Training Principle #2: Progression

Think back to your very first run. It might have only been a mile or two (or maybe 10 if you were feeling overly amped up and ambitious!). Now reflect on where you are presently at in your running and how much you have improved from that very first run. Although you may not have realized it while it was happening, you got from where you started to where you are today by using the training principle of progression. In this article, Team RunRun coach and exercise scientist, Maxx Antush, discusses the concept of progression and how it applies to training as an endurance runner.

What do we mean by progression?

Human beings are highly adaptable, which is why most runners end up achieving incredible feats that were inconceivable before they began their running journey. In our previous article on the principle of overload and recovery, we highlighted the need to push beyond your current ability and recover from that stress to adapt to a new level of ability. When we apply progression as a training principle, it means your overall workload must continue to increase in order to continually enjoy performance improvements. In other words, if you want to keep getting better, you have to keep working hard!

Having a busy life while trying to improve as a runner can make it tricky for you to continually progress your training. It is not uncommon to see performances plateau or decline during times when life necessitates a decrease in training load. Usually runners associate progressions in training with increased time demands, and since time is a finite resource (life would be so much easier if we could have more than 24 hours in a day), the amount of time we can devote to training decreases as other important aspects of our lives demand greater portions of our time. Luckily your running dreams can stay alive because there are multiple ways to progress your training load (and a good coach can help you navigate high level training with a busy schedule)!

arrowtown running coach
Coach Bernard Robinson crushing it on the trails

How do we progress the training load?

The two most significant training variables that can be changed to adjust your workload are time, or how long you spend running, and intensity, or how hard you are running. The number of ways that time and intensity can be manipulated is only limited by the creativity of you or your coach. However, to improve as an athlete, the training stimulus must still be great enough to overload your muscles, tendons and ligaments, and/or aerobic engine so that you can adapt to a new level of performance. As you adapt and become stronger, you must increase the workload to make it sufficient enough to be an overload for you so that your body will adapt to a new level of fitness. In other words, the fitter you become, the harder you will have to work to make your body get even fitter.

As previously stated, there is an objective limit to the number of hours that you can devote to training. Factored into the time we can spend on training each day also needs to be the time we need to recover and to fulfill the roles other than “endurance athlete” that each of us occupy. The amount of time that each of us can reasonably dedicate to our training is highly subjective and individual and beyond this article’s volume limit. There is also a point when runners usually reach the point of diminishing returns. Here’s a quick bit of homework to determine your available training time: 

  • Start with 24 hours and subtract the amount of time that you should be sleeping (8-10 hours would be ideal). 
  • From there, you should subtract the time spent doing essential tasks, like working, commuting, eating, showering (please do this daily), etc. 
  • Typically, once you’ve accounted for some time for just relaxing and spending time with your loved ones, most days there are only about 2 hours that can really be put towards training. 

If you are currently training less than the maximum number of hours that you could be, then plotting a logical progression from the time you spend now towards the maximum amount of time you could spend might be a method of increasing your workload worth considering. However, if you have already reached the maximum number of hours you can spend training, then you can still increase workload by manipulating the intensity of your training.

While intensity is not something that you can just increase to infinity and beyond, there is a great deal of progression available with this training variable because it is limited by your capacity to recover and adapt to the stimulus. As you progress from a new runner towards your highest potential, workload is typically progressed using a combination of increasing duration and intensity. Intervals are the most common tool runners use to manipulate the intensity of training sessions. Once you reach the maximum weekly training hours that you have available, you will still be able to achieve progression by adjusting the type and number of intervals, as well as interval duration and the recovery between efforts. 

Adaptation needs to be the driving factor used when scaling the rate of progression. If the workload is increased to a level that stresses you beyond your ability to recover and adapt, it can lead to injury and/or extreme fatigue which makes a decrease or interruption in training necessary. As a runner or a coach, it is important to monitor the current workload, recognize when there is no more improvement at the current workload due to being adapted to the volume and intensity, and then progress the workload enough to elicit an overload/recover/adapt cycle. Then repeat the process!

Conclusion

In order to keep improving as an athlete, it is necessary to progress your training load to a new level once your current workload has been adapted to. Rome was not built in a day, but the construction progressed over a period of days, weeks, months, and years. You will not be the best runner you could possibly be when you first start, but by appropriately applying the progression training principle, you can eventually find out the limits of your potential!

Maxx Antush is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Maxx, check out his coaching page.