Progression runs – how to do them and why they rock

I’ve mentioned before on here my love for NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, especially for long runs. In one episode, a reporter muses on his (short lived) time on his high school swim team.

On recalling learning he would have to swim countless laps of the pool quickly: “Congratulations, you just found a way to make tedium grueling.”

That line made me laugh out loud, because I could totally relate. Grueling tedium can be experienced both in the pool and on the road, and I think that’s one of the things that turn people off of running.

Our sport’s very simplicity – put one foot in front of the other, and then do it again over and over – is both part of its appeal and its legendary dread.

Sure, it’s easy to zone out and not have to think about what to do next – unlike in, say, soccer or hockey or another team sport requiring hand-eye coordination and sharp, sudden changes in movement (although it’s still always a good idea to keep an eye out for potholes, road kill, dog poop, roots and cars!).

I love those long, steady-state runs where you can listen to podcasts or music, or just be alone with your thoughts, without having to concentrate on the physical movements of your body.

But sometimes there are no podcasts that sound interesting, your playlist is the same one you’ve been listening to for the past six months and your brain is just…fried. You’re tired of stewing over the same problem, or there’s just nothing really exciting or compelling to think about.

And there’s only so many kilometers you can run while planning what you’re going to eat when you get home. Even the odd freaky squirrel can only capture your interest for so long.

So I get where the grueling tedium comes in. Totally. And how that can keep people from running, and loving running, and looking forward to their runs.

There are many ways to pull yourself out of a running slump – take a break and focus on a different sport or workout, download new music, sign up for a race, find a friend to run with or discover a new route.

Another option is to switch up the style of your runs. If you’re always doing the same 5-kilometer loop at the same pace, consider trying a progression workout, where you begin slowly and get progressively faster every kilometer.

Progression workouts are great because:

– They get your legs used to running tired

– You become more tuned in to pace and what different paces feel like

– They mimic prime racing conditions, where you learn to conserve enough energy to have your strongest, fastest finish

– They train your body to run faster while fatigued

– They allow the body to warm up first before hitting fast speeds, leading to less risk of injury

– To race fast, you have to train fast, but progression runs result in less fatigue than a sustained long run at race pace or a tough track workout – therefore, requiring less recovery time!

– They force you to increase stride length and cadence while you’re tired and your running form has started to break down

– They function in a similar way to HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts because they keep your body guessing what’s going to come next. That equals a higher calorie burn and lingering metabolic boost after the run.

– They’re mentally stimulating, add variety to your runs and go by fast, because you have to concentrate on your pace. Before you know it, you’re done!

I’ve done two progression runs recently:

1)   I mapped out a one-mile loop in my neighbourhood that starts and ends at my apartment. It begins with a gradual downward hill, flattens out for the majority of the distance, and then ends with a short, steep incline – perfect! I ran 5 loops for a total of 5 miles or 8 kilometers. The first and fifth loops were warm up and cool down, and the middle three were run progressively.

2)   Five kilometer run: looking back at my numbers, I think I could have ran the first four a little faster, because I obviously had enough energy to run that last kilometer hard. The thing about progression runs though is that it’s always better to be conservative and underestimate your speed at the beginning so you’re able to pick it up at the end, than to overshoot and go out too fast.


I definitely recommend throwing in a progression run once a week or so. They don’t have to be structured on every mile or kilometer, although I find that an easy way to keep track. If you don’t have a GPS watch, you can just go by feel – start off slow then gradually pick it up, or choose landmarks on your route to determine where you’ll get a little faster. If you’re an experienced runner, you may have specific splits you want to hit, but I’m just happy if I see descending numbers. Don’t feel intimidated by the idea of a “progression workout” – remember, starting out slowly and then building speed is how our bodies naturally want to move. The trick is to keep that forward momentum so you end with your fastest split – and a huge sense of accomplishment.

Happy running!

One thought on “Progression runs – how to do them and why they rock

  1. Have you considered a future in running journalism? I know there are probably a million smug runner blogs out there (not saying yours is smug!), but you’re an ACTUAL JOURNALIST. Surely that gives you an advantage?

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