Progression Runs, Explained + 5 Progression Run Workouts

Use progression runs as an effective - and challenging - speed workout.

As a certified running coach, many of the athletes I work with ask me: “What is the best workout for runners?“

I don’t think there is a single best type of workout for long distance runners, which is why training plans include more than one type of training run.

You have long runs and easy runs to build up aerobic endurance, speedwork to help you run faster, and tempo runs to increase your anaerobic threshold1Ghosh, A. K. (2004). Anaerobic threshold: its concept and role in endurance sport. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS11(1), 24–36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3438148/ to hold a faster pace for longer distances without getting that burning, tired legs feeling.

All that said, a personal favorite type of workout for long distance runners ranging from high school athletes tackling 5K cross country races to advanced runners running half marathons and marathons is the progression run.

Progression runs, sometimes called progressive running workouts have you start at a comfortable pace, but your running pace increases throughout the run.

In this guide for runners, we will discuss what a progression run is, the benefits of progression runs, types of progression runs for distance runners, and how to program progression runs into your overall training plan based on your fitness level and race distance.

Two people running fast.

What Is a Progression Run?

A progression run is a type of workout or a type of training run that gradually increases the running pace over the duration of the run.

There are different types of progression runs, but they all can be considered “fast finish runs,“ or “negative splits” running workouts.

Negative splits is a term often used to describe races where you pick up the pace throughout the race such that the first half is run slower than the second half.

For example, negative splits in a marathon race might look like running the first half marathon in two hours and finishing the marathon in 3:50, meaning that you ran the second half marathon portion of the marathon race in 1:50.

A person running.

What Are the Benefits Of Progression Runs?

There are many benefits of progression runs in a training program for long distance runners, but the primary purpose of this type of workout is to build up your aerobic system and mental strength to pick up the pace or run faster on tired legs.

This can help you get through the second half or last third of a race feeling strong and not needing to slow down.

Here are some of the primary benefits of progression runs for distance runners:

#1: Builds Aerobic Fitness

A progressive run is a training run where you are not stopping and taking recovery time or rest breaks as you might with interval training on the track.

In this way, progression runs help build endurance and promote the same physiological adaptations to the aerobic system that you would get from any type of distance running workout.

Particularly if you do progression runs for your long runs in marathon training, you will help trigger the various cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and metabolic adaptations to endurance workouts.2Earnest, C. P., Rothschild, J., Harnish, C. R., & Naderi, A. (2018). Metabolic adaptations to endurance training and nutrition strategies influencing performance. Research in Sports Medicine27(2), 134–146. https://doi.org/10.1080/15438627.2018.1544134

People running a marathon.

#2: Helps You Run Faster On Tired Legs 

Because the progression run workout has you increasing the running pace as the workout goes on, you have to dig into the hard efforts after you have already been running at a comfortable pace or even goal race pace for some distance or time.

This helps your body and mind adjust to pushing and running fast on tired legs, which can help you improve your performance on race day.

After all, when you are running at race pace, you are likely not “comfortable,“ so if you can run faster even in the last third or last quarter of your race, you can have a strong finish without physically or mentally yielding to the physical discomfort and wanting to slow down.

#3: Efficient Type of Training

When I was training for my second marathon race, I had limited time because I was working full-time and attending graduate school in the evenings.

I had to be efficient with my marathon training; progression runs are a great way to do that.

The progression running workout is a hybrid between a good aerobic workout and speedwork.

Particularly for long runs with half marathon or marathon training plans, doing a progression run long run can cut down on the total run distance.

For example, instead of doing a 20 mile-long run in marathon training, I sometimes did a 16 mile progression run, which seemed to equal out the effort level and physiological stimulus to my body.

A person running.

#4: Adds Variety to Your Training Program

Whether you are a high school athlete, a beginner runner who is trying to run longer distances or an experienced runner who wants to run faster, adding progression runs to your training program is a great way to include more variety in your training.

