Taking Progression Workouts To The Trails

How and why to run progression workouts on the trails.

By on January 7, 2014 | Comments

Many coaches tout the inclusion of progression runs in well-rounded training regimes. The concept is simple; the workout begins at a slow pace, but finishes fast. When done on roads, tracks, or treadmills, you can easily gauge your increase in speed as the workout advances. However, this task becomes very difficult (sometimes impossible) when the progression run is taken off-road. Topography and footing can make the transitions to faster paces tricky. With some finessing, trail runners can make productive use of the road runner’s progression-run template.

The Benefits of Progression

Before we discuss implementation, let’s first discuss why we should incorporate progression runs into our training.

  1. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that these workouts allow us to practice successful race-day strategy, where finishing fast is paramount. This style of workout, if done routinely, is habit forming. If practiced enough, you’ll find it second nature to run aggressively in the closing miles on race day.
  2. These workouts help you learn self-control. It’s common for runners to start each run faster than they should. Progression runs force you to practice proper energy expenditure. If you run too fast too early, you will not be able to finish the workout (or race) without suffering unnecessarily. A few miles of slower running at the beginning will also allow the body to warm up properly and prevent possible injury.
  3. These are well-rounded workouts. Physiologically, the body experiences all of the training zones. Runners pass from an endurance-based training zone into a stamina-based training zone, and, depending on the type of progression, a speed-based zone. When we practice moving from one zone to another, it prepares us to react effectively to our competitor’s race-day surges.
  4. If you’re an injury-prone runner, then heed this next point. The accumulated stress of this type of workout is very low. The hard running comes at the end of the workout and for a relatively short period of time. You’ll be able to insert faster running into your training more often, but recover faster after each session.
  5. Runs that build in effort and tempo are invigorating and build confidence.


I’ll first describe the ‘road version’ of the workout. Then I’ll offer suggestions as to how we can alter the workouts to make them suitable for the trails.

Workout #1: Thirds Progression Run
Coach Greg McMillan, founder of McMillan Running, assigns various progression runs to his elite and beginner athletes.  McMillan describes his most-often-prescribed thirds progression workout:

“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.”

When we perform this workout on mountainous or technical trails, we’ll follow the same instructions McMillan describes above but we’ll substitute “pace” with “effort.” You’ll move from a slow, comfortable effort to a steady-running effort to a strong, hard effort. Running by perceived effort, or simply by feel, is a skill that must be learned. Use thirds progression runs to hone this ability. A common first-time mistake is to run too fast too early during this workout. However, after you get a few of these workouts under your belt, you’ll become proficient at gauging your own effort. You’ll also find that running by effort frees you from paying attention to your GPS running watch. Keep these workouts between 45 minutes (for first timers) and two hours (for veterans) in length.

Workout #2: Out-and-Back Progression Runs
Doing out-and-back progression runs on a regular basis is an excellent way to develop an improved sense of running by feel. Four-time Olympic marathoner, Lorraine Moller, who integrates these workouts into her own training, explains how to complete this progression:

“Divide the time appointed by two, run out to a turnaround point, record your split, and run back and take your time again at the finish. For this to work well, the course should be of similar difficulty both ways. The goal is to run both halves of the route as evenly as possible or with slightly negative splits (second half faster).”

Rarely are we able to find a trail that offers equal difficulty going out as it does coming back. If you do have access to a trail that provides an equal playing field in both directions, then take advantage of it. However, if you do not, plan your run so that you complete the more difficult half first. This will both ensure the negative split and, in turn, build confidence. These runs can last anywhere between 30 minutes and three-plus hours.

Workout #3: Fast-Finish Progression Runs
Fast-finish progression runs are the most exhilarating of the progression-run genre because they are meant to be finished with a strong kick. Matt Fitzgerald, coach, certified sports nutritionist, and author of Brain Training for Runners and Racing Weight, discusses the nuances of fast-finish progression runs.

“A fast-finish progression run is a run in which the faster, second part of the run is relatively short—usually between one and three miles. The factors that influence the challenge level of a fast-finish run are the duration of the slower first segment, the duration of the faster second segment, and the pace of the second segment. An example of an easier fast-finish run is five miles at a comfortable pace followed by one mile at 10k pace. An example of a tough marathon-specific fast-finish run is 13 miles at a comfortable pace followed by three miles at half-marathon pace.”

As trail runners, we’ll make two adjustments to Fitzgerald’s explanation. First, like the thirds progression run described above, we’ll use effort instead of pace as our guide for these workouts. Second, because trail miles can vary in difficulty from one to the next, we’ll break our fast-finish progression run into hours and minutes rather than mileage.

An ‘easier’ fast-finish progression workout would look like this: Run 40 to 60 minutes at a comfortable, conversational effort followed by five to 10 minutes at a hard to very hard effort where conversation is limited to a word here and there.  You can make this workout even more difficult by finishing it with an uphill climb.

An example of a ‘tougher’ fast-finish progression would be: Run for two to three-plus hours at a comfortable, conversational effort followed by 20 to 60 minutes of steady running effort where your breathing and heart rate are now elevated slightly compared to earlier in the run.

Workout #4: Long and Gradual Progression Runs
Most relevant to the ultrarunner are the long and gradual progression runs. These workouts can replace our weekly long runs and replicate the best race-day strategy: finishing strong. Two-time Olympian, 2:11 marathoner, and coach Pete Pfitzinger describes these runs thusly,

“The first five miles are easy (two minutes slower than marathon pace). Slowly increase the pace to a minute per mile faster by 10 miles and another 30 seconds per mile faster by 15 miles. The last three to four [miles] are run at close to marathon pace.”

This workout is different than the ‘tougher’ fast-finish run mentioned previously because the progression in effort begins early and continues throughout the run. Some ultrarunners haven’t run a recent road marathon, or, even if they have, struggle to translate their marathon pace to rugged trails. As with the other workouts, running by perceived effort is the best rule of thumb. A good analogy would be to imagine you’re slowly stepping on the gas pedal of a car as the workout progresses, but you stop before you reach the floor. Start with a 90-minute gradual progression run and work your way up to two to three hours as your fitness and proficiency improve.

A Note About Heart Rate

If at first you find perceived effort tough to dial in, you can use a heart-rate monitor to determine your effort on trails.  Here’s a quick guide:

  • Comfortable to steady-effort range (endurance-based training): between 50—83% of maximum heart rate
  • Strong to very-hard-effort range (stamina-based and speed-based training): between 83—98% of maximum heart rate

Once you gain confidence in your progression runs, wean yourself from the heart-rate monitor. Battery life, connectivity, cardiovascular drift, weather, significant changes in altitude, dehydration, and trailside distractions can all affect our heart rate and skew the numbers. Learn how to run by feel without the aid of electronic devices. You’ll be less distracted and more focused on the task at hand.

With a little tweaking, we can take progression runs and apply them to the trails. You’ll turn a spin through the woods into a variety-packed, fitness-boosting run that’ll pay dividends on race day.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever done progression runs?
  • Do you train on the trails with progression runs? If so, what sort of progression do you find works well for you on a trail?
  • How do you think progression runs would help you improve? As in, what weakness do you think you can address with them?
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Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at SundogRunning.com.