As I sit here writing, there are 95 days until the Boston Marathon. This will be my fourth time tackling 26.2. In my earlier attempts, I met my goals of: breaking four hours (3:52:10 – Disney World), qualifying for Boston (3:38:41 – Tucson), and qualifying for Boston by enough to actually get in (3:31:32 – Phoenix). I used the Hanson’s plan for my third marathon, and while I was pleased with the results, I decided to try the FIRST plan this time. Despite very different philosophies, both have successfully guided runners to PRs.
The hallmark of the Hanson’s plan is that their long runs top out at 16 miles, while most prescribe 20 or beyond. The Hanson brothers believe that no one workout is that much more important than another, and that extra-long runs compromise the workouts that follow. They have you run six days per week, which includes an interval workout, a marathon goal pace run (up to 10 miles), and the long run. This leaves 3 easy runs of between 3 and 8 miles, where the goal is volume and not speed. The plan may not seem too difficult at the outset, but it’s designed to build cumulative fatigue, and the long runs are meant to simulate the last 16 miles of the race, not the first.
Other than a period when I was injured and relegated to the Step Mill and elliptical, I was able to complete most of my workouts and hit the paces more often than not. My body felt good on race day, and while the last few miles weren’t easy, I wasn’t in agony like I had been with the previous marathon. The training, on the other hand, was a different story. I teach four fitness classes a week (three cycling and one strength), and I also like to get at least one additional strength session as well as an outdoor ride and swim in. I taught the whole time, but toward the end, the supplemental workouts fell by the wayside. It was also physically and mentally draining to work a full day, teach class, and then pound out 5 to 8 miles. I wasn’t enjoying my runs.
The FIRST program, named for the Furman (University) Institute of Running and Scientific Training, is built on 3 runs and 2 cross training sessions per week. Each running workout (speed, tempo, long) is to be run at very specific, challenging pace that adherents have called “tough but doable.” Intense cross training further develops the cardiorespiratory system while allowing the running muscles to recover. They recommend swimming, cycling, and/or rowing because of their dissimilarity to running. This allows the athlete to push the key runs faster than in many other plans. Even the long runs aren’t leisurely jogs. For their Boston-Qualifier version of the 3:30 marathon schedule (8 minute miles), the 20-milers start at 9 minute miles and go down to 8 minute miles by the end of the training cycle. Because I enjoy cross training and want to keep teaching my classes, I think the FIRST plan is a better fit for me.
It will be interesting to see how I improve during the next few months. When I started the Hanson’s plan, I had recently run a half marathon PR. These days, once I pass the 10-mile mark, my legs feel like they’ve been repeatedly flogged with a plastic bat and I fall off pace. Therefore, if this race is slower than my last, I can’t necessarily fault the plan. Still, based on my November 10K time and the charts in the book, I could be capable of a 3:30 marathon, which would be a PR. The target paces are nothing I haven’t hit before, but how quickly will I be able to get my endurance back? Two weeks in, the results have been mixed. I’ll keep you posted.