Progression: The Concept That Will Leave Your Body Ready for More

The key to improvement is patience. Here is a workout that utilizes the principles of progression to keep your body improving at a sustainable rate.

I recently had a co-worker ask me to write him up a running schedule. This co-worker is the strongman of the group I work with; he laughs about the heavy grills and bags of rocks and salt that some of the other workers struggle to lift. He is built like a tank, and his ambitions are no smaller: he told me that he wants to run a marathon. I'm 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 139 pounds and have been running for nine years, but have never yet attempted a marathon. My co-worker is muscularly built at 6 feet 13 inches (slight exaggeration) and 250 pounds (no exaggeration). The schedule posted below is the first three weeks of a workout I created to build up his endurance base. He is starting running from basically zero; while not in bad shape, he has never pursued anything like a marathon before.

The first thing to remember when starting a new workout or incorporating new ideas is to progress slowly. The reasons for this are both psychological and physical (and, surprisingly, the psychological plays just as important of a role as the physical ). When you start a new workout, you are probably very excited about the workout and are ready to jump into the workout wholeheartedly. It's great to pour effort into a workout, but if you try to do too much too soon, the enthusiasm of both your mind and your body may fade. The body cannot work without the support of the mind, and if you try to hammer away at increasingly harder workouts without really wanting to (it's very apparent when this is the case), then your body will feel just as unwilling as your attitude after time. Instead, try to notch up the difficulty, intensity, and frequency of your workouts slowly to allow your body time to adjust. See my article about the recovery day to learn more about how gradually progressive workouts fit into the recovery and improvement.

Week One: Getting Used to Running

The idea of running is not something that we encounter in our everyday jobs and lives. Perhaps two-thirds of us or even more live sedentary lives and work sedentary jobs, which means that Americans (and many other Western cultures) are generally overweight and out of shape. However, even a job that requires a lot of lifting does not have much in common with running. Lifting is an explosive, "fast-twitch" motion much like a gun; running is an endurance-based "slow-twitch" motion more like an engine. The first week, therefore, should reflect the reality of your physical shape and what your goals are. The following is the workout I wrote for my co-worker; you should tailor your workouts to your approximate fitness level and expectations. I like to start with a timed distance to see what my base level of physical shape is before I start a new workout. This is an encouraging way to see how far you have come!

Day 1 Timed 3 Mile Run
Day 2 BREAK
Day 3 15 minute run
Day 4 BREAK
Day 5 20 minute run
Day 6 BREAK
Day 7

15 minute run

Week Two: Back to Back Days

If you're following this running plan or doing something similar, you are going to be quite sore from the first day of week one (especially if you are a first-time runner or starting back running after a long break). You will also probably be sore from the first week's work. That's ok, because this kind of soreness happens easily during the first few days of a new workout. Once your legs have gotten used to the motion, the soreness will probably not return (it usually goes away between 1-4 days after the initial exercise and may not return, or may return only once or twice if you continue running your workout). Next, you want to ramp up slowly, but still leave the workouts easy enough to give your body a break, as well as incorporating a couple rest days.

Day 1 15 minute run
Day 2 BREAK
Day 3 20 minute run
Day 4 15 minute run
Day 5 BREAK
Day 6 25 minute run
Day 7 15 minute run

Week Three: Boosting Your Endurance

You may find that you have some soreness after the end of week two. This is still perfectly normal. The final paragraph of this article describes what is good pain and what is not good pain, but don't worry, a dull aching and tightness is classic muscle soreness. It hurts, but it is not a sign of injury. Week three is dedicated to increasing your endurance.

 Day 1  BREAK
 Day 2  30 minute run
 Day 3  20 minute run
 Day 4  BREAK
 Day 5  30 minute run
 Day 6  25 minute run
 Day 7  BREAK

Week Four: Speed or Endurance?

You have an option in the fourth week. You can either add another endurance week and build up some more mileage base (first table), or you can start the speed workouts (second table). Choose the first if you feel that your body is not ready for a new challenge yet. Speed workouts incorporate both fast-twitch and slow twitch muscles, and they can be quite a smoker when unused to them. After a certain base level of endurance, speed workouts become necessary for continued improvements. Before you do your first speed workout, I recommend you try another timed event. It will provide you a boost and give you a good idea of what splits you should be shooting for. Good distances for the first few speed workouts are usually 1/4 mile or 400 meters (1 lap around a standard track). This length is moderate and should allow you to adjust easier than speedy 200's or lengthy 800's.

Endurance 4

Day 1 30 minute run
Day 2 30 minute run
Day 3 25 minute run
Day 4 BREAK
Day 5 30 minute run
Day 6 25 minute run
Day 7 30 minute run

Speed 4

Day 1 Timed 3 mile
Day 2 BREAK
Day 3 4 X 400 meter, 10 minute run
Day 4 15 minute run
Day 5 BREAK
Day 6 4 X 400 meter, 15 minute run
Day 7 20 minute run

Always try to avoid hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt. Concrete is the worst surface of all; it does not give at all. Asphalt has a slight amount of flexibility, but try to stick with tracks, gravel, dirt, grass, and trails when possible. The softer surfaces cushion your footstrike and prevent stress fractures (miniature bone breaks), which are extremely painful and prevent you from injuring. Muscular soreness is quite different than the sharp pain you will feel in your shins if you have shin splints (the precursor to stress fractures).

The above workout may not work for you. You may have to take things a bit slower and easier at first, or you may find this workout ridiculously easy. Whatever happens, you must pay attention to what your body is telling you, because you will know when something is not right. Always incorporate warmups, stretching, and cooldowns. I hope that your journey toward a higher level of fitness is successful!

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