Run Better’s 42.2km Marathon Plan: Who’s It Good For?

RunBetterAlong with running the Vancouver Marathon, one of my favorite takeaways from my Vancouver trip this May was buying a copy of Canadian author Jean Francois Harvey’s book Run Better. Published in Canada and mostly unknown outside of the Maple North, the book focuses on helping runners improve their form and prevent or heal injuries with a ground-up approach to running mechanics.

I’m not going to review the book but will admit bias and say I love it, it’s simply and well written, and I recommend finding a copy if you struggle with your day to day running in any way.

Though it’s mostly a book of fundamentals, the book does have training schedules for races from the 5K to the Marathon. Each plan has two schedules arbitrarily split between faster and slower times (with of course the faster plan asking for more speedwork, though the volume is mostly the same).

I want to go ahead and review the plan, as it’s a different spin on other training plans while also sharing qualities with other effective plans.

The Plan:

  • It’s worth noting Run Better is a book about running that includes a training plan, rather than a book about the training plan. The plan, while complete on its own, is more of a suggested application of the book’s lessons towards marathon training.
  • As mentioned, there are two different marathon plans in the book. One for marathoners who can finish under 3:28 and another for those who take longer. The faster plan asks for slightly more speedwork, and the first workouts overall are slightly longer in duration. Incidentally, towards the end, many of the slower plan’s regular and long runs tend to be longer.
  • The plan is 16 weeks long and asks you to do light speedwork right away, but the first long run isn’t longer than an hour of running. So it’s best to already be running 3-4 times a week with a long run of at least that length before beginning the plan.
  • The plan refers to regular distance runs as ‘continuous runs’, implying unlike other plans that you are to do them non-stop: No stopping to rest!
  • Canadians measure distance in meters, so the longest scheduled run is 30 km (about 18.6 miles). Americans will have to do some converting!
  • However, with the exception of the longest runs, all of the scheduled runs are shown by time rather than distance, e.g. a 50 minute run, rather than a 5 mile run. 2 reps of 2 minutes at 5K pace, rather than 400 meters at 5K pace.
  • A couple of early workouts require 1 minute uphill reps, so you need access to an incline that takes a minute of hard running to scale, whether that’s a treadmill or a good sized hill.
  • You determine your 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon pace, and use those paces in speed workouts. These are prefixed on the plan with an S and shown by kilometer distance, i.e. S42 for marathon pace, S21 for half marathon pace, S10 for 10K, S5 for 5K.
  • These paces also correspond with an Endurance Speed pace (ES) and a Recovery Speed pace (RS). You are expected to do any non-speedwork runs at the ES pace. The book has a chart to show what these paces should be, and thankfully for Americans the charts show mile paces along with the kilometer paces.
  • The general schedule format is built around four runs: A Tuesday speedwork session, a Thursday speedwork session that is generally slightly easier than Tuesday but with longer intervals, and a shorter Saturday run followed by the Sunday long run. Short runs are also done Wednesday between the speedwork days on most weeks.
  • The speedwork (including warmup, cool down, and rest intervals) typically takes 60-90 minutes. Initial workouts start around 45 minutes but build to an average of 60-75 minutes.
  • You are expected to do the book’s flexibility static stretches most of the week, whether or not there is a workout. Both days off on the weekly schedule ask for you to stretch that day. These stretches when done properly take about 20 minutes to do.
  • You are expected to do the book’s bodyweight strength training routine between the two speed workouts, and on the day before the long run. This also takes about 20 minutes. If a run is scheduled those days, you do the routine after the run. You are also to do the Flex routine on any strength day.
  • There is at least two full days off. One starts the week, and one comes after the 2nd speed workout, before the final two back to back runs.
  • Harvey likes speedwork known as Pyramid workouts: Reps that get progressively longer/short/faster/slower throughout the workout. An example: First run 2min at S5 pace, then 3min at (slower) S10 pace, 4min at S21 pace, 5min at S42 pace, and then backwards through that sequence (with 2min recovery intervals in-between each, of course!). These are commonly the 1st speed workout of the middle and later weeks.

Who does this plan NOT work for?

High volume runners. If you crush on 60-80+ mile weeks, there is absolutely no way you will come close to that on this plan. Based on estimates from my typical paces, the plan might max out around 40 miles per week. The idea is to save energy for strength training and the flexibility work, and for that to help build your capacity to handle the longest run. But runners who do best pounding out heavy miles will want to follow another plan.

People who like longer, easy weekday runs. The typical weekday goes rest day, speed workout, a short run, speed workout, rest day, short run, long run. If your ideal plan asks for 5-10 mile weekday runs, you want to follow something else like the Hanson Marathon Method or one of the Daniels plans.

