Dave Kuehls, an editor for Runners World, once trained Oprah Winfrey to run her first marathon. The famous talk show host ran her first marathon in 4.5 hours, incredible given Oprah not only wasn’t any sort of athlete, but had famously been overweight and actually undertook the pursuit of running a marathon in part to help her drop a few pounds.
Despite this, Kuehls’ subsequent 1998 book, 4 Months to a 4 Hour Marathon, didn’t pick up any major attention when released or in the 20 years it’s been out.
I had never heard of the book or (despite his having been a Runners World editor) seen any of Kuehls’ philosophies on running… until randomly stumbling upon his book at a Barnes and Noble in Michigan while on a work trip.
I took a peek at what first appeared a cheap gimmicky attempt at a running book. I turned out pleasantly surprised at Kuehls’ simple, sound apporach to marathon training. So, I’d like to go over it.
Again, Who’s It Good For is not a book review: The following is a review of the marathon training plan in the book. The book itself is a quick read, less than 120 pages, and take note that, as a late 90’s publication, some of the information (especially contact information for marathons) is outdated. But the book reads quickly and is easy to follow.
If you like the plan I describe below, absolutely try to find a copy of the book. That I found a copy in a mainstream store indicates copies remain readily available.
While I go into a lot of detail below, be advised that the plan is fairly light in workload aside from the long run and the demands of the one weekly speedwork session. Most of the easy running and cross training won’t demand more than 40 minutes a day, and the plan (albeit unintentionally) definitely abides by the 80/20 principles promoted by Matt Fitzgerald, Stephen Seiler and others. The key focus is on consistent practice and aerobic fitness through mostly easy training.
– Plan variations are offered for a 4:00, 4:15, 4:30, and 4:45 marathon. So while Kuehls wrote the book around the specific premise of a 4:00 marathon, he does offer plans for slower finishes. The plan is clearly geared towards not just first timers, but prior mid/back pack marathoners who can and want to attain these goal times.
– You train for 17 weeks. Before starting, you should be used to running at least three brief times per week, though I’d also recommend you be used to a weekend run of at least 6-8 miles. You should also be generally active, if not doing some other form of light exercise on at least a couple other days.
If you’re a rank beginner, you’ll want to “pre-train” for at least a month or two by running three times a week, doing the 1st or 2nd run a bit faster than comfortable, and making that 3rd run easy-pace and a little longer than the others.
But, if experienced, this plan is so easy to follow it likely will feel like a step back.
– You need consistent access to cross training facilities, whether a gym, a bike, a pool, cardio equipment at home, or similar.
– Until the final three weeks (taper) you’re asked to cross train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Kuehls suggests typical cross training methods (cycling, swimming, similar cardio machines, avoid the Stairmaster), and these workouts are always assigned in minutes, usually 20-30 minutes.
– There is one assigned speedwork session every week on Wednesday.
– Some plans offer flexibility around key workouts, but this plan does not. Every workout is spelled out. However, most only ask about 30-40 minutes of your time and an easy effort. Only two key workouts (to be described) demand more.
– Mostly, your only rest day each week is Sunday. Towards the end of the plan, you may get an additional rest day whose timing can vary.
– You do the long run on Saturdays, and you always rest the following Sunday. While most workouts are spelled out by minutes, this workout assigns mileage. Long runs start at an easier 7 miles, but peak at 23-24 miles! The jumps in long run mileage are substantial, and the long run is always expected to be an aerobic challenge.
– Kuehls also spells out a pace range for the long runs, typically 90 seconds to 2 minutes per mile slower than your goal marathon pace, e.g. for the 4:00 plan, you run these at a 10:40-11:10 pace per mile. From experience this pace should feel rather easy and sustainable, even as you tire. If it feels fast, you picked an unsustainable goal pace.
– During the first half of the plan you run 400 meter repeats as your speedwork, starting at 6 repeats in week one and peaking at 16 repeats. The 400 meter repeats are done at a very specific pace based on your goal pace. The book clearly states throughout that you should aim to run your 400’s in 2:00 if you’re chasing a 4:00 marathon. However, the outlined 4:00 plan asks for slower 2:05-2:15 repeats. The slower plans are similarly forgiving on the expected repeat times.
– The only consistently assigned runs aside from the long run and a speed session is an early-week 40 minute jog, and a shorter jog (usually 30 minutes). The 40 minute jog is usually on Monday, or Tuesday if Monday is assigned as a rest day.
– When the shorter 2nd jog is assigned in the week varies by plan: The 4:00 plan assigns it the day after your speed workout, but other variations ask you to do it the day before your long run. In some weeks (often before or after a longer long run) one of the weekly jogs may be omitted or be made optional.
– The jog is expected to be run 1:00 per mile slower than your prescribed long run pace, which itself is already fairly slow. You are basically shuffle-stepping the jog at a minimally easy effort, like a warm-up or recovery jog.
– During the back end of the plan the Wednesday speedwork switches from repeats to a single uninterrupted tempo run done 10-15 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace (what the Hanson Brothers would call Strength pace). The first such workout is 3 miles and peaks at 8 miles.
– You don’t ever do 400 meter repeats and tempo runs in the same week. It is either one or the other, and it’s the only speed or tempo workout that week. All other workouts are an easy pace, or cross training.
– Your first and last exposure to practicing the actual goal marathon pace comes during the final few taper weeks. These 3-4 mile workouts replace all speedwork on the plan. An additional 8 mile marathon pace workout is done the week before the marathon, in place of the long run.
Who Does This Plan NOT Work For?
– Sub-4 marathoners and better. Obviously, Kuehls geared his plan towards newer and back-pack runners who can’t touch 4:00. If you have already run a 3:45 or 3:15 marathon, you’re beyond the scope of his book. You may be looking for a gentler plan like this, but there are other plans out there that better meet your needs.
