You want to run a marathon but you can’t commit to a traditional training plan, maybe you don’t have the time or the interest.  But that doesn’t need to stop you!  Rónán Mac Con Iomaire details a revolutionary training plan and how it worked for him

I started running in 2002 at the age of 27, inspired by an early midlife crisis brought on by the doldrums of self-employment.  My first target was the New York Marathon and, knowing nothing of marathon training, I used Hal Higdon’s novice plan to get around the five boroughs of New York in four hours and 39 minutes.  Four marathons and many injuries later, I improved on that for the first time, coming across the finishing line on The Mall in London in 2008 with a still-sluggish 04:27.

It was time to re-evaluate what I was doing.  Being honest, my failure to run a marathon at anything approaching a decent time was no mystery.  I was still following Hal Higdon’s novice plan, and haphazardly following it at that.  Injuries were a reoccurring theme and all runs were completed at pretty much the same plodding pace.

I had a notion in my head that I couldn’t stop running marathons until I had run one under four hours, and I really, really wanted to stop running marathons.  The next 26.2 miler would be my fifth and five would be quite enough, I thought.  It was time to figure out how to run a three hour something race.  I had read an article in Runner’s World magazine about a three day running schedule that seemed to promise faster marathon times coupled with less time on your feet and, therefore, less injuries.  The term “no-brainer” seemed to be invented for this plan!  After a bit of research, I came across further details of the Furman Run Less Run Faster plan, and bought the [amazon_link id=”159486649X” target=”_blank” ]book[/amazon_link] that goes with the plan.

The premise of the Furman plan is pretty simple.  Strip your running down to three quality workouts, and replace recovery runs with a cross-training activity such as cycling or swimming.  Crucially for me, the plan provided target race times and target paces for training runs.  There would be no more plodding around for eight miles at no specific pace, and no more running at the same pace for every run.

The programme comes from Furman University, where Bill Pierce and Scott Murr set up FIRST (the Furman Institute of Running Scientific Training), and with the help of Ray Moss, who worked with renowned running coach, Jack Daniels, at the University of Texas, set up a Human Performance Laboratory at Furman.  The basic premise behind FIRST is that most runners do not train with purpose, and that a purposeful, efficient training plan helps you to run faster, while minimising the time commitment that comes high mileage running.

To test the theory behind the plan, runners of various abilities and ages were chosen by FIRST to participate in a 16 week study.  The results were pretty conclusive.  The study participants improved their maximal oxygen consumption by an average of 4.8 per cent, their running speed at lactate threshold by 4.4 per cent, and their running speed at maximal oxygen consumption by 7.9 per cent.  Further tweaking of FIRST’s initial marathon training plan saw further improvements in studies carried out in the following two years, 2004 and 2005.  The real proof of any such study is in running results, however, and the 25 participants in each study undertook to run a marathon at the end of the research programme.  In 2005, 12 of the 14 participants who had previously run a marathon posted a personal best in their post-Furman study marathon.  One runner, who achieved his personal best 27 years previously, didn’t manage a personal best, but ran faster than he had run in any marathon over the previous ten years.

Ronan running the closing stages in the Dublin marathon

The Furman FIRST marathon plan consists of three weekly runs, broken down as interval run, tempo run and long run.  The paces prescribed are based on your best 5k time.  So, for example, if your best 5k time is 21:35, the first week of your 16 week marathon schedule  would consist of 3 x 1600m intervals at 6:41 pace, a six miler with two miles at 7:14 pace and a long run of 13 miles at 8:30 pace.  The highest volume of miles run is during week 13, the last week before the taper, with a total of 32 miles.

The other aspect of the Furman plan is the cross-training, and it is repeatedly stressed in the Run Less Run Faster book  that this cross-training is not optional but an integral part of the programme.  Various forms of cross-training are recommended, with different training plans to match the activity.  For example, a cycling cross-training session could consist of eight minutes easy spinning, 30 minutes of moderate effort at a cadence of about 95 rpm’s, and a seven minute cool down of easy spinning.

