I want to talk a bit about IronFit’s Marathons After 40, more so about Don and Mel Fink’s application of Don’s trademark triathlon-focused IronFit training approach to older runners.
This is not necessarily a review of the book, which to be honest is well written, organized and easy to follow. If this approach works for you the book is absolutely worth a read.
I want to talk about the IronFit method of training, which doesn’t get the attention of other more popular methodologies (for example, Jonathan Savage’s exhaustive review of marathon training plans does not mention it). Plus, it’s one of the only training approaches geared towards older runners.
I will also focus mostly on the marathon plans, though the book provides similarly comprehensive training plans for shorter races.
Standard disclaimer: IronFit’s a registered trademark of Don and Mel Fink. This is only a general, fair-use overview of the plan, which itself is described in greater detail in their book.
The Basics of the IronFit 40+ Marathon Approach, in a nutshell:
- The 16 week marathon training plans are built (as many plans are) around a long run, a marathon tempo run, and a speed interval workout.
- Like Matt Fitzgerald’s plans in his various books, the workouts are outlined by time spent running, more so than miles (e.g. a 45 minute run, rather than asking to run 5 miles). Only the long runs and some of the interval workouts specify distance. But even the long runs include a maximum run time at which the mileage should be cut short.
- Runners are given a wealth of cross training substitute options for most runs, even for the interval and long run workouts. With some discretion, you could even swap out most listed runs with an equivalent amount of aerobic cross training in an acceptable form.
- Only the tempo workout is considered mandatory, with no substitute cross training allowed. Any other run workout could be substituted with equivalent cross training in two ways: 1) e.g. you can swap out 45 minutes of running with 45 minutes of cross training at the same intensity, or 2) You can split a run workout between running and cross training, e.g. take a 90 minute long run and mix 45 minutes of running with 45 minutes of cross training at the same intensity.
- The plan allows for as little as 2-3 days of running per week if suitable cross training is substituted for the remaining workouts… making it very similar to FIRST‘s marathon training plan (as outlined in Run Less, Run Faster). But runners are expected to train in some capacity 5-6 days a week.
- The rest days are also labeled as flex days. You are given the option to shift scheduled workouts one day over and take an off day earlier than planned, as long as all the workouts are done in the order listed.
- The plans are split (and impacted) by two key factors: 1) The amount of cross training you wish to do based on your needs… and 2) Whether you plan to run your marathon faster or slower than 3:30. However, again, any run workouts other than the marathon pace runs can be substituted or partially filled with equivalent cross training.
- Slower runners are scheduled for two flex/rest days each week, and given the option to cross train 60 minutes on one of the rest days. Advanced runners are given one flex/rest day. Both groups are expected to rest at least one full day every week.
- Speed and marathon tempo workouts do not begin until 7 weeks through the program. Runners spend 7 weeks in a long base training period of easy/moderate distance runs lasting from 30-60 minutes, with a weekend long run that grows progressively longer.
- While midweek runs are shorter than other plans, the long run generally goes longer than others. Starting at a modest 60 minutes and progressively building, the long run peaks at 22 miles or 3+ hours (whichever is shorter). Advanced runners are capped at 3:10 long runs while slower runners are capped at 3:30. This is beyond the 20 mile or 2.5 hour threshold that most recommend.
Who may the method not work for?
Younger runners. Of course. The plan is designed to adapt to older runners who are slowing down, recover more slowly and have more trouble with injuries. Someone who bounces back more quickly can do just fine with a more robust plan. That said, this shouldn’t disqualify younger runners outright: Runners who struggle with injuries may find this plan useful.
People who thrive with higher running volume. While the long runs are very long, and the plan builds up to 60-75 minute midweek runs later, a runner looking to run more than 45-55 miles would be disappointed with this plan.
The midweek runs don’t lend themselves to more than 10 miles a day, and typically at an average duration of 45-60 minutes there’s only so far you can run. The plan also does not advise double runs. The plan emphasizes limited training and recovery for obvious reasons.
Another more flexible plan (like Daniels 2Q, where only two workouts per week are fixed and you’re free to add miles to remaining days as desired), or one with higher mileage demands (even the middle of the road volume of Hanson Marathon Method asks more overall mileage than this would), will allow high-mileage runners to pound on the miles.
People who need schedule flexibility to switch workouts. Fink emphasizes doing the scheduled workouts in the order shown. While a day can be skipped here and there, it’s expected you do the workouts in the exact listed order. Your long run has to be your last workout of the week. You have to do the marathon pace workout after the speed workout, and the Finks strongly advise having a day off between the speed and pace workouts.
