Marathon Training on Three Runs a Week?

Shaun Roberts

So you want to run a marathon? Well, in 2007, I thought it was about time I did, too – that was the year I turned 50, and having done countless shorter races, I thought I’d give it a go – something low-key, rather than a big one like London – I had my eyes on the Lochaber Marathon, Fort William. What had put me off the marathon distance was – well, firstly the distance – 26 miles seemed a long way. But also months and months of boring training. Did I really have to work up to 40-60 miles and five or six runs a week? That was what the traditional training programme seemed to require for a good marathon, rather than a “get-me-round” schedule.

Luckily, in 2006, I’d come across a Runners’ World article about a programme devised by Bill Pierce and Scott Muir, at Furman University in South Carolina, US. The article speaks for itself, really, but its origins lie with these two runners who started triathlon training, and who dropped down to doing just three runs a week. They were surprised to find that their 10K, half-marathon and marathon times didn’t suffer at all! They ended up doing just long runs (as per a normal marathon routine, increasing over the duration of the programme), tempo runs (fast-paced) and intervals. They also did swimming and cycling training – and this programme adds in two sessions a week of cross-training – any type you like, as long as it’s not running! It could be in the pool, out on a bike, in the gym (rowing machine, bike, stepper, elliptical), an exercise class … any sort of aerobic exercise.

The programme was initially tested on 21 runners, at the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST), and of these 15 set marathon PBs, and four of the other six ran faster races than their most recent marathon. They’ve done a lot more (successful) research on this since then, and have now published a complete guide in book form, as “Run Less – Run Faster”. There’s a lot of info on the programme on the FIRST website, and also an updated schedule for first-timers here, but to be honest, the schedule shown in the original article, summarised in this ‘cut out and stick on the fridge’ table, is a bit less intimidating and is easier to get your head around.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, this quite appealed to me, as it makes for quite a varied programme. Here are a few thoughts on my experiences, which will make more sense after reading the above article, which I recommend you do, ideally lying in the bath when everything seems possible:

  • The different distances shown for the intervals, and the tempo runs, are just to add variety – feel free to mix these up however you fancy. Progressing the long run in the way shown, though, is ideal, and I should stick with it.
  • Don’t take the precise paces quoted too seriously, either. These are scaled to the runner’s ability (i.e. relative to your 10k-pace), but even so, I found some of the interval and tempo paces a bit challenging. This doesn’t matter – it’s the effect of attempting these sessions that gets the results.
  • I wasn’t completely successful in managing two firm cross-training sessions a week. I’m sure what I did manage (some swimming, cycling, gym-rowing) was useful extra heart/lung training, and the running muscles were rested somewhat on those days – but I reckon the important thing about this program is to get three effective runs in – and not waste time just doing extra slow miles to get a weekly mileage in the bag – I have never seen the value in this.
  • What about racing during the training period? This is quite easy to handle: in any week where you do, say, a 10K, or a Harrier League event – count that as your tempo run. If you do a 10-miler, or a half-marathon – that’s your long run. These latter races aren’t long enough to count as one of your five longest training runs, but what worked very well for me was to use half-marathon races as the shorter long runs between the longest ones, if you see what I mean from the programme. There are a particularly nice group of these in the spring: Haweswater, Dentdale, Redcar, Coniston – Keswick later on – so you can choose which ones will fit in best.
  • What about Wednesday at the club? This I found a bit more awkward than racing, actually. You basically need to do one of your three good runs at the club, which if you’re being sociable means getting a group to do what you’re doing, or, doing your own thing, or, taking it very easy indeed on Wednesdays, doing your three hard runs at other times in the week.
  • I’ve done this programme twice, now, and I’ve been very pleased with the results. I did 3:26 at Lochaber in 2007, and in 2009 knocked 9 minutes off that, doing 3:17 at Edinburgh. On my first time around, I stuck to the recommended long run mileages, ending up with two 20-milers. But these long runs are to be done at quite a firm pace – not LSD by any means. So I was only on my feet for about 2h45. In the race, I really found it hard going after 20 miles – not ‘The Wall’, as I got the nutrition really sussed, using gels – but I did have all sorts of muscular aches. I think I needed more time on my feet. So second time around I jacked the scale of all the long runs up, ending up doing two 23-milers (cycle tracks! Easier on the feet than roads, and out in the country), and I managed to keep up a 7.5 minute-mile pace all the way round the marathon itself, with no muscle problems at all.

Although this programme is aimed at a marathon, it can easily be tweaked to aim at a fast half-marathon – you just don’t need to take the long run up to 20+ miles. You’ll get the benefit if you do, and it’ll give you a lot of confidence at longer distances, but it isn’t necessary for a half. Finally, I found that the tempo runs and interval training had the effect of improving race times at all distances later in each year. Now I try and follow this pattern of training more or less all-year-round.

If you want to have a go at this programme, by all means grab me over a pint to have a chat about it, and let me know how you get on. And good luck!


Update: since writing the above, I’ve used this programme three more times, for the Three Peaks Fell Race and Kielder Marathon in 2010, and for the Cape Wrath Challenge Marathon in 2011. It still works a treat! That last run was, I think, the strongest run I’ve ever done …