F.I.R.S.T. Marathon Experiment – Part 1

By: TGB

In the ongoing quest to build fitness as efficiently as possible I have been trying out the F.I.R.S.T. (Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training) marathon program. The core idea of this program is quantity over quality, which falls very much in line with my own philosophies on training and coaching. For those that are not familiar, this program has also been called the 3plus2 plan. It was designed as a way to train for a marathon on 3 runs a week for 16 weeks and has been documented in a book by Runner’s World titled Run Less Run Faster.

This time efficient approach is just the kind of tactic we are always looking to adopt around here. When my wife, Hollie, signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon with a friend we had the perfect event, and a willing test group. We vowed to use ourselves as guinea pigs. To follow the plan to the end and find out whether we could actually run less AND run faster.

Baseline information.

All three of us came off a low key summer with “minimal” training. As a coach I know the quoted term is very subjective, so lets say a regular schedule of 2-4 workouts a week for the past 3 months. (Even that might be generous.) We have all been involved in endurance sports at a competitive level for at least ten years. One male. Two females. Mid-thirties. We each have particular issues we wish to avoid and feel that lower mileage might be the golden key to injury free bliss, but are still motivated to chase PRs.

Philly is a race we have all done in the past. After having lived in the city for a few years, Hollie and I know the course well. This works out quite well as it means there are results to compare without drastic differences in course being a major variable.

**WARNING: Paces are about to be disclosed. Please try your hardest to focus on the process rather than if these are “fast” or “slow”. No matter how the times relate to yourself, the details of the process do.**

My previous best in Philly was 3:09:24 in 2007. Hollie did 3:41:21 in 2005, and her friend did it in 3:47:58 in 2009. We could go on all day with stats, but lets stick with the basics.

Can we drop workout volume and increase, or at least maintain, performance?

The F.I.R.S.T. Marathon Recipe:
Day 1 – Cross training session
Day 2 – Track workout
Day 3 – Cross training session
Day 4 – Tempo workout
Day 5 – Day off
Day 6 – Long run
Day 7 – Day off or Cross train

REPEAT

FULL DISCLOSURE:

The plan calls for 2-3 cross training days. Non-weight bearing activities are recommended for these days. All of us participants in this study elected to see what results could be achieved on the absolute minimum. Thus, we turned any recommended cross training days into a do something other than workout days.

This recipe has spice from the first bite. Workout number one is 3x 1600 meters (1 mile) at VO2 max pace. This is a mentally and physically taxing workout no matter what point in the season. I would normally prepare a client for a workout like this with a few weeks of progressive speed work before thinking of throwing this at them. To toss it out right at the start of the plan seemed excessive. Bordering on potentially risky if the runner had too little fitness to start, and especially if they had no experience with intervals or track workouts. The consensus of all involved in this gut check was that it was exactly that.

This initial workout sets the tone of what’s to come. It either confirms your choice of pacing, or quickly calls out a need to adjust. I have set the lofty goal of trying for a rather large Personal Record (PR) at Philly. I figure if I’m going to do the damn thing, might as well GO for it, especially if it only requires a commitment of three runs a week.

I set a primary goal of breaking three hours, with a very best scenario of 2:55. This would mean dropping approximately 10-15 minutes from my previous best. During the first workout I, and my fellow guinea pigs, quickly determined we would not be pacing the next workouts based on our sugarplum dream goal paces. We did not have the fitness to make the necessary times.

Deep breath. Swallow the pride. It is okay, we’ll adjust. Get up.

Time to regroup and re-think what we have gotten ourselves into…

To Be Continued…

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