The flexibility with this plan largely sits with the cross training substitution options. You are still expected to put in a certain volume and intensity of effort most days.
A plan like the aforementioned Daniels Running Formula‘s 2Q may be more suitable if you have competing demands that may compromise available time.
Run streak enthusiasts. As many plans do, this plan demands a full day off every week. Those with 2 scheduled days off are given the option to cross train on one of the days off, but you’re expected to take the other.
The demands of the key workouts along with the expected moderate pace of the other runs indicate that doing a run anyway on the rest day, even as little as a mile, might negatively impact the training plan.
If you feel the need to keep a run streak going, do another plan.
People who want to run more than 2-3 races during training. Fink encourages doing a tune up race or two, but also advises a max of 3.
Even discounting the recommendation… the plan emphasizes the very long runs on the weekend, and doing a race shorter than a half marathon heavily compromises the ability to get the longer runs in.
While the plan recommends tacking on cooldown mileage post-race, getting in 18-22 miles becomes unworkable after most races. You will be much more fatigued after any tune up race than if you had run easy for the same distance… with many more miles still to go. The only real feasible time to mix in a tune up race shorter than a half marathon is within the first 6-7 weeks of the plan. Even doing a half marathon in the final weeks will often require a cooldown run of up to 90 minutes following your race.
Plus, with the other speed and tempo workouts required, too much of the surrounding training is simply lost or compromised by most races. The Finks recommend skipping your next speed workout after a race, but the need for recovery after anything longer than a 10K may negatively impact the next marathon pace run… possibly even the next long run. Even allowances for substitute cross training might not help.
If you want to do several races, and move workouts or even spread out mileage across surrounding workouts to compensate, you probably should follow another plan.
So who does the plan work for?
Older runners (obviously). This book was written specifically for runners over 40, who recover more slowly. The plans ask heavy mileage on long runs, but otherwise set some strong limits on midweek runs plus provide a ton of options for cross training.
Injury prone runners. To call this an over-40 training plan is mostly accurate, though it’s also a great plan for runners who struggle with recurring injuries. It builds in cross training for most plans, and isn’t as demanding as FIRST’s similar training plan. Runners can get in their aerobic training while minimizing stress-induced injury risks.
You like super long runs, but also struggle with overtraining. Not only is nothing terribly wrong with a super long run for most people… but in marathon training they’re vital.
This plan gives you a super long weekend run, but also builds around key workouts with relatively modest daily runs. The runs are also gauged by time and heart rate, so they can be shorter if you’re particularly tired during a given stretch. It allows runners to strengthen a daily running habit without pushing themselves terribly hard.
And most of all, the cross training emphasis allows runners to substitute cross training for most workouts, vastly reducing the overtraining risk while still aerobically training as needed. This it turns out includes the long run, though I’d advise using substitute cross training no less than half of your scheduled long runs. It’d be very hard to finish the longest run if you have very little active training physically running more than half of the distance.
Runners who only have X amount of time for workouts. As long as you can find a 60-90 minute block during the week, the plan ensures you don’t go beyond that since all of the workouts are scheduled by time rather than distance. The only scheduling challenge is the weekend long run, which is a necessary challenge in every marathon training plan.
Slower runners. Though the plan is designed for runners of all pacing abilities, I actually think this is a great plan for slower runners thanks to its time and heart rate based parameters.
You run most workouts as far as you can reasonably go in that time, at the given heart rate zones. You’re not pushing beyond your means to hit a mileage goal. And you can cross train to cover the gaps if running almost everyday is too much.
I think this is the best approach for novice and developing runners trying to do a marathon. You go as hard as you can for your current fitness.
This is not to say this isn’t a good plan for faster runners. I actually think it’s pretty good for them as well. But it’s especially productive and healthy for slower runners trying to get in marathon shape.
No verdict. IronFit’s post-40 marathon plans are great for some runners, and might not be as great for others.
I was certainly intrigued when I browsed through (and eventually bought) the book recently. It’s a plan I’d certainly be interested in following down the road. Right now, I have several races planned this winter and spring, and thus the plan might not be my best choice for this training cycle. Several of the races would interfere with the key 18-22 mile runs.
Still, it’s a plan I may look into for future training cycles, and IronFit’s Marathons After 40 could be your plan of choice as well. Consider it.