Running Hard, but Running Controlled: Progression Runs

The first point I want to make is that you can summarize this post into the following concept.  When doing high level aerobic running, it’s a good idea to finish faster than you started.

Now on to the specifics…

I really like long runs that end faster than they started, getting to that edge where the athlete can feel that they are starting to produce some lactate.  The best example of how I like to see runs progress in this way is with the long run.  If we assume a 17 mile run, then the first 7 miles or so can be very easy, conversational.  With the elite men and women I’ve coached they’re all running together at this point…and at elevation it’s no faster than 6:20-6:30 pace.  Then, from 7-10 miles the pace come down a bit, perhaps by 15-30 seconds, depending on who it is.  Now we’re at 10 miles and we have 7 miles to go.  The next 4 miles are “steady” a pace that they could sustain for  for 8-10 miles if they had to, but by no means easy running.  So another 10-15 seconds faster than they ran from 7-10.  For the final 3 miles, from 14-17, we want to either a) get faster each mile or b) get down another 10-20 seconds and maintain that for the last 3 miles.

Following the 17 miles we’d go right into a General Strength and Mobility (GSM) routine, ideally one of the longer one’s like Lionel Hampton or Grant Green.  Obviously they should take their recovery drink at this time as well (it depends on their stomach if they can take it before the GSM or if they wait until afterwards).  One final thought on things to do after the run: backwards lunges.  Why?  It’s a great way to gauge how fatiguing the run was.  You can only do this with an athlete who can do 3 x 10 backwards lunges on a line when rested.  When you ask them to do it after a long run you are looking for signs of fatigue.  Will they wobble a little?  Sure.  But should they be able to do it?  Hopefully.  If they fail at this task then they were probably running too hard at the end of the run.  And that’s not the end of the world…yet you should either water down the next workout or in some cases move the next workout back a day.

Final thought.  In a previous post there was a comment about sprinting all out the last 400m of a long run.  I get the rationale – your legs are heavy at the end of the long run, just as they are at the end of a race.  But unless you’re a marathoner, the pace that you would run for that 400m is probably slower than you would be running at the end of your race.  And the goal is not to have this progression long run be an all out effort, but rather a hard, but controlled effort.  If you “go to the well” in a long run you’ll definitely need extra recovery – i.e. you may need an extra easy day to recover – yet you probably won’t make that adjustment in your training.  Finally, I’ve had athletes finish a progression long run and then, after 5 minutes of easy jogging, run some 100’s or 150’s at 5k or 3k pace.  But that’s only if they feel well.

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  • Charlie Brenneman

    Decided to comment since I just wrote to someone on twitter who mentioned this is an element in training most overlooked by coaches. I agree. The challenges start with – at least for (young) HS teams and long runs – numerous kids of different abilities, thus potential large gaps in finishing time, then building kids up to the right distance, often in the heat of the summer or first weeks of XC season, then qualifying the run with a solid progression at the end. A few suggestions of things I have done and will be considering:

    I decided to have the kids run loops of 1-2k for the long run. This was for various reasons: safety/supervision, keeping them on dirt, getting splits, hydration, etc. This can be a bit boring, but if long run is 14-16k well 7-8 loops is like a 2 mile on the track. So it can help build mental toughness for that race and to help them break any run/workout into pieces.

    I was giving long runs done by distance but I am going to consider doing it by times, and letting them know the distance they should be able to cover. Then, to get everyone to finish at the same time (and do strides as a team), I’ll give breaks to the the kids doing less. So if 3 groups of 50-65-80 minutes the 50 min group could do: 10 off – 15 on – 10 off – 20 on – 10 off – 15 on. 60 min group just gets 5 min breaks. It would take a bit of planning and perhaps an interval timer watch for a group leader. The kids can drink water, go to bathroom, chat with coach (good time to bond w/ slower kids while fast kids work, and to reiterate the importance of this run), or do balance work or other drills (to keep HR up somewhat). Jay, you mention checking for fatigue with backwards lunges. These breaks could be used for that to see if really fatigued before continuing even more running with poor, broken down form. Better to rest and come back next day when able to run more efficiently.

    I’m considering this because I have seen some research to suggest blocks of aerobic work can be added together to reach same/similar benefit, it is realistic to think HS kids starting out (new or out of shape) need more breaks mentally/physically, especially if you want them to maintain any sense of pace, and also because it gives me more of a chance to coach them through this run. If this is a (the) key workout why not allow for more guidance?

    Like I mentioned before if the new kids are finishing at the same time as the top progression long run upperclassmen they can actually see this as opposed to already being back in the locker room or somewhere else. It could provide more inspiration to push it themselves, setting that standard/expectation earlier than might occur if meandering around on a more typical out and back run.

    In terms of pace, the progressive element to the run will develop over the years but initially if they cannot hit a decent pace, pull them, or give em a break and send em out on another loop when ready. The kids can know their pace from the 1k and 2k splits, or I was considering putting a few 100m coned off sections for kids to get a quick check of their pace. They will know their 100m time/pace(s) going into the workout…. Every 1 second is 4 seconds more a lap or 16 seconds a mile. 30 seconds is 8:00 pace. They could maybe get into more of a groove to drop pace if they start with 30s for some loops, then 28-29s in the middle, and finish with 26-27s.

  • Matthew

    Nice post, Jay. One quick question:
    “With the elite men and women I’ve coached they’re all running together at this point”

    I assume this means the men increase their pace more over the course of the rest of their run.

  • Matthew Barreau

    LOVE the idea of the walking breaks for the run and having everybody finish at the same time. Some of your points regarding the mental capabilities of those athletes is generally on, as well. Not to mention the walk breaks will provide a lowered stress level on the body — as opposed to one continuous long run. And, also, the ability to maintain a faster (i.e. higher end aerobic) pace will be much better. Sometimes it’s not the aerobic system fatigue, but the muscular system fatigue at that pace, that the athletes are not ready to handle. Being able to hydrate constantly between is also a terrific idea.

    Two thoughts on this though. First, the top kids will also see the slower kids walking, so may want to consider if that is something that the top kids look down on, or if they just notice that the other runners are out there for the whole time and that’s a bigger benefit. Also, the cone idea for splits isn’t a terrible idea, but I may suggest doing it at a 200m or 400m segment, because just one second off for 100m becomes 16 seconds off for the mile. If you peek at your watch at 25.9 and think “yep, I’m running 6:40’s (25.0 pace) to finish like I should” and you were actually running 6:54 pace, that can be a significant difference. Perhaps just a slightly longer cone segment may be good.