The Three-Hour Marathon Plan
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.
This article is by Greg Strosaker from predawnrunner.com.
Photo Credit: 2:59 from Flickr user sunshinecity, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license