Category Archives: Features

The FIRST Marathon Training Approach: Who’s it good for?

first

I want to talk a bit about the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training‘s unique training program, known mostly as FIRST.

This is not a review of Run Less, Run Faster… the book that Runners’ World eventually put out about the method, though if this approach works for you then I recommend you check out the book. This is more of a review of the method itself.

The Basics of FIRST, in a Nutshell

  • Over 16 weeks you only run 3 days a week, with 1 day between the workouts plus 2 days off from running after the longest one.
  • All of the workouts are quality workouts. There is a speedwork session, a tempo run, and a long run. None of the workouts are a simple distance run. Every running workout has a specific challenge, and is intended to be difficult.
  • You are expected to cross train aggressively two additional days each week, most typically the day after the first two workouts.
  • Speedwork sessions are track style reps ranging from 400m to 1600m. These sessions are fairly light for speedwork: You’re never asked to do more than 12 reps, and that’s for the 400m repeats. These workouts shouldn’t last more than 45 minutes.
  • Midweek tempo runs range from 3-8 miles, and are done around 10K-15K pace.
    The paces for the long run are rather fast compared to other methods, run about 30-45 seconds faster than your 10K pace. This is approximately close to most methods’ marathon pace, so you are effectively doing your long runs as marathon-pace workouts.
  • The long run starts at 10 miles, peaks at 20 miles, and the average long run is around 16 miles, which incidentally is around the max long run of some methods. Because of the hard pace demanded, they’re designed not to last more than 2.5 hours.

Who Does the FIRST Approach NOT work for?

People who don’t do speedwork. FIRST is not for a speedwork beginner. All of the workouts demand some degree of tempo running, so you need to be comfortable with hard, pace-centered running.

Winter runners. Icy conditions do not lend themselves to hitting goal tempos, and FIRST demands you do every run at a tempo. You need traction with the ground to run fast, and slippery winter conditions don’t allow it. FIRST is best done during a conventional warmer season.

People who do best with lots of easy running. Every single workout is a higher intensity workout. If you prefer to run easy in workouts, do another plan. Don’t come near this one.

People who don’t want to cross train. One of the hidden keys to FIRST’s success is the low intensity cross training sessions you’re supposed to do between run workouts. This is where aerobic fitness is low-key developed. If you just do the run workouts, that aerobic fitness likely doesn’t develop fully (though, if you handle the entire plan, your anaerobic fitness should be vastly improved). And FIRST is adamant that you’re not to do any running on the non-run days. You’re basically doing another plan if you do.

People who want to log heavy miles. Because you only run three days a week in FIRST, and two of those workouts are somewhat shorter than typical marathon training runs, your total mileage is capped fairly low. If you feel you train best with a high mileage volume, you’ve got to do another plan.

Runners whose race pace is fairly close to their everyday running pace. If you’re more of a casual runner, FIRST is already a pretty tough fit for you. But if your race pace is fairly close to your regular running pace, you’re not going to get much more value from this plan than any other random running plan… most of which will do more for you than FIRST. You probably need more frequent, everyday running than anything else.

Injury or burnout prone runners. Because every FIRST workout demands a high level of intensity, and you’re assured of three challenging workouts every week, it’s very likely someone not equipped to handle the training load will get hurt or burn out.

Runners who lack cross training options. You need to be able to cross train to do FIRST effectively, and this requires you have access to a bike, a pool, a gym, etc. If you don’t, you may as well pick a plan that only asks you to run.

Who Does FIRST work for?

Experienced runners who do best with intense sessions. Similar to people who swear by Pfitzinger, highly trained runners who thrive in hardcore run workouts will probably get more out of FIRST. They may not be fond of the lack of running on off days, but perhaps the hard cross training makes up for it. Speaking of which….

Triathletes. Because FIRST demands cross training, triathletes who like to train in other aerobic disciplines (cycling, swimming) will enjoy the ample opportunity to work on their other sports… or at the least use those other sports as a recovery/development break from marathon training.

Hardcore runners who don’t have a ton of time. Someone who has a busy life but likes to train hard will like having a schedule of only three workouts per week. FIRST is more easily fit into a busy schedule.

Older experienced race runners. Athletes who like training hard but find age catching up with them could find FIRST ideal. Older athletes tend to do best by cutting back on volume and getting the most bang for their buck on less frequent workouts while perhaps cross training on the side. FIRST does not mess around with junk runs, and older athletes may get growth from the less frequent but more focused run schedule plus the cross training sessions.

