Hal Higdon’s Marathon 3 training plan: Who’s It Good For?

You’ll notice I’ve never written a What’s It Good For feature on the somewhat famous Hal Higdon marathon training plans.

Part of that is they’re by and large recognized as a reliable starter-plan for runners unfamiliar with serious training for a race, or just seeking a straight-forward training plan. It’s often one of the first plans most aspiring runners find and turn to when they want to train for a race. It’s a more old school, traditional approach to run training, fairly straight forward and reliable.

So the audience for these plans is pretty clear. Why write a whole What’s It Good For piece on Higdon’s plans when many reading have already (most likely) gone to and possibly followed his plans before reading? There’s little confusion about whether or not these plans work for someone, and someone reading is typically looking for a different approach.

Now, that said, I’ve come back to Higdon’s work time and again. His writing helped me get back into running years ago and helped me build my ability to run for distance. In fact, for all the What’s It Good Fors I’ve written, if someone on the street asked me for advice on running regularly or doing races for the first time, I’d most likely send them to Hal’s website as a starting point. His basic advice and plans consistently work.

So while figuring out my intended training for the 2022 Vancouver Marathon, I also looked up Hal’s old marathon plans. Incidentally, I wanted more intel on how he’d schedule strength training (because obviously I want to continue strength training through Van training), and his incumbent marathon plans didn’t specifically discuss strength training.

I ran a search to see if I could find reference thereto on his website, and it led me to a plan of his I hadn’t found before: Marathon 3. This is a newer hybrid plan for recreational “gap” runners: Not quite a traditional intermediate marathoner, not really a novice.

The Marathon 3 program fits conveniently between Novice 2 and Intermediate 1, but its main feature (and appeal) is that it offers only three days of running and an extra dose of cross training for those of us who need a bit more rest between our running workouts.

Hal Higdon.

That said, I think more advanced runners may find value in the plan as well, especially if they’ve been burned out or injured on higher volume plans.

Marathon 3 (which I’ll also call M-3) looks decidedly different in schedule-pattern from Higdon’s other plans, which traditionally follow a 3 and 2 weekly cycle: Three early week workouts, rest, then a two workout block of a moderate effort run followed immediately by the long run and a rest/cross day. This one has no scheduled back to back runs.

So you know what? I think Higdon’s Marathon 3 is not only different enough from his other training plans to warrant a write-up, but the fact that it was a bit out of digital sight and I had to find it by accident tells me it’s worth linking and showing to readers.

Plus, you’ll get some insight into my thoughts on Higdon’s principles, and when/how they work well.

The Nuts and Bolts:

  • Higdon has you do most of your runs easy. You cover the distance and don’t worry at all about time, pace, cadence, any of that. As Hal himself has said time and again, “Put one foot in front of the other and run. It sounds simple, and it is.”
  • The plan is a somewhat long 24 weeks.
  • There are multiple tune up races in the plan.
  • There’s a scheduled run Tuesday, Thursday, and a long run on most Saturdays. Higdon loosely floats the option of doing another easy run Wednesday instead of cross training if you want to.
  • Wednesday is devoted specifically to cross training on a bike for 30-60 minutes, whether you go outside and ride or get on a spin bike indoors. As discussed in more detail below, this is meant to be an easy, comfortable session with no intervals or anything similar. Again, you could run easy instead on this day, and Higdon elsewhere in the plan does say you can cross train some other way if desired. He just spells out “Bike” in the plan chart itself.
  • Monday and Friday are rest days.
  • Higdon recommends that if you strength train that you do it Monday (a rest day) and Wednesday (the bike day).
  • Sunday is a typically longer cross training day of 60-90 minutes, where you can cross train however you wish provided it’s an easy aerobic activity. Do note that Higdon considers walking a cross training activity, which many may argue with. But that’s how low-key you should approach the cross training, not the hard intervals on a cardio machine that some may recommend as cross training.
  • Tuesday’s easy run starts at 3 miles and gradually increases back and forth in mileage until peaking at 10 miles later in the plan.
  • Thursday’s run alternates in a 3 week cycle between a “(marathon) pace” run, a “tempo” run, and a regular easy run, ranging in distance from 3 to 8 miles or from 30-60 minutes with the tempo run.
  • I’d be remiss not to discuss Hal Higdon’s definition of what constitutes a tempo run: The Higdon Tempo Run is not a run entirely at a given “tempo” but is actually a run that starts easy, builds to about 10K pace halfway through which is held for about 5 or more minutes, then slows back down to easy pace before the run is over. So really a Higdon Tempo Run is more like a mostly easy run that blends in a brief 10K-ish tempo interval during the middle.
  • The long run starts at 6 miles and goes back and forth in gradually increasing length until not only peaking at the traditional 20 miles, but Higdon actually has you run the 20 mile distance three times late in the plan (weeks 17, 19, 21).
  • The tune-up races show up in week 9 and occur every 3-4 weeks thereafter until the final month before the marathon. You start with a 5K, the next race in week 12 is a 10K, week 16 is a half marathon, and then curiously on week 20 you step back to a 10K before week 24’s marathon.
  • On the tune-up race weeks, there is no cross training. While the races are penciled in for Sunday with an extra rest day that Saturday, the days can be switched, with the race on Saturday and the extra rest day Sunday.

