The Three-Hour Marathon Plan

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Photo Credit: 2:59 from Flickr user sunshinecity, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

OK, there are obviously several ways to achieve a three-hour marathon, and, depending on your starting point and intrinsic traits, one single season and plan may not be enough to get you there. But for this previously near-3:00 marathoner (3:03:26, to be exact), this was the plan of choice in working towards a sub-3:00 fall marathon in a season that started from a winter lost to a hamstring injury.

The foundation was Pfitzinger’s 18-week 55-70 mile (18/70) plan, with modifications. Actually, the modifications were minimal, mostly shifting days forward to make for the typical Sunday rest (i.e., sleeping in) day and taking advantage of a trip to San Francisco to do some longer runs across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Pfitzinger emphasizes the following marathon-specific “competencies.”

  • Aerobic capacity - the high (relative to other programs, like Higdon) overall mileage drives gains here.  The trademark mid-week medium-long run of 12-15 miles is a differentiator in driving this.
  • Lactate threshold – tempo runs of 4-7 miles serve to improve your ability to run at or just above your lactate threshold pace for an extended period of time. This helps you maintain steady splits in the late stages of the marathon.
  • Glycogen storage and fat utilization – since the body can only store enough glycogen, the energy-generating form of carbohydrates, to last through mile 20, the long runs lasting over 90 minutes at least twice per week, and total mileage of the program are designed to help you tap this glycogen more efficiently.  There is some evidence to suggest that these gains are enhanced by running before breakfast – in other words, becoming a predawn runner.
  • Improving your running economy while gains in running economy (how much oxygen is needed to maintain a certain pace) often come through years of accumulated training, it is possible to make some gains during a training season through the use of strides, and they are abundant in this program.  The goal of the strides is to help improve your running form, thus minimizing wasted motion.
  • Increasing your VO2 max – this is emphasized far less in the training program than it is in others, so intervals are less significant.  They are included, at distances ranging from 600 to 1600m, in the last half of the program, but with nowhere near the intensity of programs such as Higdon’s.

The program employs the periodization approach to focus various phases of the training on specific gains.  First comes endurance, which is basically a continuation of the aerobic capacity-focused base-building phase with some shorter (4-5 mile) lactate threshold training introduced.  The second phase increases the lactate threshold focus by stretching the tempo runs, while continuing to build endurance by bringing the total weekly mileage up to the 70-mile peak by week 10.  Third comes race-specific training, where the lactate threshold runs give way to longer (800-1200m) intervals, though 600m intervals are included in weeks were races should be scheduled.  Finally comes the taper, which is not as aggressive in reducing mileage as other programs and still involves a long lactate threshold run plus some 1600m intervals.

The base-building for this program focused on getting weekly mileage up to 55 miles with several medium-long runs in the 15 mile range.  Only two each of tempo and interval workouts were mixed in, so the focus rested primarily on aerobic capacity.  The recovery phase is much the same, focused strictly on easy miles to ramp back up to a base mileage level, with some strides included to maintain a focus on running economy.

With a flat marathon targeted for the fall, there was no real need for hill work, and the program doesn’t call for any.  Should you be running a hillier marathon like San Francisco, Akron, or Boston (among many others), one approach would be to change some of the stride sessions to hill intervals of maybe 20 seconds each.  Alternatively, running the 600m interval sets as a hill sessions can also provide some solid workouts, though there are only two such sessions in the  program to work with, and jumping right to 6x600m on hills is a tough way to start.

To help set pacing goals, the early 10 mile race in week two (1:03:08) helped set a VDOT, as defined by Jack Daniels and determined using the Runbayou calculator, of 54, giving the following target paces:

  • Easy runs (general aerobic, medium-long and long runs – recovery could be even slower) – 7:54 – note that Pfitzinger does recommend running long runs a bit faster, starting at  easy pace but picking up to just 10% above marathon pace by a few miles into the run (~7:23 pace)
  • Marathon pace – 6:49 (consistent with a 2:59 marathon)
  • Lactate threshold pace – 6:26 (this was generally reduced to 6:20, as prescribed by the McMillan calculator)
  • Interval pace – 800m – 2:55, 1200m – 4:25, 1600m – 5:55

The execution of the plan was not flawless – the high summer humidity drove two each of the lactate threshold and marathon pace workouts to come up short, though the total mileage of each workout was made up as easy miles.  Most of week 10 was missed (converted to cross-training) due to family commitments.  And food poisoning drove a mileage shortfall over the weekend of week 13, though the 18 mile long run (without marathon pace miles) was made up the following Monday.

It didn’t matter – the result was a personal best by over eight minutes, and a 2:55:41 final result with a surprising victory at the 2011 Towpath Marathon.  This result demonstrated the value of high mileage above the weekly pattern of intervals + tempo + long runs employed previously.  And the key to being able to maintain the high mileage was to keep much of the miles sufficiently easy.

While this plan started from a stock training system, I have found it necessary to modify it through the seasons to fit my evolving needs.  Stock plans always have their limitations, and may not be right for you.  Please consider one of my coaching packages, either for a single season or on an ongoing basis, if you’d like a plan, including strength and mobility work, tailored to meet your specific needs.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/marceortizbarberena Marcella Ortiz Barberena

    Hey can you explain something to me? I do not understand WEEK 12 and WEEK 13, on Wednesday, what do i have to do? its a little confusing with the asterisk and the plus sign and all that. Thanks

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    The plus sign indicates a double (6 miles in the morning, 4 miles in the afternoon). The asterisk indicates that this run includes 6 sets of 100m strides, instead of the usual 10 strides.

