The FIRST Three Day A Week Marathon Schedule

Tired of slogging through miles of training? Here's how to run your best marathon on three training runs a week

Posted: 5 December 2006
by Amby Burfoot

Jimmy Brehm had completed four marathons, with a best time of 3:51. He wanted to run faster. Andy Goodwin had finished two marathons, with a best of 3:21, and he wanted to become faster, too. Kim Halley had other issues. She had run two marathons 10 years ago, then eased off to recreational running, then had her first baby. She simply wanted to get back in shape, and to finish another marathon.

All three runners achieved their goals last December at the Kiawah Island Marathon in the USA. So did 18 others. The 13 veterans among those 21 runners improved on their most recent times by almost 20 minutes. Even more remarkably, they did so with a daring new marathon-training programme from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Daring because it defies the conventional wisdom. Daring because it limits participants to just three running sessions a week. And daring, in the extreme, because it tells runners they’ll become faster on fewer workouts.

"Train less, run faster" – you’ve heard the refrain before. It’s a long-time favourite of snake-oil coaches with credentials from Charlatan University. Of course, real runners know that to become faster you have to log more miles and run intervals until your rear end is dragging on the track behind you. Not this time. This time the "train less, run faster" claim is backed up by the experiences of real runners who followed the programme and got results. This time it’s backed up by scientist-runners with advanced degrees in physical education and exercise physiology. This time you should give the programme a try. It just might work for you.

First thing’s First

The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) marathon programme was born, in a sense, when Bill Pierce and Scott Murr decided to enter a few triathlons way back in the mid-1980s. There was just one problem: they hit the wall when they added cycling and swimming to their running. The demands of three-sport training were too much, so they cut back their running from six days a week to four.

To their surprise, they didn’t slow down in local road races. So they cut back to three days of running. "Lo and behold, our 10K, half-marathon and marathon times didn’t suffer at all," says Pierce. "The more we discussed this – and we discussed it a lot – the more we became convinced that a three-day programme, with some cross-training, was enough to maintain our running fitness."

Pierce, chair of Furman’s Health and Exercise Science department, has run 31 marathons, with a best of 2:44:50. At 55, he still manages to knock out a 3:10 marathon every autumn by practising what he preaches: running three workouts a week. While he has retired from triathlons, Murr, 42, with a doctorate in exercise physiology, still wants to complete another Hawaii Ironman, having already done five. He has run a 2:46 marathon, also on three training runs a week.

Pierce’s and Murr’s discussions, and personal successes, amounted to little more than that until early 2003 when Pierce was given university permission to form FIRST. "It helped," he notes with a smile, "that I didn’t ask for any funding." By that time, he had assembled a team of four FIRST cofounders, including Murr, Furman’s exercise physiologist Dr Ray Moss, and the former Greenville Track Club president Mickey McCauley.

In the autumn of 2003 FIRST launched its training programme. Applicants were told that they would have to undergo pre- and post-programme physiological testing in Furman’s Human Performance Lab, and run three very specific running sessions each week. There were no restrictions on additional running or cross-training workouts, and there was no "final exam" test race.

The post-programme lab tests showed that subjects had improved their running economy by two per cent, their maximal oxygen uptake by 4.8 per cent and their lactate-threshold running pace by 4.4 per cent. In other words, the three workouts had led to better fitness and race potential. FIRST was up and running. In the summer of 2004, FIRST advertised a free marathon-training programme that would last 16 weeks and culminate with the Kiawah Island Marathon on 11 December. To enter the programme, you had to be able to run 10 miles. All participants also had to agree to lab testing, and promise not to run more than three days a week. In other words, this time the programme came with a clear running restriction. Partially as a counterbalance, participants were encouraged to do two additional days of cross-training, such as cycling, strength training, rowing or elliptical training.

From about 50 applicants, FIRST selected 25 subjects (17 with past marathon experience, eight first-timers), including engineers, accountants, managers, administrators, sales representatives, teachers, a nurse, a lawyer and a doctor. They began training in August with individualised schedules that Pierce calculated from the lab testing and a questionnaire. Each participant ran just three days a week, doing one long run, one tempo run and one speed session. They trained on their own, in their own neighbourhoods, according to their own daily/weekly schedules. (To adapt the programme for yourself, see the training schedule and strategies on the following pages.)

