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Which marathon training program?

Posted Mar 30 2010 12:00am
There are essentially as many marathon training programs as there are marathon runners (or aspiring marathon runners!). Everyone will have their own unique way of preparing themselves physically and mentally for the challenge of completing in a 42.2 km road race. There are also a lot of great programs out there especially designed to help people of all levels from beginners to advanced runners. Today I want to provide a little overview of some of the better known programs including the program I am considering using and which I have referred to in the blog previously – the FIRST program.

Hal Higdon is a prolific writer of books about running and has written articles for Runner’s World magazine for over 40 years. The Hal Higdon Marathon Training Program takes 18 weeks and there are a number of program variants for novices, intermediate runners and advanced runners. There are also two 30-week programs – one for novices new to the sport of running, and one for advanced runners seeking to achieve a personal best time. The 18-week novice program calls for four days of running (including a long run) one day of cross training (swimming, cycling or walking) and two rest days. The intermediate program calls for five days of running, one day of cross training and one rest day. None of the programs advocate running more than 20 miles (32 km) in a long run.

Jeff Galloway is a life-long runner and ran with the US team in the 1972 Olympics, competing in the 10,000 metre track event. Galloway has published several books on running and has been developing training programs since the mid-70s. However, he is now best known for the Galloway Run-Walk-Run method which he developed to enable beginner runners to compete in a marathon and avoid injury during training. Depending on a person’s desired pace, the method sees the runner intersperse periods of running with shorter periods of walking for the first 18 miles/ 29km. For example, a person wanting to run at an average 9min/mile (5.25min/km) pace should run for four minutes then walk for one minute. The 32-week program sees runners undertake three runs (including a long run) and one walk each week with three rest days. The longest training run of 26 miles/41.8km is scheduled for week 26.

Kevin and Keith Hanson own several running stores in the US state of Michigan and also run the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, an Olympic Development program for young, promising distance runners. They advocate what they call a ‘moderate and consistent’ approach to marathon training. Their beginner marathon training program includes up to five days of running each week with a maximum long-run of 16 miles/25.74km. It also includes additional strength and speed training sessions across the program’s eighteen weeks.

There are many, many other programs, but these are three that I continue to hear a lot about and which I see discussed regularly in running blogs and fora. I’m sure they are all very good programs.

The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training or ‘FIRST’ is based at Furman University in the US state of South Carolina. Since 2003 a group of scientists (all runners and triathletes themselves) have been developing, testing and refining their training program . Their research has indicated that “training intensity is the most important factor for improving the physiological processes that determine running performance”. The level of intensity required by the program is balanced out by the fact that it only includes three training runs per week with two to three days of cross training. Once a runner’s correct pacings are calculated from a recent 5km or 10km race time, the program is them built around the three key runs per week
Key Run #1: Track Repeats (Intervals utlising assessed target paces for prescribed distances)
Key Run #2: Tempo run (with separate assessed paces for short, mid and long tempo runs)
Key Run #3: Long Run (utlising assessed target paces for long tempo, marathon pace, marathon pace +10 seconds, +15, +20, +25 seconds etc.)

Each running day is interspersed with a cross training day where the runner either swims, rides or rows. These days assist with recovery and injury prevention while continuing to provide a training effect. There are one to two rest days per week and the program runs for 16 weeks. There are a total of five 20 mile/32km long runs over the 16 weeks.

Earlier this year a mate from my Saturday morning running group lent me the book by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss which goes into some detail about how the FIRST program was developed and outlines various programs for beginners to advanced runners, for 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon distances.

The program appealed to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t have a lot of free time to undertake a marathon training program that would require me to run up to six days a week. Secondly, I didn’t want to give up my resistance training in the gym. Thirdly the intensity of the workouts are an appealing added challenge in themselves and finally, I’ve never run more than three to four times a week, and the thought of injuring myself while training for a marathon was too disheartening, so the balance with cross-training seemed a good solution.

The marathon I’m aiming for is in September which would see me commence the FIRST program in late May. However, I’ve already drawn up a program based on my 10k race time with the Sydney Striders in February and have begun doing some of the interval sessions to get used to the intensity of the workouts – and I have found them intense! I’ll recalibrate my pacings on a more recent 10k time closer to May.

I realise this has been a long post, but I’d be keen to hear if anyone else had had any experience with the FIRST program. Or if there are some other programs you’ve found useful.
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