Runners inexperienced with pacing. Several of the plans I’ve reviewed ask you to know your run paces and to follow them in your workouts. Harvey’s 42.2 is no exception.

Any non-speed workouts are to be run at a defined Endurance Speed pace. From experience ES is a little demanding at first and takes some getting used to. And that’s the idea: You’re working to improve and develop your fitness, which requires you to challenge yourself a bit on all your runs. Harvey might say otherwise but he doesn’t seem like an 80/20 Running fan.

Also, while you could theoretically run the other paces by feel, therein lies a greater risk of underrunning or overrunning the workout and in turn either undertraining or risking injury and burnout. The clock helps guide and focus your effort.

Inexperienced marathoners. A marathoner who’s trained for so many races they don’t need much to get in 26.2/42.2 shape probably won’t need to grow themselves into marathon shape like a less experienced marathoner might.

One reason many novice and intermediate marathon plans demand high mileage is because inexperienced marathoners need the aerobic volume to grow gradually into marathon shape.

This plan is short on volume, and it might leave lesser experienced marathoners well short of the aerobic capacity to handle the longest run. Even the idea of going from the plan’s 100 minute long runs one week to 20-30km runs the next (as it asks runners to do) seems rather daunting on paper if you’re not comfortable and experienced with 15 milers… let alone in practice.

Find a plan that asks for more easy mileage and asks for 10+ miles on the weekend sooner rather than later. The plan works best for people who have long since gotten used to the longest run’s volume and are trying to improve other aspects while staying injury free.

Runners who need to stop and rest when doing speedwork. All of the runs are designed to be continuous, including the speedwork. A typical Harvey speed workout may start with 15-20 minutes of gradually faster running, then immediately switch to fast segments broken up by recovery intervals, before ending with perhaps a 15-20 minute cooldown.

You’re not supposed to stop because by design you’re working on maintaining the higher effort amidst a lengthy run. If you’re the kind of runner who does their speedwork by hitting reps hard, then standing for a rest before going again… this is probably not your spot, chief.

One possible exception, especially if you’ve run marathons and halfs and those paces are way slower than your 5K’s: Dial back your estimated 5K, 10K, maybe even Half Marathon paces by a lot. Maybe calculate your Endurance pace on your regular running pace, then use the charts to calculate your (now much slower) S42/S21/S10/S5 paces and use those in training. Running continuous 60 minute speed workouts with those paces will still be quite challenging for you, I’m sure!

Run streakers. Clearly the plan has at least two built in days off per week, sometimes more. The demands of the plan are also such that running extra days is probably a bad idea. An open ended plan like the Daniels plans might work better if running every day is important to you.

Busy people who don’t have a ton of weekday free time. Not only does the plan like most ask for weekday runs, but two of the workouts are specific speedwork sessions, and you’re expected to strength train and do flexibility work several days of the week. Even the rest days ask for flexibility work.

Yes, listing the workouts by time puts a specific time limit on workouts. But you still need to have the time to do them! You have to know you can set aside a couple hours each day (more on some weekends for the longest long runs) to allow for training as well as the needed setup and recovery.

Again, an open ended plan, or one with less-specific demands on weekday runs such as Hal Higdon’s, might work better.

Runners who prefer traditional speedwork on a course or track. These work best for measured workouts like 400 meter or mile repeats. Because the speedwork is done by time limits rather than distance, the measured distances of a course or track become less useful.

Sure, you could do them on a track anyway. But that gets boring quickly, your GPS watch may not be able to accurately read your speed, and you could even lose count of how many laps you’ve run! Also, randomly stopping in the middle of laps could cause a variety of problems for you and others.

If you’re going to use a track or course, it’s just as useful and probably easier to use a plan that measures speedwork by distance.

Who does this plan work for?

Injury and burnout prone runners. With fewer workouts per week and less mileage than other plans, this plan really limits the damage on key workouts. Runners who have struggled to avoid injury will probably like Harvey’s plan… not to mention all the book’s other material on improving strength/form and injury prevention. There’s still a lot of work for the workaholics… without all of the work being a repetitive injury risk. It channels your energy in different ways.

Runners who want to cross train. Though the plan doesn’t specifically plan or demand it, the schedule leaves a lot of room for you to cross train if desired. Harvey even loosely recommends you do so aside from the planned workouts. You can more than make up for the lesser volume by hitting your preferred cross training apparatus hard in-between workouts.

