This is Post 2 of the experimentation with the Runners World F.I.R.S.T. marathon program. For those that are coming into to the experiment late you can catch up here.

To recap the experiment:

3 test subjects + 3 runs per week x 16 weeks = Marathon PRs????

In the last post we left off with workout number one. This was a track workout of 3x 1600 meters (1 mile) at VO2 max pace. A test of our spirits and will to persevere. If you do not know what VO2 max refers to you will find out a little later in this article. All you need to know is this workout makes it very clear where your fitness is at.

From a coaching perspective I could see how this one workout could:

1) Knock a rough blow to a new runner’s confidence, possibly turning them off the plan altogether
2) Make more seasoned runners lose faith in a lofty race goal.

It is definitely a trial of mental strength and those ready to adopt the program should be ready for it. Do not get discouraged if the results don’t match up with your ego. Mine didn’t.

After picking my spirits up off the track and taking them home for some quality nurturing I realized I still had 16 weeks to go. I did not want to give up on the possibility of proving big training hours are not needed for big results, so on with the experiment. Fitness was bound to improve over the coming weeks. All is not lost!

  • I could not handle the first workout at a pace based on my race goal of 2:55.
  • I was able to do the workout based on a goal time of 3:05.
  • I decided to base my training paces off the race pace I could currently handle and adjust my race goal as fitness improves.
  • The other two guinea pigs had the same issue of not being able to hit the workout times based on their goal race time and had to adjust to current fitness as well.
  • How do I determine when to adjust? Jack Daniels’ rule of thumb is 3-4 weeks before adjusting his Vdot indicator. Over the years I have seen this match up with the vast majority of my clients’ progressions as well, so lets stick with that.

New Plan:

Continue to follow the program, but based on a goal time of 3:05 for the first 3-4 weeks, then adjust to a goal time of 3:00. Give that another 4 weeks and then adjust workout paces to match up with a race time of 2:55.

I would like to pause a second here and address a concern that may have already popped up in your head:

“These times don’t apply to me. I need to find something else.”

This is not the case at all. The book has charts that allow you to plan for a 5:39 marathon to a 2:11. In fact I am hesitant to disclose paces at all because people get so caught up in them. Immediately we judge whether a time is fast or slow. This paradigm is tough to shift and can build into a major mental barrier.

Just remember, fast and slow are relative terms. The strategy behind the plan is the same no matter the pace. This site is about making endurance sports a healthy, time efficient part of your life. If you want the most improvement in the least time, learn about when and why to use a particular kind of workout. How fast you can complete a workout should be secondary.

If you read the previous bullets and got hung up on the times go back and read again. When you are ready lets take a look at the workouts that make up the week.


Run 1.

This is a track workout made of intervals at a VO2 max intensity. The intervals are 400 meters to 2k in length. They focus on building economy, speed and oxygen intake. If you are lacking motivation these are best done with a partner that will encourage you to do your best and motivate you to finish out the workout. If you are new to running, or track work, pay particular attention to how your body responds to these workouts. With their high intensity the risk of injury is increased. Pay attention to your body not only during the VO2 work, but more importantly the next 1-2 workouts afterwards. If an issue arises take measures to remedy it before you have a full blown progress delayer, or worse negator.

Us guinea pigs found these workouts a particular challenge. Especially coming off a weekend with a 20 mile run. Tough, but a great lesson in what the end of the marathon will be like! Predictably there was also some moaning and groaning on the weeks the intervals reached 1000 meters or more.

Run 2.

These workouts are done at a slightly slower pace than Run 1, but are of a longer distance. Generally called Tempo Runs these start at 2 miles and peak at 10 miles. They should be done at a high aerobic zone, which varies depending on the distance of the interval. Generally this is close to the fastest pace you could hold for 30 minutes. These runs help to raise the Lactate Threshold. This improves endurance and allows you to run faster, while taking advantage of the what the aerobic system has to offer.

These runs sandwich the Tempo work between a few miles of easy running for warm up and cool down. They were enjoyable, satisfying runs on the whole. When I adjusted my training paces faster they certainly became more challenging, but it was motivating to see I was getting more comfortable with them as the weeks went by.

Run 3.

The long run. Compared to other plans out there the long run pace used in the F.I.R.S.T. program is slightly faster. Week over week the pace gets closer to your goal pace. The reasoning is that with adequate recovery a faster long run is sustainable week to week. This teaches the body to move more efficiently at a pace you actually plan to race. Also, the faster you go the faster you finish!

The general consensus among us lab rats is that this built confidence and efficiency. In the final quarter of the program our respective goal race paces were feeling attainable. There were some struggles with these midway and Run 1’s that may have been affected by a particularly taxing long run, but overall the theory seemed to prove true.

With the information in this post and the previous you should have a good handle on the theory and workouts behind the F.I.R.S.T. marathon plan. Hopefully some insight can be gained from us TGB guinea pigs and we certainly welcome any questions you might have about the process that has not been touched on in the posts. Just leave a note in the comments section below!

Be sure to check back for the final results coming soon!