Marathon Training Programs
We will give you an overview of some of the most popular training programs that are available. If there is a program that you are interested in, but which we have not touched on, please let us know and we can give you more information about it. If you remain bewildered by it all, come talk to your coaches or do some brainstorming on our Facebook group! By December, everyone should have a plan in mind and a schedule constructed, but everyone’s plan is likely to be very different. There is no one way to train for a marathon, and everyone needs to find the plan that is the best fit for him or her.
Before going into the details of the plans, a few thoughts to consider as you read through them:
Pacing: many of these plans will include terms such as tempo pace, threshold pace, 400m repeats, and half marathon pace. These may be bewildering to you! One way to get a start with figuring how fast to run for certain workouts in your chosen training plan is to use a pace calculator, such as the McMillan Running Calculator (http://www.mcmillanrunning.com). Once these numbers are generated for you, we can help you figure out how to incorporate them into your training program. Do not run your long runs too fast, and don’t forget to incorporate some faster paces.
Stick with your program: Don’t fear the distance, but respect it. You will run this marathon, but you must put in the training! Write your schedule down and make sure that your friends and family know what you are doing. Commit to a consistent training schedule and get everyone on board with supporting you as you train.
Starting mileage: if your base mileage is low, then you have a better chance of success with a slower build up of mileage. A plan’s initial mileage needs to be a good fit with your current fitness level.
Be flexible: Build in some flexibility and redundancy into your program. There will be snowstorms. There will be colds and flu. There will be sick children you need to stay home with. There will be some reasons why you may have to miss a run. No single planned run should have such great importance that you can’t miss it. A well-balanced training program should allow you to get back into your training even if you miss a day or 2. Be sure to touch bases with your coaches if you need advice about altering your training program because of some missed runs, especially if you missed these runs because of illness or injury.
Simulate the race: Consider running a few of the long runs on the Boston Marathon course to really get a sense of the demands it places on you! Hills are especially important: and not just uphills! A little bit of focus on downhill running in the last few weeks leading up to Boston will pay big dividends on race day so that your quads won’t be trashed on the descents.
Longest run: There is some controversy over the best distance for the longest long run. Some of the programs we outline have long runs in the 22-mile range, while some of them (e.g., Hanson’s program) advocate a much shorter 16-mile long run.
BAA Boston Marathon Training Plans
These are 16-week training programs for Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced marathoners. The Beginners’ plan has a peak weekly mileage of 38-51 miles, and it goes up from there for Intermediate and Advanced. The speed work isn’t as intense as in some other programs, but it is definitely in there. You need to eat some of your vegetables before you get dessert! The focus is on building up overall mileage and tempo runs. Some cross-training is incorporated in the Beginner’s schedule. One advantage of this program is that local races are incorporated into the plan as tune-up races. For example, Week 10 includes the New Bedford Half Marathon on Sunday.
Peak mileage: 48-50 miles
Long run: 18-21 miles
Taper: 3 weeks
Pros: It’s developed by the BAA, how can it go wrong?
Cons: Some prefer more rigorous speed work
Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) Marathon Program
Run Less, Run Faster book available in bookstores and on Amazon
The “less-is-more” training plan! This is a 16-week performance-based training program that is based on a 3-day running week that makes it very easily accessible, especially to first-time marathoners. The FIRST plan was developed to limit overtraining and burnout by adding in several HARD days of cross training and potentially cutting your injury risk. Each quality running workout has a specific goal. The workouts are not easy, and this is not necessarily a “beginner’s” training program. This plan is geared specifically toward a goal race, and if you like tune-up races, this might be a turn-off.
Peak mileage week: 32 miles
Days/week: 3 days running, 2 days cross-training
Long run: 20 miles
Taper: 3 weeks
Pros: Injury and burnout prevention
Cons: Not much flexibility for a missed run; discourages racing anything other than your goal race
Pfitzinger Advanced Marathoning
Advanced Marathoning book available in bookstores and on Amazon
The plans in this book are used by more advanced marathoners than any others I know. The book offers a series of plans grouped by mileage (up to 55 miles per week, up to 70 miles per week, and over 70). These very detailed adaptive training plans range from 12-24 weeks, depending on where you are starting, and offer an excellent mix of quality workouts. The plans are backed up by some excellent chapters detailing training elements, nutrition, racing strategies, and recovery times. If you are looking for a training program that will allow you to step up in performance and are looking for a tough plan that will reap improved times, this might be the plan for you. This is also a great plan if you like to incorporate tune-up races into your training. The summary information below is for the 55 miles per week plan.