This will not only trigger different physiological adaptations,3MacInnis, M. J., & Gibala, M. J. (2016). Physiological adaptations to interval training and the role of exercise intensity. The Journal of Physiology595(9), 2915–2930. https://doi.org/10.1113/jp273196 but also prevent boredom, challenge your mind and body, and give you confidence for race day.

How Do You Do a Progression Run Workout?

There are different types of progression runs, but the basic concept is that you build up the speed throughout the duration of the run.

Typically, you start with a warm up at a conversational or comfortable pace and then either gradually increase your running pace or chunk the run into sections and run each section at a faster pace.

For example, a progression run for an experienced 5K runner who is trying to run faster might be 3 miles long.

The first mile would serve as a warm-up at an easy pace.

The second mile would be run at goal race pace. 

The last third of the progression run workout would be run 5 to 10 seconds faster than goal pace with the final minute at an all-out to practice kicking in with a fast finish through to the finish line.

You should always do a cool down after any progression run that ends at a fast pace to guide your heart rate back down, reduce soreness, and decrease the risk of injury.

People smiling and running along the coastline.

Timed Progression Runs

If you like to run by minutes instead of miles, you can also structure progression runs by minutes. 

For example, here is a 45 minute progression run for someone in the build up phase in a 10K training cycle:

  • 10 minute run at an easy pace to warm up
  • 10 minutes at marathon pace
  • 10 minutes at half-marathon pace
  • 10 minutes at goal pace for the 10k
  • 5 minute cool down at a conversational pace

Heart Rate Zone Progression Running Workout

You can also use your heart rate to guide the progressive running workout.

For example, here is a progression 45-minute run using heart rate zones:

  • 15 minutes as a warm up in heart rate zone 2 (easy pace).
  • 15 minutes in heart rate zone 3.
  • 10 minutes in zone 4.
  • 2 minutes in zone 5.
  • Cool down for 3 minutes at an easy pace to bring your heart rate back down.
People running a road race.

Half Marathon Progression Long Run

Here is a 10-mile progression long run for half marathon training:

  • 3 miles easy 
  • 3 miles at marathon race pace
  • 3 miles at goal half marathon race pace
  • 1 mile at an easy pace if you’re a beginner, or maintain half-marathon pace to the end if you’re an advanced runner

Marathon Progression Long Run

Here is an 18 mile long run progression workout for marathon training:

  • Begin at a easy pace (90-120 seconds slower than goal marathon pace)
  • 3-6 miles: 90 seconds per mile slower than goal marathon pace 
  • 6-9 miles: 60 seconds per mile slower than goal marathon pace 
  • 9-12 miles: 30 seconds slower per mile than goal marathon pace 
  • 12-18 miles: goal marathon pace.
  • Cool down by walking 5-10 minutes.

Remember that progressive long runs are quite challenging and tiring, so it is crucial to take plenty of recovery days with cross-training, easy recovery runs, or rest days afterward to prevent overtraining4Kreher, J. B., & Schwartz, J. B. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach4(2), 128–138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738111434406 and reduce the risk of injury.

For these reasons, you should also not do every long run in your training cycle as a progression run unless you are not ending with a very fast finish and just having a couple of marathon pace miles in the run.

If you are looking for even more long run ideas, check out this next guide.


Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

2 thoughts on “Progression Runs, Explained + 5 Progression Run Workouts”

  1. Dear Katelyn, there’s something that I’ve been wondering for a long time and your opening line touches on it.

    As you very well said, the list of possible workouts for us runners is extensive. You listed six and didn’t even include easy runs, which has been repeated over and over that they should make up the bulk of your weekly miles.

    Every article that I read explaining any type of run says “you should do these once or twice a week”.

    Well, if we are supposed to rest two days a week, how could we possibly incorporate seven types of run in a week, even more so if two out of the five should be easy runs??

    • Hi Robert,
      Thank you so much for your comment.

      I know, there are so many options and so many types of workouts that it’s impossible to fit them into just one week. I include one to two specific speed workouts per week, and the rest of my running days are easy. The progression run examples in this article are ideas that you can work into your weekly training, but just one at a time, per week. Schedule them in according to your specific training plan and goals.

      Let me know if I can be of more help.


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