In December, 23 of the original 25 ran at Kiawah. One had dropped out of the programme because her house had been flooded, and one because of injury. "I had expected that we would lose at least five runners to injuries," says Pierce, "so I was very happy with this outcome. It seemed to prove that our workouts, which were harder than most of the runners were accustomed to, didn’t lead to a rash of injuries."

Two participants dropped down to the half-marathon because they had developed minor injuries during training, but they recovered in time to attempt the shorter distance. Both were able to finish the half-marathon with good performances.

That left 21 FIRST marathon runners on the starting line. How did they do? All 21 finished, with 15 setting PBs. Four of the six who didn’t set PBs ran faster than at their most recent marathon. "It was so exhilarating to watch them come in, and quite a relief, too," says Pierce. "When 21 people have cut back their marathon training because you told them to, well, that can make you a little nervous."

What’s more, as post-race lab testing showed, the FIRST participants had improved their maximal oxygen uptake by an average of 4.2 per cent and their lactate-threshold running speed by 2.3 per cent. As a bonus, they had also reduced their body fat by an average of 8.7 per cent. "We think the results show that our programme was a big success," says Pierce. "Our people didn’t hurt themselves, and most ran their best-ever marathon. I think we showed that you can teach people to train more efficiently."

The First Training Plan

The FIRST marathon programme includes three running sessions per week: a speed session, a tempo run and a long run. Here’s the full, 16-week marathon training programme. (See "The FIRST paces", below, to find your correct workout paces.) Participants are also encouraged to cross-train for 40 to 45 minutes on two other days.
8 x 400m
3 miles
10 miles
4 x 1200m
5 miles
12 miles

6 x 800m

7 miles
13 miles
3 x 1600m
3 miles
10 miles
10 x 400m
5 miles
14 miles
5 x 1200m
5 miles
15 miles
7 x 800m
8 miles
17 miles
3 x 1600m
10 miles
13 miles
12 x 400m
3 miles
18 miles
8 x 800m
5 miles
15 miles
4 x 1600m
8 miles
12 x 400m
5 miles
15 miles
6 x 1200m
5 miles
20 miles
7 x 800m
4 miles
15 miles
3 x 1600m
8 miles
10 miles
30 minutes easy with 5 x 1 minute fast
20 minutes easy with 3 or 4 pickups

The First Paces

The training paces recommended by the FIRST programme are somewhat faster than those recommended by other training plans. Of course, with just three running days a week, you should be well rested for each workout. Here are the paces you’ll need to run, each expressed relative to your current 10K race pace.

Long run 10K pace + 60 to 75 seconds/mile
Long tempo 10K + 30 to 35 seconds
Mid tempo 10K + 15 to 20 seconds
Short tempo 10K pace
1600m reps 10K - 35 to 40 seconds
1200m reps 10K - 40 to 45 seconds
800m reps 10K - 45 to 50 seconds
400m reps 10K - 55 to 60 seconds

Official participants in Furman’s marathon programme undergo lab testing, attend monthly meetings, and receive individualised advice, sometimes even daily emails. But anyone can adapt and use the FIRST training plan's basic principles. Just follow these eight rules, and the 16-week FIRST training plan above. For more information, visit

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Discuss this article


Does anyone have their magazine to hand and could post the web address for the institute (FIRST I think) that has produced and researched upon a marathon training schedule on 3 runs per week?

Thanks, Amanda

Posted: 04/01/2006 at 08:37

The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training. I've no idea how it works correctly as it seems a hotchpotch.

The Joe Beer Tri based plan is more interesting imho.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 08:41

Thanks Gumps. Tell me more about the Joe Beer one please. Basically I've become v injury prone and need to find something that will get me marathon fit on less miles...


Posted: 04/01/2006 at 09:17

Amanda, they have only introduced the people and the intended structure of the training in this months magazine.

Thinking about it more, the Joe Beer one may have similiarities in that is probably has the 3 runs a week plus swimming and biking.

It's perfectly possible to get marathon fit by IM training - at least two people PB'd at teh marathon in the build up to IM Switz last year including one who was probably in around 3hr shape if he had raced it rather than running a controlled pace.

Good luck!
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 09:57

Thanks Gumps. Checked out the web site and downloaded the plan and it looks ok and makes sense. Just don't think my leg will take the mileage I used to do and I guess traditonally expect to have to do to reach maximum marathon performance. 3 days a week of quality running and plenty of swimming and biking sounds like my future and not a bad way to get IM fit...

Do you think it's feasible to utilise the 18 week running plan for IM Germany and hence not run a marathon in the build up?


