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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."

Sub-3:00 Marathon Training Plan

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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:

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

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

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