One of the wrinkles with this next section is that, because Hal Higdon has such a large, ubiquitous collection of training plans, and because this plan is a different style from his other plans… this is one case where if M-3 doesn’t work for you, one of his other plans actually might work better.

Who does this plan not work for?

Run streakers. Obviously, three days of running a week with a day or more off from each one isn’t going to keep a running streak going.

Something like 80/20 Running‘s advanced plan, the Running Clinic approach (provided you ignore the rest day recommendations, which in that plan are honestly optional), or even Higdon’s intermediate schedules if you just do an easy short run on the recommended rest days, would be the easiest way to maintain the streak.

But Higdon’s plans are not run-streak friendly, and this one certainly is not.

High volume runners. As mentioned above, the 3 day weekly setup limits the amount of running you can get in. That said, if you’re running enough that this seems a little light on volume, you’re probably beyond the scope of this post or Higdon’s plans in general. Even Hal’s advanced plans are light on mileage in the midweek runs, and other plans like Hanson will at least ask for 6+ miles, or time-based plans like 80/20 and IronFit can allow faster runners to log more miles.

Runners who don’t like cross training. Obviously cross training is a key component between the three weekly runs, and subbing these out for runs turns M-3 into a different plan. So if you’d rather run for all your workouts you may as well pick a different all-run plan like 80/20 or Hanson.

Runners who want or need track/repeat-heavy speedwork. Higdon’s Advanced plans do prescribe interval and hill speedwork, but M-3 and his easier plans don’t. The tempo run as mentioned is mostly easy with one brief hard segment. If you picked a proper marathon goal pace, the pace run shouldn’t come close either. If you need 400’s or 800’s, do Hal’s Advanced plan, or find another plan like IronFit or Hanson.

Runners on a tight schedule. It may seem like a 3 run per week plan allows a lot of free time, but in reality the cross training on the other two days, the length of many of the workouts, plus the recommended strength training all points to the plan requiring a significant time commitment.

The early workouts won’t take long, but as they get longer not only you will have to block off substantial time for those, but recovery needed between those workouts will require you scale back your schedule in the interim. Plus, realize the correlary for easy runs: The easier they’re run, the longer they may take.

FIRST ends up working well for people because though the schedule is very similar 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 Hanson’s workouts may not require as much time.

Runners who don’t want to race during training. While Higdon loosely recommends you can ignore the races scheduled and just do some other workout instead, they do end up being a substantial development component in the plan. I wouldn’t recommend throwing out the races if you do this plan.

Other plans like Hanson and 80/20 don’t include races, and would fit better. Most of Higdon’s other marathon plans include a Half Marathon tune up race, but it would be easy to do one of those and just skip the race while doing something like a 12-15 mile easy run instead. But with this plan, there’s a lot more races and they are key steps in the plan.

Runners with other big plans in the next few months. Along with the demands of the plan, bear in mind it’s much longer than other training plans at 24 weeks. That’s a 5.5 month commitment to training for a goal marathon. Other plans typically last 16-18 weeks, which while still long don’t demand you lock in so far in advance.

If you’ve got a wedding or travel plans or similar, this plan might not work. Sure, you could try and mix in that long run or race that particular period, but a shorter plan would be easier to schedule around, since you could stretch the plan out and just take those key weeks as a down week or a full break, or even duplicate the offending week(s) to give yourself a cushion in case you can’t make one or more workouts, but you can still hit some of them and stay fit.

This plan is just too long for that, and I don’t recommend deleting workouts or weeks.

Who does this plan work for?

Runners who have had injury or burnout issues, or generally need rest or easy non-running days between runs. A lot of schedules ask for 5-7 days of running per week, and some people (myself admittedly included) risk breaking down or burning out on such constant running. M-3 asks a lot, but it never demands consecutive running days.

The cross training is never hard, and actually helps facilitate recovery through active circulation. The strength training is well timed to precede easier portions in the schedule. You get a lot of buffer space between runs.

