Making Progress

The idea of progression is not new yet it’s rarely understood or utilised by runners. If they’re following a plan then it incorporates progression but if they’re doing their own training, they’re likely just hoping they will get faster by running runs quicker.

That said, anyone who has ever trained for a marathon has an inkling of what a progression looks like. They know can go out and run five to ten miles at the moment, but the idea of reaching 26.2 is enough of a gamechanger that they resort to some sort of plan to get there. How do you get from ten miles to twenty? You do it by progression – simply adding 1-2 miles each week … ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty.

Usually there’s a timeframe attached to training which forces the numbers. My last marathon, should have gone smoothly as I’d completed the twenty-mile run three months before the race but then I suffered an injury. Suddenly I only had eight weeks to go and I squeezed the progression to into six weeks – 9, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20½, dropped to 9 miles and then ran the marathon the following week.

So that’s the first thing you do. You look at how much time you have available and where you want to get to and then create an evenly stepped progression up to it. But it’s not only increasing distance that we can create progression for.


Most runners have a set interval session they like doing. It might be 12x400m equal jog recovery, or it might be my old favourite 5x1K with 3-min recovery. Runners usually aim to get faster at the efforts in the hope this will help them race quicker.

This is what Roger Bannister did back in the day on his way to the first four-minute mile. In the preceding October he was running 10x440yd in 1min06 with 440yd jog recovery in two minutes. Each month he would run the laps one second quicker so when he attempted the record in May he was running some laps as quick as 56 seconds.

But running laps faster isn’t the only way to make improvement. Notice we have four factors in Bannister’s session:

  • No of reps – 10
  • Lap distance – 440yds
  • Recovery time – 2mins
  • Pace – 1min06 initially

NB The combination of reps and effort distance gives a total distance of work – 4,400yds.

We can vary any of these factors to try and help us improve. The overall aim of the progression is to take us from a low point of fitness to a higher point in a safe and achievable way. Just like marathon runners try to go from ten to twenty miles over a number of weeks in training.


Usually we only change one of the variables at a time and keep everything else the same. For example we might start out doing 8x200m then 10x200m on to 12×200 to increase the overall volume from 1,600m to 2,000m to 2,400m.

We might then change to longer intervals 6x400m, which involves also adjusting the reps down from 12 to 6, to keep the overall volume the same at 2,400m. What we rarely do is go from 12×200 to 8×400 which increases both length (200 to 400) and overall volume at the same time (2,400 to 3,200).

For these examples we’d look to keep the pace and recoveries the same as before. Actually the recovery for longer intervals might also increase but it would still be in the same ratio as the previous efforts (e.g. both 8x200m with 200m jog recovery and 6x400m with 400m jog recovery have equal jog recovery).

Once we’ve increased the volume of work being done by varying the reps and interval lengths, we might reduce the recovery between them which makes the runner attempt the next effort in a more fatigued state. The challenge become whether they can continue to run all their efforts at the required pace despite the building fatigue.


For a progression to be effective, it needs to take place over a number of weeks. There’s no point doing one thing this week and something completely different the next. If you think about Bannister’s training, he was giving his body a month to adapt before moving onto the next step of the progression by improving the pace – he was doing the same session for six months!

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