Most athletes and coaches have a go to workout. A workout which provides an indicator of fitness and/or builds fitness and confidence. One such workout has been in my playbook for decades, dating back to my days as a cross-country and track athlete at the University of Mississippi. Back then we called them cut-down runs. In recent years, when attempting my first Ironman and first Boston Qualifier, I was coached by Lance Watson. Lance is the head coach at LifeSport Coaching and a guy who has coached multiple Olympians and Ironman Champions. Lance re-introduced to me the cut-down run in the form of a 90 minute progression run.
The format of this workout is quite simple. However, before I go into detail about the workout’s structure, I want to tell you why I have such a fondness for it as both an athlete and a coach.
The Coaches Perspective
This workout provides a significant environment for improving aerobic threshold, which is the foundation for endurance sports performance. The length of the workout lends itself to increasing endurance while the pace at the end allows for some development of leg speed. Typically an athlete will see a 3-7% jump in overall run fitness from a workout like this without quite the recovery issues brought on from a race. Thus a coach can put this workout in the midst of a good training block and not destroy the athlete.
As An Athlete
The slow building nature of this workout means I am not filled with dread when I see it on my calendar. 90 minute progression runs are unlike mile/two mile repeats or extended efforts at race pace, say 25-40 minutes, where I spend the week nervous/concerned and thus dreading the workout. I can approach this run almost like a long run. Because the workout builds from a slow pace, almost recovery, the run starts off much like any normal training/base run and those are not typically stressful.
Side note, those workouts (hard repeats at, or below ,race pace) offer mental stress in a positive manner. They are necessary in a training cycle as they serve to prepare you mentally for the build up to race day. You just don’t want too many of them in your training cycle.
Another reason I enjoy this workout as an athlete, comes from the sense of improvement. As the run goes along I am encouraged by seeing the average pace of the run drop. Ending a run with good sensations in the legs always leads me to be more motivated for additional training.
What is the 90 minute progression run?
As the name would suggest it is 90 minutes in length and progresses as the run continues. This is heart rate based training and typically done in the later stages of a build cycle. Prior to, or in conjunction with, race specificity work. There are 4 segments to this workout. Each segment leads directly to the next segment, no recovery.
Segment 1 - The workout starts with 15 minutes in upper limits of ZN 1. It shouldn’t feel like a recovery run but should be easy…pace should never be a concern here.
Segment 2 - The next 15 minutes are to be run at the upper limits of ZN 2. This approach gives you a solid 30 minutes to gradually warm the body and get to a point where increased tempo should come more naturally.
Segment 3 - From 30-60 minutes the effort increases so as to push the heart rate near the threshold of ZN 3, making it slightly more than a base training effort.
Segment 4 - The final 30 minutes is run in ZN 4 which should be slightly less than a half marathon race effort. By last 30 minutes the volume of the run should be stacking up and fatigue setting in mildly. The legs need to be turning over and the pace should be noticeably quicker despite the cumulative effects of the previous hour. It shouldn't feel like a race effort and pace is not the target, heart rate is.
Advanced version. If you want to tailor this workout for a specific race you can look for courses similar to your race profile. I prefer to do this on a loop which is moderately flat for the first 30 minutes so as to allow me to run at a nice pace while building into the run. The middle 30 minutes is run over a section which is mostly uphill. It is a gradual uphill, say 2%, but it requires me to focus on mechanical efficiency if I want to prevent myself from pushing my HR into the final zone too early. The last 30 minutes, I like to have as a more gradual downhill. This accomplishes two things. Most important, It encourages faster leg speed when I am feeling the fatigue the most. Secondly, it trains the body to know “we run faster in the last part”. Therefore, on race day, when the engine room is calling for more power and speed in the closing miles, the legs are used to it. Additionally, it provides me with a mental lift as the per mile pace is significantly faster compared to the two previous segments of the run. This fuels me to push a bit more and gives me a great sense of accomplishment as I finish the run off.
Put this in your training schedule a few times during your marathon build phase. Space them out by a few weeks with the last one being just before you are going into your race pace target training.