Peak mileage week: 55 to 70+
Long run: 21 miles
Taper: 2 weeks
Pros: Excellent plan for pushing your training to the next level
Cons: Not appropriate for first time marathoners with no background in speed work or hard racing at shorter distances. Overtraining risk.
Hanson’s Marathon Method
Book available in bookstores and on Amazon
The Hanson’s method emphasizes pace specificity in training: “A renegade path to your fastest marathon”. While the “radical” approach of the Hanson’s is to de-emphasize the long run, the purpose of it is to get more work in at goal marathon pace. Overall training volume is maximized with high mileage daily running. A lot of specific work is aimed at mastering the goal marathon pace over longer distances. Beginners and Advanced programs incorporate 3 “SOS” (“something of substance) runs weekly: speed and strength work, long tempo running (at marathon pace), and the long run. The remainder of the mileage is easy, with an emphasis on form. The long run is kept to no more than 30% of total weekly mileage, minimizing injury risk and maximizing the metabolic benefits of the speed and tempo work. The summary information below is for the Beginners’ plan.
Peak mileage week: 57 miles
Long run: 16 miles
Taper: 10 days
Pros: “Shorter” long runs easier to incorporate into a busy weekend schedule, great flexibility around missed runs because no single run type is emphasized over others.
Cons: Difficult to have confidence going into the marathon with only a 16-miler under your belt.
Hal Higdon Marathon Training
Hal Higdon may be the most popular marathon coach on the internet, and he offers programs for novice and advanced runners alike. He has 13 training programs on his web site! Ranging from 18-week novice to intermediate to advanced plans, as well as longer 30-week plans designed for brand new runners or experienced runners trying to reach their peak performance. He also offers several specialty programs, such as Boston-Bound or Multiple Marathons. Several of his training programs also have available apps and interactive training features available for a fee, with mileage logging at TrainingPeaks.com. These flexible programs emphasize the long, slow runs on the weekends and one day of weekly cross training. Speed work is incorporated only in the advanced programs. The summary information below is for the Intermediate 1 program.
Peak mileage week: 43 miles
Long run: 20 miles
Taper: 3 weeks
Pros: Flexible schedules allow you to select just the right marathon for your abilities and goals. The back-to-back marathon paced run followed by a long slow run is a very effective training technique.
Cons: Emphasis on weekend runs can leave runners without time for much else on the weekends, and with more time on their hands mid-week.
Marathon: You Can Do It! Book available in bookstores and on Amazon
Jeff Galloway is best known today for his run-walk method marathon training program. His training philosophy is to create a training program that meets your goals while allowing you to meet the other goals and challenges in your life, of family and career. This is a lower mileage program that incorporates walk breaks for novices and advanced marathoners alike, and many of the programs incorporate several days of cross-training. The run-walk approach is useful for slower runners, novice marathoners, or runners who find appropriate pacing challenging and risk injury. Some of his long runs range up to 28 miles, and mid-week runs are gauged by time rather than distance. Galloway’s book includes a 26-week Beginner Program as well as several time-goal programs. The summary information below is for the 4:00 Time Goal Program.
Peak mileage week: ~43
Long run: 28 miles
Taper: 3 weeks
Pros: Gradual buildup in mileage and incorporation of walk breaks is great for beginning marathoners and injury prevention
Cons: no speed work means this is probably not a terrific program for those aiming for a fast race. Some runners find the transition from running to walking and back again mentally difficult.
Runner’s World SmartCoach
The Runner’s World SmartCoach program is a free semi-personalized training program that is available on the Runner’s World web site. A customized training plan is created using your own data inputs, including a recent race time, current weekly mileage, training race goal, how hard you want to train, and the day you want to do your long run. 16 weeks is the recommended duration of the program, although it allows you flexibility to change that. Paces are calculated from modified versions of Jack Daniels’ formulas that relate oxygen consumption to the speed and length of different running performances. (Read Jack Daniels’ Running Formula for more information on this). The upgrade to the SmartCoach PLUS program allows more flexible updating and adjustment of the program, along with daily email reminders of your workouts and access to online forums. The programs emphasize quality speed workouts and long runs.
This is a difficult plan to summarize because the plan differs based on your input data. The long runs seem to peak at 20 miles, and the taper is 3 weeks.
Pros: Precise training paces and carefully crafted programs based on tried and true running formulas
Cons: Many long runs, without much opportunity to incorporate hill work.