This is a key reason why I think more advanced runners may benefit from this plan. If you’ve had burnout or injury problems with higher volume plans, this one will still challenge you but give you ample recovery time and space, in many cases active recovery that still develops your fitness.

Runners who like the FIRST schedule but not the hard workouts. Some people really like building a training plan around three non-consecutive weekly runs because of the above mentioned space for rest. But FIRST doesn’t work for a lot of people because every run is done at a challenging pace.

If you look at the schedule, Higdon’s M-3 is basically FIRST but without the constant intensity. Even the tempo/pace workouts are easy in comparison, not as long, and never faster than M pace like FIRST asks. The tempo segments are only about 5 minutes long, wedged into an otherwise easy run. Most of all, the cross training and rest days between runs are still there.

If FIRST seems too tough for you because of the intensity, Marathon 3 might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Runners who like longer, easy midweek runs. Yes, the early week runs are short. But as they build in length, they go beyond the 4-6 mile threshold that most plans’ midweek runs like to settle at.

Even the faster Thursday workouts are just single extended runs rather than interval sessions, and mostly easy (if you picked the right goal pace, even that run while challenging isn’t exactly hard).

By the midway point there’s only one more run shorter than 6 miles before the scheduled taper (and that 5 miler in week 13 is a marathon pace run). Perhaps the tempos could be shorter depending on your easy running speed, but these are still typically longer, mostly easier runs.

Runners who want to do tune up races. This plan looks like the king of tune up races, scheduling a whopping four of them prior to the taper. Yes, it’s a long plan and that contributes to the space allowing for this. But if you don’t like having to spend 4-5 months avoiding races, this plan not only encourages tune ups but is designed to make you do them every month.

Runners averse to speedwork. One knack of Higdon’s non-advanced marathon plans is he avoids speedwork completely. All of his tempo and pace work are specific in preparing you for the marathon since every run is a continuous run. So there’s no track repeats or hill work in this plan, and some people will like not having to work on speed outside of the context of a single extended run.

Some prepare best for a marathon that way, and M-3 will be right up their alley.

Runners who like long relaxing cross training sessions. This plan specifying 1-2 extended cross training workouts each week works great for runners who like to space out their runs with aerobic cross training.

Other plans may allow for more frequent cross training, like IronFit and 80/20. But this plan asks for longer sessions and that you avoid the intervals, HIIT and other intense segments that others recommend for their cross training.

The cross training in the M-3 plan is an opportunity to continue developing aerobic capacity while giving your body a recovery break.

Experienced runners who want to gradually build to marathon fitness. Most training plans ask an experienced runner to either work hard right off the bat and continue over 16-18 weeks to get ready. Or the volume in their plan builds up too swiftly or abruptly during the plan. Hanson is real bad about that, though many other plans also put in oversized jumps in week over week long run mileage.

Because this plan is so long, it can start easy and build gradually over time while still doing step-back weeks and offering minor breaks in tune-up race weeks. Though the mileage does go up and down throughout, the long run never increases more than 2 miles in distance over the last longest run.

Some of Higdon’s other plans do have sizable mileage jumps (typically out of necessity given they’re shorter at 18 weeks), but he nailed the progressions on this one. M-3 has an ideally gentle ramp in mileage over its 24 weeks.

Never a verdict.

But! As I mentioned before, I have decided to follow this plan to train for the 2022 Vancouver Marathon. The schedule timing worked great for me, and allowed me to begin focused training last week. So far, it’s fit my needs very well. The workouts have been suitably demanding, yet I feel like I’ve been able to recover well between them and my strength training.

Higdon’s Marathon 3 is a rather long and recovery-spacious plan, but it’s definitely a shift from his other traditional plans, and experienced runners may find it suits their needs in training for their next marathon.

As Hal Higdon does for other training plans, the basics are spelled out freely on his website, but if you want extra support and finer points he offers for an extra fee a subscription on the TrainingPeaks app for any plan, that will send you daily feedback during the training plan on how to handle that day’s schedule as well as overall preparation. Some find that useful, and I’d recommend it if you need extra guidance.

Best of luck!

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3 thoughts on “Hal Higdon’s Marathon 3 training plan: Who’s It Good For?

  1. Ha! I could’ve patented this one myself. I’ve always done just three runs per week. I called it my modified novice 2 plan lol.

  2. […] just ran into one such case, where Hal Higdon recently created a new marathon training schedule (Marathon 3), and its three day weekly structure is very similar to the FIRST Marathon training […]

  3. […] after so many fitful training cycles I believe I have the tools to get it right this time. After trying on the Higdon Marathon 3 training plan for a few weeks, and successfully test driving a new approach in my races, I’ve decided to […]

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