last third, the workout becomes more like a Tempo Run which causes too much fatigue for the purposes of a progression run.

It’s likely that on some of your runs, you already do a thirds progression run without even trying. When you are fully recovered from previous workouts, the body seems to just naturally progress to a faster pace as the run goes along. And please note that I suggest you do this on an ‘easy run’ day not a ‘recovery run’ day.** For all but a select few elite athletes, progression runs should not be used on days when you are recovering from a previous workout or race.

Lastly, I find a thirds progression run to be an especially beneficial workout for experienced marathon runners – runners who can handle an additional up tempo day in addition to their other key workouts and long run. The most important caveat, however, is that you must not push too hard in the last third. Strive for a medium-hard pace (around your marathon race pace) not a Tempo Run.

Read about two more types of progression runs.


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