Posted: 04/01/2006 at 11:29

Hi Amanda, I'll be interested to see how the FIRST/RW one pans out, as I'm the RW guinea-pig this spring. It's based on a simple enough theory - that if you swap the recovery runs for rest or cross-training, you'll do just as well.

My guess (or is that my hope ;-) is that it will work. If the cross-training sessions are harder than recovery sessions, as FIRST suggests, then you'll be doing more overall quality work than you would be in a normal marathon schedule.

Obviously in your case if you have Ironman aspirations, then a triathlon schedule like Joe's makes better sense.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:26

Hi Sean. It will be very interesting to hear how it works out for you and I'm def going to use it as the running training element for my IM. I already work pretty hard in the pool and on the bike so my only concern would be that almost every session I do will be a quality/tough one and although the swim and bike ones are less physically "damaging" I just wonder how mentally fatigued I'll become.

I guess I still see myself as a runner rather than a triathlete so pure running plans appeal rather than tri specific ones.

So have you commenced week 1??


Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:32

Oh yes, three miles at 10K pace this very lunchtime, I assumed with a mile either end. Thinking of 10K pace, one thing I'll miss is build-up races; the schedule doesn't have any, but I feel I ought to stick to it for the sake of science.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:41

So it's not really a 3 runs a week plan, more a 3 key (hard) sessions a week plan?
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:43

Agree - if you're doing it then it's gotta be 100% to really test the theory. Could you do some of the long runs at races though? Say something like the Folkesworth 15 and Stamford 30k? As long as the pace is as set in the schedule?

Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:45

Gumps, it's only three runs a week, plus two cross-training sessions.

But you're right, it is the three key runs
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:51

Flicks open mag.....

Run 3 times per week and do 2 hard x-training sessions (I assume on non-running days). So train 5 days per week.

Doesn't sound like the pushed for time kind of plan to me. Although with maybe the exception of Thursdays run onweek 8 you could fit it in at luchtime, if you have a track near by for Tuesdays seesions.

Obviously this plan will get you around a marathon but I wouldn't hold out for a pb. As I've never trained properly for a marathon then getting a pb on this type of training was simple enough although I was x-training a damn site more than twice a week and running long every week (16+).
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:53

Hi Sean,

I'm probably just being pedantic, but the First to the finsih training programme I have found states "Runners are encouraged to either cross-train or complete easy runs on other days of the week."

I guess you are doing the cross training rather than hte running?

I'm really interested to see how you get on.

Good luck.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 15:56

Count - not sure it's a pushed for time plan rather than a try not to get injured one...or at least that's the appeal for me and my dodgy old leg !!

Interesting stuff for sure...

Posted: 04/01/2006 at 16:16

Sean - I am trying the FIRST philosophy for FLM (unless I chicken out and use Shades's programme plus two days x-training).
But what do they mean by x-training? Does it include weights? If so, does that mean circuit-training style? Or the sort of stuff where you do three sets of 10, 12 or 15 reps etc? Or is it just biking, rowing, and stairmaster stuff?
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 16:19

Cheers Gumps. Did you find your schedule on the web? I think that in its first year, FIRST allowed runners to do as much or as little extra running as they wanted, but from 2004 they were strict about the three days. The RW article takes this line.

Count, I agree, it's probably best for people who don't want to face the injury risk or boredom factor of running 5 or more times a week. Though by the sound of it last year's FIRST runners were pretty feeble about their corss-training and still got a decent cluster of PBs.

Amanda, good idea about using the races as training, especially if the training is to be quite strictly paced. I shall have a rummage in the race diary.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 16:26

Interested to read this.

A V40 friend of mine dropped his running from 6 runs a week to 4 runs plus two gym sessions. His mara pb went from 3.10 to 2.49....

Posted: 04/01/2006 at 16:30

The secret is being properly rested for you key sessions. I think this is where the tri guys have once again been ahead of athletics and swimming. Where it's better to drop a session when tired etc than just bash out the hours / miles because you think you need to.

The problem with hal-higdon and other beginner programs as they don't often stress the need for recovery. IMHO a 30 min recovery run is a waste of time, sure you can brag about logging an extra 25 miles a week but be too tired to do your KEY sessions properly. Obviously if you've built up to accept this type of milege then fine.