Runners who need to improve their running form. Okay, this is more of a vouch for the book Run Better than the plan itself. But the plan’s emphasis on side work in flexibility and strength workouts, as well as the brevity of the continuous runs, lends itself well to exploring and working on improvement in your running form. I think that was part of the idea in how the plan was constructed. The running schedule turns out to be one element in a complete picture.

If you’re looking to improve your marathon times and suspect that your fundamental form is one aspect that needs improvement, this is probably the best approach to take for that.

Runners who need to stick to a time limited schedule. One problem runners have with a marathon plan’s demands for X miles or Y miles is that they don’t always know how long that will take, and may even skip workouts because they’re not sure if they can get a workout in. It’s what makes a plan asking for 45 or 60 minutes of running much easier to deal with. Harvey even goes as far as to give a total expected time for the speed workouts: e.g. along with spelling out, say, 2 x 5 minutes at S42 pace, he’ll say the total workout is 60 minutes long. This better allows runners to figure out where in their day they can fit a needed workout.

Experienced marathoners who have plateaued. Most plans ask for a lot of running, and that’s what a lot of growing marathoners need. But after doing that a while, an experienced runner may hit a different kind of wall… where their times and experience pretty much flat lines, and something different is needed next time around.

This plan is certainly different. It asks for less volume in lieu of training harder in midweek, as well as doing more, different strength and flexibility training. Harvey’s plan is certainly a different approach than a lot of typical “grind the miles out every day, do a tempo run and a long speedwork session once a week, and build up to 16-22 milers” plans. It may provide a breakthrough!

Runners who live on hilly terrain. While the plan asks for specific paces, and doing these paces on hills could be difficult… the time-based rather than distance-based demands means you can be flexible about how much ground you cover. Conventional plans like Daniels typically assume you train on flat ground.

A plan like this may be best suited for runners in a hilly place like San Francisco, Pittsburgh or various locations in the the Pacific Northwest. In fact, another Canadian element of this approach is that most Canadian locales tend to be rather hilly.

Treadmill runners. The time and pace based workouts can be perfectly timed and programmed using a treadmill. It also saves the trouble of finding or mapping out a location to run.

The only issue is that a few of the workouts exceed 60 minutes, and at many gyms the treadmills by design shut down after 60 minutes. The best workaround is to break up the warmup or the cooldown run, preferably the cooldown, by however much time over 60 minutes, so you still run the core workout uninterrupted.

Remember of course that there’s no wind resistance on the treadmill, and to account for this you should set the incline to 1.0.

This plan is especially good if you’re training during winter in a place with brutal winters. Snow and ice can derail a lot of workouts, especially speedwork. If you follow a plan suited well to the treadmill and you have access to a treadmill, you’re more likely to follow it as written and show up on race day ready for the longest run. Other plans may not fit or be as easily adaptable to the treadmill like this one.

The verdict is up to you, as always.

I plan to train for the fall using this plan, along with extra cross training at the gym (usually 30-60 minute low impact sessions on the spin bike and the ARC Trainer).

I will also do most of my strength training with weights at the gym on the strength training days. I feel right now I can get more development out of that than the bodyweight work. I’ll still do the bodyweight routine some days, as the gym won’t always be the most practical option.

As miserable as it can sometimes be, I also plan to do most of the speedwork at the gym, where I can control the pacing using the machine. The uphill workouts can be done easily using the incline settings (sorry, Cricket Hill!).

Most of the continuous runs (not to mention all of the long runs) will be outside, not just for fresh air, sun, and my sanity, but because a) run commuting home from work is perfect for the 30-45 minute runs, and b) the treadmills have a 60 minute programmed limit before shutting off, which won’t work for the long runs. You can restart them, sure, but those runs need to be non-stop.

The irony is that the plan is probably most daunting to runners who run the most mileage. The volume demand is so relatively light that many may think it won’t prepare you for the marathon.

However, the plan asks you to think about more than just how much you run. As the book’s title says, the goal is not to run the most, but to Run Better.

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5 thoughts on “Run Better’s 42.2km Marathon Plan: Who’s It Good For?

  1. […] and running economy. So again, the plan is from a book about working on your breathing. And like Run Better, the book’s training plan is more than anything a framework in which to work on the […]

  2. […] I realized the key to successful lunges, possibly while reading Jean Francois Harvey’s book Run Better. But once it occurred to me, and I focused on this element while lunging, they immediately became […]

  3. […] the specific endurance skills for each of those distances. I would likely follow the blueprint from Jean Francois Harvey’s Run Better, and would thus continue to strength train twice a […]

  4. […] it doesn’t demand too much of your time outside the long run. Even schedules like 80/20 or Harvey’s Run Better rarely ask for more than an hour on midweek workouts. If you’re suitably fast, even […]

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