Marathon Training on Three Runs a Week?

Shaun Roberts

So you want to run a marathon? Well, in 2007, I thought it was about time I did, too - that was the year I turned 50, and having done countless shorter races, I thought I'd give it a go - something low-key, rather than a big one like London - I had my eyes on the Lochaber Marathon, Fort William. What had put me off the marathon distance was - well, firstly the distance - 26 miles seemed a long way. But also months and months of boring training. Did I really have to work up to 40-60 miles and five or six runs a week? That was what the traditional training programme seemed to require for a good marathon, rather than a "get-me-round" schedule.

Luckily, in 2006, I'd come across a Runners' World article about a programme devised by Bill Pierce and Scott Muir, at Furman University in South Carolina, US. The article speaks for itself, really, but its origins lie with these two runners who started triathlon training, and who dropped down to doing just three runs a week. They were surprised to find that their 10K, half-marathon and marathon times didn't suffer at all! They ended up doing just long runs (as per a normal marathon routine, increasing over the duration of the programme), tempo runs (fast-paced) and intervals. They also did swimming and cycling training - and this programme adds in two sessions a week of cross-training - any type you like, as long as it's not running! It could be in the pool, out on a bike, in the gym (rowing machine, bike, stepper, elliptical), an exercise class ... any sort of aerobic exercise.

The programme was initially tested on 21 runners, at the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST), and of these 15 set marathon PBs, and four of the other six ran faster races than their most recent marathon. They've done a lot more (successful) research on this since then, and have now published a complete guide in book form, as "Run Less - Run Faster". There's a lot of info on the programme on the FIRST website, and also an updated schedule for first-timers here, but to be honest, the schedule shown in the original article, summarised in this 'cut out and stick on the fridge' table, is a bit less intimidating and is easier to get your head around.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, this quite appealed to me, as it makes for quite a varied programme. Here are a few thoughts on my experiences, which will make more sense after reading the above article, which I recommend you do, ideally lying in the bath when everything seems possible:

Although this programme is aimed at a marathon, it can easily be tweaked to aim at a fast half-marathon - you just don't need to take the long run up to 20+ miles. You'll get the benefit if you do, and it'll give you a lot of confidence at longer distances, but it isn't necessary for a half. Finally, I found that the tempo runs and interval training had the effect of improving race times at all distances later in each year. Now I try and follow this pattern of training more or less all-year-round.

If you want to have a go at this programme, by all means grab me over a pint to have a chat about it, and let me know how you get on. And good luck!


Update: since writing the above, I've used this programme three more times, for the Three Peaks Fell Race and Kielder Marathon in 2010, and for the Cape Wrath Challenge Marathon in 2011. It still works a treat! That last run was, I think, the strongest run I've ever done ...