Just my 2p's worth...but bottom line is if you want to be a better runner then you'd be better of running, it's a case of listening to your body and being flexible with your training rather than ridgidly following a plan just because it's written down.

now that I think about it, shame you didn;t have a test case where a runner is properly coached to see what results came out of it.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 16:45

Snapstinget, the article says 'cross training, such as cycling, strength training, rowing or elliptical training'. I'll be aiming for cycling and rowing, maybe with a bit of weight training.

I guess that high-impact activities with rapid changes of direction, such as squash, might not be a great idea as the emphasis is on reducing injury risk; and minimal-activity classes like yoga might not have much effect on your marathon time (except by reducing injury, perhaps) - but I don't get the impression that there are hard and fast rules beyond common sense like this.
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 20:08

Thats exactly what my programme looks like, but with alot more running padded round it. I think the key may be in the slightly faster than traditional long runs, and the 10m tempo runs. And if it's such a good plan why did neither of the sports scientist authors break 2:45?
Posted: 04/01/2006 at 21:41


I found it here:

It appears to be a 2005 version.
Posted: 05/01/2006 at 07:43

Good luck Sean with the 3 runs a week thing. As I have posted on a few other threads, last year I did a 3:07 marathon (Below par mind you - illness) and a 1:20 half marathon on 3 runs a week (one tempo/intervals, one long, and one marathon pace) and 2-3 HARD CV Gym sessions a week too. The half marathon time is quicker by two minutes than anything I have been able to do by training with running alone.
This year I will do the same - although I am planning to put one extra recovery run in to see if this has any extra benefit.
As you state above I think the real key to this plan is making the gym sessions much harder than a recovery run would be. For example nearly all my evening gym sessions work out with my HR regularly being around the same as my 10K / half marathon HR, and quite often mentally and physically (In terms of the 'burn' in the muscles) the sessions feel harder than most of the running sessions.
And whilst initially feeling shattered the body seems to recover very quickly - presumably because of no/low impact exercise minimizes muscle tissue damage - yet you cardiovacularly are getting a running equivalent workout. Rightly or wrongly this allows me to have 5-6 hard sessions a week whereas if I ran exclusively maybe only 3 sessions.
One possible drawback of this plan though is that because nearly all sessions are performed with the 'hard session' attitude, mentally it can be very tough to do it week after week. For that reason quite often during the course of last year I would have blocks of 3 or 4 weeks where the gym sessions would be much easier and focus on weights to relieve the mental tiredness that would ensue. I would add though that these didn't come during marathon training itself.

Posted: 05/01/2006 at 13:11

Very useful info, Go-KL, thanks. A couple of years ago (when I was allowed a turbo trainer in the dining room), I managed to add a decent bike threshold session each week, and enjoyed the variety. But I didn't keep it up for 16 weeks for sure, so motivation will really be a key factor.

Sadly I may not break 2:45. so MikeB may remain disappointed.
Posted: 05/01/2006 at 13:36

Have you tried the bedroom? Mines allowed in ours.

Sean - are you going to have threads and links for each of these training methods?
Posted: 05/01/2006 at 13:38

Just moved house - we now have a cellar :) No excuse for not using the turbo down there. I'll aim to keep this thread updated, especially as I reckon I'll need a kick in the pants every now and then. And I'll talk to the others about publishing their programmes and starting threads. It'd be a nice idea
Posted: 05/01/2006 at 13:45

For FLM last year i only Ran 3 times per week and off the back of it i managed to PB at all race distances from 10k up

[please note ... im not very fast]

I find if i run more than three times per week i end up injured

My runs were -

- Hardhill or speed session
- Steady 5-9mile with a few sprints etc thrown in
- long run ranging fro 15-22 miles

PS - I cross-train a lot
Posted: 05/01/2006 at 13:49

I will be following this thread with some interest. I am just starting on the Hal Higdon schedule so interesting to read the theories on junk mileage. I think its a fair trouble is I am a terrible schedule addict and find it hard to ditch these miles.

Training for Lochaber and this will be my 4th marathon so will try to listen to my bod a bit more and not force myself out on 'recovery runs' when I am tired.