  • Anon

    What happened to the training plan document?

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    I’m seeing the document just fine. If you are still unable to, shoot your email address to strosaker at gmail.com and I’ll be happy to send it to you.

  • ingrid

    hi! i’m on week 10. Tuesday it’s 9 w 6×800. Do I run 9 miles THEN do 6×800′s or is that part of the 9 miles? thanks..:)

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    It’s 6×800 within the 9 miles. I run it as 2-3 miles of warm-up, 6×800 with 400 recoveries, and 2-3 miles of cool-down. I’m doing the same workout tomorrow.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/moore.seamus Seamus Moore

    Hi there, I have a question. I am starting to use the program for the Rotterdam marathon. What does LT9 (4T) mean. Do I run the first 5 miles at 6.20 pace and then 4 miles at 5.55 pace?

  • http://predawnrunner.com Greg Strosaker

    Hi Seamus – the LT9 (4T) designation means 4 miles at your lactate threshold pace (roughly 10K, or a slight bit slower) within 9 miles. I usually run this as a 3 mile warm-up (pace doesn’t matter), then 4 miles progressing from my half-marathon pace to my 10K pace, then a 2 mile cool-down (again, pace doesn’t matter). Hope this helps!

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  • Eddie Shrote

    alright Greg, I’m gonna modify this for a 3:23:00 attempt to BQ. thanks for taking the time to post this

  • http://predawnrunner.com/ Greg Strosaker

    Sure thing Eddie, the plan is of course adaptable to whatever time goal you have in mind, just keep in mind to keep your workout pacing in line with recent race results at the beginning and don’t over-reach. Good luck!

  • Eddie Shrote

    Just finished wk3 following your schedule / plan. Something wierd happend yesterday. On my 15th mile, I still had plenty of gas left in the tank, legs weren’t killing me. My daughter ran the last mile with me and ended up doing it in 7:21, and it didn’t feel as if i was even trying or going fast. My target pace is 7:46 so I was a bit shocked at how I felt and figured I better thank you again.

  • http://predawnrunner.com/ Greg Strosaker

    Glad all is going well Eddie, nothing builds confidence like having some gas in the tank at the end of a long run. Stay patient, it’s a long season and it gets easy to become a little overzealous when things go well early in the program. Staying healthy and consistent is goal #1.

  • Eddie Shrote

    oh, to be more exact, my MP is 7:45, I was doing the ML at 8:45-9:00. I’m glad i found your plan. I’m also doing the long runs in a fasted state and that’s wrought with perils right now. I think my body is trying to figure out what I’m doing to it. I took gel before a run last week and all hell broke lose with my stomach. So,next experiment for a LT run, it put the gel in a hot cup of water and drank it like tea before the run and that proved workable.

  • Jon

    Greg- I will be starting your 18wk plan in the next few weeks with a target of sub 3hr in Sept, and would like to know if you have had any luck incorporating road cycling? As of now I have a really good base level in both running and riding and would like to keep cycling involved in the training program. Where and when would you add rides? Would you double-up work outs or drop easy run’s for rides?

  • http://predawnrunner.com/ Greg Strosaker

    Hi Jon, thanks for your questions and good luck. The answer to your question is “it depends”. First let me state that I’m not a huge believer in cross-training, unless one has reached their musculoskeletal limit in the amount they can run and still want to boost their aerobic capacity. So, in your case, if this plan is at a mileage level that’s a reasonable step from what you’ve done in the past, I’d do all the running possible and put any cycling in as “extra” (or, not at all, in order to have as much energy to run as possible). That may seem extreme, but the question has to be: how important is that 3 hour goal to you (and how tough will it be to get there). If it’s important, and tough, then it may be time to sacrifice other things.
    If, on the other hand, your really can’t run this amount of volume without risking injury, then substitute cycling in for some of the recovery / easy days (but not the “medium-long” runs – those are critical) in order to get the aerobic benefit while saving your legs a bit. Just don’t go turning the cycling into hard interval-style workouts – they still need to be easy days.

  • Macho

    Have used this program and adapted it slightly over the past 9 months I have been on it. In three marathons I’ve lowered my PB time from 2:56 to 2:44. There is no sub for mileage!

    Super grateful for your (and Pete Pfitzinger and Dr Jack Daniels!) contribution. Keep at it!

  • http://predawnrunner.com/ Greg Strosaker

    Glad to hear it’s worked for you – I’ve heard similar comments from others. Some impressive progression on your marathon times – looks like I have some catching up to do!

  • Lukus

    Looking at this plan I feel that it meets my needs for training for my first marathon in hopes to run sub 3:00. However, I am concerned with the amount of races in the build up. Do you really recommend racing three times before the Marathon?

  • http://predawnrunner.com/ Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for the question Lukus. Honestly, no I don’t recommend 3 races (and I don’t think I did 3 races that season). Typically I do one or maybe 2 tune-up races, often a 10-miler or half-marathon around 4-6 weeks ahead of the marathon. This is ideal as it gives you a good baseline for setting your marathon goal and race strategy, while allowing plenty of recovery time. I generally do not taper for such races but you do need to allow appropriate recovery – no really hard workouts for the first week after, and maybe one (or one hard and one moderate workout) the following week. This is why I don’t like racing too often ahead of an “A” race, the recovery cycle diminishes the value of your training.

  • Lukus

    Ok that makes sense, what did you do instead of the race planned on the schedule?

  • http://predawnrunner.com/ Greg Strosaker

    Generally just another long run, maybe with some marathon pace miles (6-10 or so) at the end.