The FIRST Three Day A Week Marathon Schedule

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.
WEEK TUESDAY SPEED THURSDAY TEMPO SATURDAY LONG
1
8 x 400m
3 miles
10 miles
2
4 x 1200m
5 miles
12 miles
3

6 x 800m

7 miles
13 miles
4
3 x 1600m
3 miles
10 miles
5
10 x 400m
5 miles
14 miles
6
5 x 1200m
5 miles
15 miles
7
7 x 800m
8 miles
17 miles
8
3 x 1600m
10 miles
13 miles
9
12 x 400m
3 miles
18 miles
10
8 x 800m
5 miles
15 miles
11
4 x 1600m
8 miles
20
12
12 x 400m
5 miles
15 miles
13
6 x 1200m
5 miles
20 miles
14
7 x 800m
4 miles
15 miles
15
3 x 1600m
8 miles
10 miles
16
30 minutes easy with 5 x 1 minute fast
20 minutes easy with 3 or 4 pickups
Marathon

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 www.furman.edu/FIRST.