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This often overlooked training session regularly gets bypassed for something deemed a little more juicy, but the very thing these uncultured athletes are missing from their trail running pallet, could in fact be the very thing that progresses them to the next level.

We all want to progress. Whether it’s faster, stronger or in our ability to endure longer distances, there isn’t a runner currently active that doesn’t want to be improve themselves. That’s literally our entire endeavour and pursuit in the sport (mixed with having some fun and enjoyment of course). So a training session built entirely around progression could be the very training ingredient you need to become a stronger runner, here’s why…


Beginning speed sessions can be scary and even off putting. The same goes to those who have been unable to board the pain train for some time, whether through injury, lack of time, motivations or for many other reasons.

The sense of not knowing where to begin, what session to choose or how hard you should run can be an overwhelming thought. The progressive tempo run takes the worry and stress out of the equation. It’s simple really, start off slow, build up the pace and consistently progress the effort throughout the session until you reach the final miles where you’re at a comfortably hard speed that you’re able to maintain until the end.

You may find that your pace isn’t able to increase much from the speed you started at, or you may find that you had plenty left in the tank and could have set off faster. This is valuable information. You now have an understanding of your current fitness levels and can take that information into your next progressive tempo session.


Perhaps you began your first session by running 5 miles, reducing the speed from an easy pace to a comfortably hard pace. In this example, assuming 10:00 per mile feels easy, you could begin at that pace and decrease the time per mile of each mile to 7:30 at the end, increasing the intensity by reducing the time of each mile by 30 seconds.

After a couple of weeks at this level of effort, this session has likely become more comfortable for you. You can then look to increase the volume or intensity to create further adaptations to your fitness.

For example, take the session mentioned above and add another mile on. You could then start at 10:15 minute miles and end at 7:15 miles. To then progress this further, you could begin at 10:00 minute miles once again, but ending at 7:00 miles instead.

You can see in the space of a few weeks or months, you will have been able to increase your volume and intensity and can measurably see the increase in your fitness levels.


When you’re feeling tired and jaded after work, it can be easy to convince yourself to just go for an easy run, or not even bother at all.

The thought of pushing yourself can sometimes feel a chore, one that you dread all day! The progressive tempo run provides you the comfort to know that all you have to do is get out the door and run easy. The dread of pushing yourself isn’t there, as you can determine available energy and effort levels on the go.

You may have a certain session planned, but in the easy miles you’re still feeling jaded from the day. Instead of reducing the miles by 30 seconds each time, perhaps you opt for 15 seconds instead. Job done, session ticked off and you kept your consistency where you originally might not have even bothered at all.

On the other hand, there’s a good chance you felt jaded all day, but once moving you’re actually feeling stronger than you thought. You’re able to tick the session off as planned as you were able to not cancel or delay the session, and simply begin it and find your footing instead. An out and out interval session could have seemed too daunting to even attempt, whereas the progressive tempo was a more enticing option.


A common misconception in running is that the different speeds you run at means you activate different energy systems in isolation. This is not the case. A threshold run doesn’t only train your anaerobic system, likewise your Sunday long run doesn’t only train your aerobic system. Each system has its part to play in any run, but the progressive tempo session is a great option to train each in one fell swoop. So what energy systems are at play?

Firstly you have your Phosphagen Energy System, used for explosive short bursts. Secondly your Glycolytic Energy System (known as anaerobic system), which is used for hard efforts for short periods (think running a 10k). Lastly is your Oxidative Energy System (known as your aerobic system), which is used at easier paces over longer distances.

However, the faster or slower you run doesn’t switch off one and use another, it instead relies on one system above another depending on the effort level you’re currently at, whilst the other supports the energy expenditure of the one in use.

In the case of the progressive tempo, you begin by primarily using your aerobic system, but as the run progresses, your body will begin to rely primarily on your anaerobic system instead.

You can see how the session compliments the relationship between the energy systems. It’s a great way of harnessing both within the same session, whilst engaging the bodies ability to use both effectively in tandem.


Whether you have a flat course available to you or not, it doesn’t actually matter.

It’s easier to pre-plan the session on a flat course, but it isn’t necessary. Instead of predetermined paces, you can instead judge the paces by internally perceived effort levels.

For example, you begin the run at an easy jogging pace, but over the course of the run the effort levels increase incrementally, which you can judge by the talk test. Obviously, no one is asking you to talk out loud to yourself, you probably already look mental enough if you’re a trail runner as it is. However, it’s easy to judge the rate at which you’re breathing as to whether or not you’d be able to recite Shakespeare, utter a few sentences or mouth-breathe a solitary explicit word.

Using this method you are able to gauge the session in real time, but you can also use Strava’s GAP (Grade Adjusted Pace) system to determine whether you were able to get the right intensity levels on the gradients you ran on.


Speedwork, as the name suggests, is still work… You have to work hard to get the benefits, but it doesn’t mean it cant be a playful venture too.

Undertaking the progressive speed session has game like qualities. Each mile, you progress a level with the big bad boss being your top-end effort in the last mile. It also teaches the discipline to stick to certain paces. Go too fast in one mile, you’ll potentially lose in the end, go to slow and you’re trying to build up the pace in the next mile.

If you get it right and you nail the last couple of miles, you will see your mile splits (or GAP splits) increase equally in speed each time, which can’t help but feel like a rewarding accomplishment.


The list of benefits provided show a clear reasoning behind why the progressive tempo run is a formidable training session, and one you should consider adopting into your weekly bag of tricks.

It warms you up into the session, it’s less likely to put you off from even attempting the session in the first place, it has clear progressive options to build fitness and it provides a solid boost to your energy systems.

So put your stock in progressive tempo sessions and add them to your trail runner’s diet.

About the author

Endurance State Coach, specialising in long distance and trail running disciplines. As an all round runner with a successful background in a variety of running disciplines, from 5k to Ultramarathons. Chris has competed internationally for Great Britain and England in various mountain running disciplines.

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