Good luck with it Sean!
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 13:20

I'll probably use this schedule in training for Washington in October. Is the schedule in the US version of the mag? It would be good to match up with a few runners aiming for the same event.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 14:07

junk mileage is right! i tried that back in my first 2004 marathon 30 min run mon,speed session on a tueday,30 min on wed,hill work on thur,day off fri,long run sat,off sun,hard to keep to always getting injurys and on and on.Now i bike to my local pool swim 60 lenghts on monday,core work on a tue,30 min run wed,kickboxing thur, weights on leg area fri, day off sat,long run sun 20+. its much easy to keep too,more fun! and getting PBS in 10ks,10 milers,half marathons, and im well on track for a 2:45-3:00hr on my marathon this april thats 1hr 22 mins and 17 sec knocked off. this is done on a 2 runs a week although in two weeks time friday will be turned into a speed/hill session bang 3 runs a week it works for me......
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 14:18

WEC - your first marathon would be all about you body adapting to running. To compare the time between your first and subsequent times is foolish (unless you did a lot of running of shorter distances or for another sport e.g. Tri).

But do what works for you...I'm personally going from 2 or 3 runs per week to more to improve my times, running fitness etc.

If you have other activities like you obviously do then it'll work for you. I don't think new runners should do more than 4 days per week for the first few months anyway and I don't believe in recovery runs. I do believe in easy running for people used to running the way to recover from running isn't pounding your feet some more on the road IMHO.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 14:26

the count....
I was well adapted 2 pounding the streets been boxing since 93. I changed my training program to involve more running as the years go by you here more,read more,feel more.And I can say running all the time baby just dont work! you got to cross-train to get where you want, stronger legs,stronger core,stronger lungs = futher distance,faster times,less injurys MORE FUN. And how can you get PBS if you dont record your last times.....? But what works works and if everyday running is your bag then do it baby cause its all about the running anyway.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 15:16

Last year I used Mike Gratton's hard training schedule - lots of mileage, running twice a day. I ran a pb in London, but this was despite lots of niggly injuries during training. I'm def going to give the FIRST programme a go this year, if only to keep down my physio bills!
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 15:51

I'm going to try it IF I do another marathon because that way I wont have to give up competetive tennis and let my team down like I did in 2004.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 16:12

One problem for me is that I find it very difficult to let go of the idea of "the more runs/miles the better". I hope the FIRST article in US RW and Shades' 3-run-a-week plan has given me the confidence to cut the running to three sessions. Go-KL's gymn sessions sound as if they involve either spinning or circuit training or both, which sort of answers the question I asked Sean a few pages ago. I.e. HR must up; it's no good sitting around on the bench press bench looking mean!
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 16:20

I'm a definite believer in fewer but harder training sessions. I trained for my 1st mara with the idea that you needed to be getting around 50m in a week and running 4 or 5 days. Luckily I managed not to be injured but the midweek stuff was just junk and I wasn't improving at all.

I've since seen sense (IMHO) and am doing another mara training prog at the moment based on 2-3 runs a week tops and a couple of x-training (not counting cycling to work & back). I'm also semi-training a couple of other people using similar methods and when the RW copy came through my letterbox I was more than pleased!

For the x-training, there is another article in RW as well (2 in 1 mag, there's another 1st, page 22) about aerobic & anaerobic training. To me, x-training can be used to work on your weaknesses, improve overall strength, fitness, whatever.

I'm not structured enough to follow FIRST but it certainly will be a good indicator of what I'm aiming for - particularly the PMP variations. And I'll try to keep an eye on this thread.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 17:19

Thought I'd boing an old thread in Training on junk mileage....just a counter arguement.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 17:37

I'm sure there's people running excellent times on 3 or 4 runs per week, but if you go on the sub 2:45 thread over on FLM, you'll find the vast majority of runners there are running more than 4 times per week.

There is a general correlation between more miles run and faster times (assuming injury avoidance and not overtraining).

FWIW I think running more helps you less likely to be injured as your body becomes more conditioned to running.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 20:59

I did FLM '03 on 3 runs per week + 2 XC sessions. Runs were typically Tues - long intervals, Thu - tempo & Sun - long run. XC sessions on Wed and Sat were ~30 min indoor bike (spinning), then ~30 min weights.

Ran a 2:56, but never, ever, ever would I do that again. The marathon was a real chore, the final 10k was hell on earth and it took 6 weeks for my legs to recover.

Go-KL, makes a good point above, in that following this type of regimen, all the runs are hard and I actually found that I developed a bit of an aversion to running as a consequence.

Each to their own, but frankly I'm with BR. I get fewer injuries running 70-90 mpw per week than I do running 30-50 mpw. I also find recovery from hard sessions and races is much more rapid and of course it yields significantly better marathons.
Posted: 06/01/2006 at 21:33

Wile.E.Coyote -in one year you have gone from over a 4 hour marathon to under 3hours? That's bloody amazing!
Posted: 07/01/2006 at 11:44

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