I took on the Furman plan for the 2009 Dublin marathon, and despite neglecting much of the cross-training, I finally achieved my long-time target of sub four hours, crossing the line in 3:55:40.  Delighted, I could finally put the marathon to bed.  After running the marathon, however, I did something that I hadn’t done before and that was to stay running.  My previous approach would have been to hang up the Aldi shorts until the following summer, decide to run a marathon, start training from a base of zero and wonder why I was getting injured.  This time, I ran the Waterford half marathon in December (01:42:11), surprised myself by shaving 13 minutes of the personal best I had set earlier that year, and decided that I could actually run faster than I had previously thought.  With that positive thought, I headed into 2010 armed with a Furman training plan for every distance from 5k to marathon, and a set of targets that represented a major step up in ambition.

Every race I have run this year has resulted in a personal best time being set.  Some of this is due an initial base of slow times, but undoubtedly, following the Furman plan has been the single critical reason.  Other contributing factors have been losing weight and improving running technique by doing Catherina McKiernan’s chi running workshop.  Having a training plan that keeps me interested by prescribing paces and by not having me out running all the time has been key, however.  I have brought my half marathon time down to 01:30:17.  I ran my first and only 5k earlier this year in 18:46, and am confident that I can bring that under 18 minutes.  Although these times might not represent particularly fast times, I cannot stress how much of an improvement they are in my times.  Previous to this, I would have finished in the top 40 per cent in most races.  Today, I am reasonably confident of finishing in the top ten per cent of most races.

Ronan running in The 2010 Gaelforce West adventure race

The one time that I did want to improve in 2010 was my new marathon personal best.  I noted in the training log I started at the beginning of the year that coming under three hour 40 would represent a major achievement, but running the half-marathon in one hour 30 later on in the year forced me to re-evaluate my target.  I wasn’t picking my marathon target times on a whim, however.  While Furman training paces are based on your best 5k time, it’s recommended that you use your best half-marathon time to predict your marathon time.  My best time suggested a marathon time of 03:09:45, using FIRST’s race prediction table.  I honestly didn’t have the confidence to take this target on, however, and reckoned that 3 hours 15 would be ambitious enough.

I found the training paces tough but doable.  Again, I neglected much of the cross-training, but on the day of the marathon, I felt better at mile 17 than I had felt at any stage during training.  Like most runners, I suffered near the end but was delighted to see that there was only an eight second slowdown between the first and second half of the race.  I was even more delighted to cross the line in 03:15:08, over 40 minutes faster than the same race a year previous.

The great thing about this programme is that I know that the improvements are not just specific to me.  A good friend of mine, whose previous marathon best was four hour 39 minutes, took on the Furman plan this year and ran the Dublin marathon in 3:43, surprising himself no less!

The question I am now asked is if I can run a sub three hour marathon?  I don’t know.  My initial answer to the question is that I have no intention of finding out in 2011 as I plan to target triathlons as opposed to marathons.  I have no idea if you can run a sub three hour marathon on a three day running week with a maximum mileage of 32 miles, but I would imagine that shaving the 16 minutes needed to run under three hours would take a lot more commitment for me than it took to shave 40 minutes off my previous time.

I would guess that the Furman plan is not for runners participating at the more elite end of marathons.  So who is it for?  If you are short on time, it’s for you.  If you get injured easily, it’s also for you.  And if you’ve been plodding along for years without ever getting faster, then it’s definitely for you!

2 thoughts on “The FIRST marathon training plan

  1. Really enjoyed this article – could be talking about me only much slower ! I’ve ordered the book and look forward to trying it out !

  2. Great post and well done on your times I’m currently training for my 1st marathon and hoping to do it under 3 hours I’m using Hal hidden novice but feel it’s achievable as I ran my first half in 1 35

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