– High mileage runners. A lot of the plans I discuss curb volume for the sake of preserving health and focusing on productive sessions. Kuehls’ plan is no exception, asking for some cross training and only asking high mileage on the long runs. Something like IronFit may be a better fit if you’re trying to avoid injury or burnout, but you still want to run 60-90 minutes every day.
– Heavy eaters. One of the perks of running a lot is that it’s a very easy way to burn calories. Someone my size can burn 120-125 calories per mile.
While a plan with a lighter training load has its health benefits, the flip side is you’re not burning as many calories with your training. Like high mileage runners, you may want to seek a plan with more volume, or you may find your fully stocked glycogen stores are accompanied by several extra pounds of fat on race day… which won’t help a quest for 4:00.
– People who can’t cross train. Of course, this plan asks for cross training, and you need to be able to do so. If you don’t have access to a gym, or a bike, or a pool, or other cardio measures, you may need another plan. As I’ve said before, while Hal Higdon considers walking a form of cross training… I don’t think it’s aerobically suitable for the cross training expectations of most plans, including this one.
– People who have to do all their running on a treadmill. I do think the treadmill can be useful for a lot of the assigned workouts on this plan. But I also think you need to run outdoors for at least the long run (which becomes torture if you have to do it on a treadmill… and that’s if you can even do it, since most gyms cap treadmill time at 60 minutes), and the speedwork. Speaking of the latter….
– You don’t have a dedicated location for speedwork. Here’s time for a long-needed rant: I find speedwork on a treadmill dangerous, and not just because I got hurt this summer while running fast on one…. Okay, that probably is why. But the danger of treadmill speedwork is that if you need to slow down, you need to hit a button or two to safely do so, and anyone who has run fast can tell you that their bandwidth to do anything else while running fast is fairly limited. It’s like trying to do something while not being able to breathe (and for many that’s exactly what it is). You can’t trust your ability to stop or slow the treadmill if you need to do so right now. Plus, even if you successfully change the settings, the treadmill needs a few seconds to slow down. If you’re on the verge of injury, your body could pop before you successfully slow down.
All of that said, running 400 meters without stopping, let alone a few miles on a tempo run, requires a clear stretch of path/road/etc to successfully do so. A stretch of sidewalk in a housing tract isn’t going to cut it. What if someone’s blocking the sidewalk? What if a car pulls out? What if you get to an intersection and there’s traffic?
In Chicago, living near Lake Michigan, I had the luxury of having a variety of spaces where I could do outdoor speedwork, whether Montrose Track or large stretches of Lincoln Park (even if I had the drawback of icy winters making it sometimes impossible). I realize others living elsewhere may not have those luxuries. Even here in Las Vegas I have a harder time finding suitable routes for long or quality workouts.
But, to fulfill the quality workouts’ intended purpose, you absolutely need a dedicated space to do them safely. You need at least a quarter mile of unobstructed pathway to run 400’s. If you’ve got to stop and start, you won’t get the needed effect of the workout. And of course, if you run into someone or something at high speed and get hurt, you do far worse.
You need to look at a map and find a good stretch of road/path/trail for those tempo and longer runs.
Rant over. If you lack these spaces, and/or if you need to do everything on a treadmill, another plan with more flexibility might suit your needs. Hal Higdon’s plans are great for this, because all he expects you to do most of the time is run and cover an assigned distance. How much you’ve got to slow down and stop doesn’t matter.
Dang, Steven, okay. Who Does This Plan Work For?
– Burnout prone runners. A lot of runners, however experienced, have run themselves to the point of burnout, and a lot of training plans demand a lot. Kuehls’ plan demands a lot less than others, while still pushing you enough and asking enough of you to get you physically trained for the marathon. Even if you’re not chasing a time goal, this plan’s consistent but easier-going approach to training may be what you need to reach the starting line healthy, let alone trained, to run your best. Even with the near-daily workouts, most of them are easy and don’t take terribly long.
– Mid/back pack runners who can’t seem to break 4:30-5:00. As someone who has done plans with heavy volume, plans with lots of speed/tempo work, lots of volume with rest days between, easy running everyday, and a lot in-between… this approach provides focus, consistency and a mix of different training that isn’t like other training plans. It’s a key reason I was drawn to it.
If Kuehls could get a novice-runner like Oprah to run a sub-4:30 marathon from scratch with this approach, I imagine it could work for even experienced mid/back-pack runners who can’t seem to break through. It doesn’t demand as much speedwork, it mixes in cross training, demands a lot of you here and there, and keeps you consistently active every day without running you into the ground with volume.
It’s worth a shot if you haven’t been able to break through with other plans. Especially if you fall into this group:
– Older runners. I’ve mentioned IronFit as a prime option for older runners, but I also presume such runners are experienced and run high volume. For those who aren’t that avid about their running, Kuehls’ plan is much more accessible, and probably at least as effective in getting you ready to run a marathon. It doesn’t demand as much speedwork, still conditions you for the longest run, still asks you to actively work out most days, and still has you do most of your workouts at that important easy aerobic intensity. And it asks less time of you than IronFit. It’s a softer landing, and can help an older runner keep healthy while training.
No conclusion. Well, other than I’ll possibly follow this plan in the New Year while training for Vancouver 2020. It may be the best fit, plus I’m looking to break through after some slower marathon performances. I know I can do better, and this is an approach I haven’t fully taken in training yet.
Those who find other marathon training plans daunting, or who have struggled to get out of the back of the pack, may want to pick up David Kuehls’ book 4 Months To A 4 Hour Marathon and at least give it a read, if not give his plan a shot.