TRAINING: The Progression Run

Having had 10 days somewhat sabotaged by a lingering virus (no not Swine Flu!) this week really served as my own personal demarcation line for whether I had a serious shot at a good run in the National Half-Marathon in Ballybofey on 6th September.

Come through the week with my quality sessions and full planned mileage done and I would have a chance, although slim, for 1:25. Fail to do so, and my whole focus on the race should probably come into question.

I had been buyoed by the news that Shane O'Rourke (a 1:18 half-marathoner) and Markus Roessel (fighting his own battle to break 1:20, read about it here) would join me. This would prove a strong team if we could get a class fourth man (someone like Gar Coghlan who ran in the National 10k would fit the bill). Unfortunately, Markus had made a mistake in his training planning and now its all up in the air whether we'll get a competitive team to go.

Progression Run
But team or no team, I will still be able to run for myself and hopefully well too. The most important training modality I have adopted for half-marathons are a session known as the "Progression Run" adopted by Matt Fitzgerald in his book "Brain Training for Runners".

I felt slightly nervous before doing this session as I had guests over for a late night and an unusual (for me!) amount of beer but thankfully also good food! Friday's session had left my legs feeling very heavy during the 7k hill run I did as my recovery on Saturday and I wondered if I would be up for the planned Progression Run especially with a long hill run (112 minutes) on Thursday.

The principle is simple: As you run you increase your speed from one target pace to the next higher one at preset intervals. Today's session was designed to mimic the full 21.1km of the half-marathon through running 23 minutes at base pace (approx. 5:40min/km), then 47 minutes at marathon pace (4:14min/km) and then 24 minutes at half-marathon pace (4:04min/km).

Session Purpose
The Progression Run aims to teach your body to run fast even when its fatigued. It also employs the paces used in marathon, half-marathon and, sometimes, 10k, races, making it quite specific and a useful training modality close to a race (through working as a simulation).

It's also a good test of your ability to operate at a given pace. Take the following example: I wish to run the half-marathon in 4:02min/km pace. Thus if I can't manage to hit the 4:04min/km pace I had planned for the last 24min (approx. 6k) despite running 15.1k before-hand, there's little reason to believe I can run at this pace in three weeks.

During a long race like the half-marathon you must master the pace you want to compete in both a fresh state (easy) as well as in a fatigued to heavily fatigued state (not so easy) because this is how you will invariably feel late in the race. It's no good racing at 4:02min/km for 18k and then see the wheels fall off. Losing about 2-3 minutes would be a very easy thing to do.

Readers may remember that I ascribe to the newer paradigm of fatigue within exercise physiology. This means I believe fatigue is largely governed by the brain. When the muscles suffer damage an enzyme called Interleukin-6 is released into the bloodstream and once a critical level is reached the brain reacts by shutting down motor-units in an attempt to force you to slow down and protect the fatigued muscles from further damage.

Running in a pre-fatigued state not only strengthens your muscles actual ability to handle workload in a tired state but also raises the level of interleukin-6 that the brain will allow in the bloodstream before starting to shut down motor units in your muscles, delaying the onset of fatigue.

Session Details
I met with my club-mate Jason at the Vartry Reservoir to execute the session running around the trails there next to the water. We did our first 23 minutes slow on the more overgrown and worn path easily hitting 5:38min/km and chatting away cozily.

Speeding up I decided to set a target of 11.1km instead of going time-based as my recent illness made me prefer caution and volume rather than a harder session focused on the relatively fast 4:14min/km pace. Thus we took 52 minutes to complete the 11.1km (4:42min/km pace) but where doing well and had no trouble with the pace whatsoever.

We set our minds to the last 6k and I asked Jason to set the pace at what he felt was his 1/2-marathon pace (Jason recently ran 1:28 for the half so I knew he'd be running close to the desired 4:04min/km). We had 24 minutes to do it and by the time we'd clocked 3km, we we're both feeling the tiredness a bit and the last 7-8 minutes felt long enough, although I was happy to register that both legs and lungs had more to give and it was a mental tiredness that played in more than anything. The end result was good: 4:07min/km for the final 6k and 21.1km covered in 1:39:27 on the sub-optimal surface.

Our feet got a happy treatment in the cool waters of the Reservoir and then it was off home to rest. With 73km clocked this week, its my first real proper training week both in terms of quality and volume since the racing season has commenced and I'm reasonably confident I can brush off to a good showdown with the National Half with two more strong Progression Runs and two more good fast track session combined with a lot of slow running around it.