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Training for a marathon on low mileage: The FIRST plan

Training for a marathon on a low mileage planI’m running the New York City marathon later this year, and I’m on the hunt for a non-traditional type of training plan. I’ll be coming back from having a baby, so I don’t want to jump into the high volume mileage that marathon plans usually call for.

However, NYCM means a lot to me. I’ve wanted to run this race forever, and it’s important to me I train well and arrive at the start line as prepared as possible. So, I’m searching for low mileage marathon training plans.

FIRST basics
Specifically, I’m eyeing the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training marathon program or FIRST. Developed by Furman University’s Bill Pierce, professor and chair of the Health Sciences Department, and Scott Murr, a member of the Health Sciences Department faculty, the FIRST training plan is known as the “less is more marathon plan”.

In FIRST, runners peak at 25 to 33 miles per week, which is about half of the peak volume that other popular marathon training plans require. FIRST runners do five workouts per week, but only three of those workouts are runs – the other two are cross-training sessions.

But the kicker is all of the workouts are done at a high-intensity, including the cross-training. The running workouts are very specific – there’s a speed workout, tempo run, and long run each week. The pace recommendations are as follows:

  • Speed:
    • 400m repeats: 10k pace – 55 to 60 seconds per mile
    • 800m repeats: 10k pace – 45 to 50 seconds
    • 1200m repeats: 10k pace – 40 to 45 seconds
    • 1600m repeats: 10k pace – 35 to 40 seconds
  • Tempo:
    • Short tempo (3- 4 miles): 10k pace
    • Mid tempo (5- 7 miles): 10k pace + 15 to 20 seconds
    • Long tempo (8-10 miles): 10k pace + 30 to 35 seconds
    • Long: 10k pace + 60 to 75 seconds

But does it work?
In short, yes. Studies show both male and female runners of all ages – competing in all distances from the 5K to the marathon – can improve their VO2 max, lactate threshold, and speed by following the FIRST training plan. In one study, more than 70 percent of veteran marathoners set PRs in the marathon after following the FIRST marathon training plan for 16 weeks.

My reservations
In theory, the FIRST marathon training plan looks right up my alley. I’ve never fared well running high mileage and I love doing speedwork. I also really enjoy tough spinning classes and intense pool workouts, so I could easily do the cross-training, too.

However, I can’t ignore all of the other research I’ve read lately. Specifically on polarized training. Polarized methods emphasize training at extremes, with most runs being “easy” and few runs being very intense. In studies, polarized training seems just as effective as the FIRST program, so I have no idea which to choose. Do I go with the high-intensity-less-is-more approach or follow the less-intense-higher-volume plan? Decisions, decisions.

We’ll be exploring differences between popular training programs in the coming weeks and we’d like to know: which plan are you most interested in learning more about? Which ones are you most skeptical of?

Written by Jen Matz | Image from istock

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