Experienced runners who struggle with hitting goal times. To be honest, many experienced runners who struggle to nail a goal time could find substantial growth from FIRST’s focused, tempo oriented workouts. If your every workout demands a particular tempo, then you have no choice but to learn to hit tempo. You will find out early if a goal time is unrealistic, and can build subsequent workouts around a more feasible goal time. But the most important part is that a runner will get better at running at a goal pace.


No verdict. FIRST can be a quality training method for some runners, while it’s a bad idea for others.

For older and injury prone runners, Don Fink’s IronFit marathon method may be a better fit for this sort of training. While it similarly asks for three quality workouts per week, the pace demands aren’t as strict, and IronFit provides the flexibility for you to run on non-quality days if you prefer over cross training.

Still, Furman tested this method on various randos years back and those runners found immense marathon success with it… even without the cross training. There’s clear, documented evidence that runners of all skill levels and injury risk profiles can benefit well from it.

If you think FIRST can work for you, check out their book on the method, Run Less, Run Faster.

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Sasha Pachev: A Humble, Prolific Distance Running Legend

You might already know Sasha Pachev, even if you don’t.

Ever hear of the Mormon running family who runs races in Crocs? Remember the teenage kid who crushed a half marathon running in Crocs?

Pachev

Yeah, that’s the Pachev family, led by Sasha Pachev:

Pachev2

Sasha Pachev, left, gets ready to run the 2017 500-Festival Mini-Marathon with his son Benjamin, right. Benjamin’s the famous teen who crushed this race in Crocs.

One of the first running writers I read a lot after getting into running was Pachev. He hasn’t written any books to my knowledge, but he does keep a website and a forum dedicated to hardcore runners in his neck of the woods in Southern Utah. In fact, the site’s running calculators are largely specific to projecting your times for key Utah races.

Sasha himself is an accomplished marathoner, having broken 2:25 in the marathon, outright winning a few marathons. He has well-beyond BQ’d. He could, outside of the Olympics, probably run whatever marathon he wants.

The man knows his stuff. Though Sasha’s advice isn’t too complex, the basic underlying premise is sound: As your running volume safely increases, your overall speed and ability to maintain that speed at longer distances should improve, or at least be better than if you had run fewer miles. As I’ve learned more about projecting results from previous results, I’ve found the predictions of his somewhat esoteric calculators to still be quite accurate.

PachevShoes

One impressive note is Sasha’s shoe tracking data… not his tracking in itself, which is quite ordinary, but the stats:

Sasha has a small handful currently rotating pairs. All, including his trademark Crocs, have logged several hundred miles beyond what one would consider a shoe’s normal lifespan. One pair has over 1500 miles! The average runner would have exhausted 3-6 pairs at that volume that one pair has taken. Apparently there are no problematic holes or other complications with the shoes, if Sasha’s still running in them to this day.

This indicates Sasha may be doing something that most other runners don’t. Even the most experienced and form-perfect runners seem to wear out a pair of shoes after a few hundred miles at most. I’m sure the Crocs themselves are durable (even if technically they’re not running shoes). Perhaps (despite an admitted hitch in his running form) his running form is sound to where he does not wear shoes out the same way others do.

However, that’s admittedly pure conjecture. I have no idea. But the life he gets out of shoes is as prolific as his running volume and accomplishments.

It’s also quite Mormon, and I mean that with all due respect, as the LDS culture is known for (among other things) getting a lot of life and mileage out of basic equipment and supplies.


I’m not big on “XYZ person is an inspiration”, but Sasha Pachev is a shining example of how anyone can train themselves into being a great marathoner, no matter what footwear they’re wearing.

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On marathon cheaters, the Boston Marathon, and the importance of Derek Murphy’s Marathon Investigation

Every year, following applications, the famous Boston Marathon (which requires non-charity-runners to run a tough qualifying time to automatically qualify for their race) amends their quaifying time after the fact as a cutoff. They simply cannot accept every submission that Boston-Qualified (BQ’d).

This year the Boston Marathon’s amended cutoff for the 2019 race was close to 5 minutes faster than their posted 2018 standard at 4:52, a full 91 seconds higher than last year’s cutoff.

5 minutes may not seem like much to an observer: “Just run a bit faster next time”.

  • There’s nothing you can do about your application this year. You can only try to qualify for next year’s race, whose benchmark has yet to be set (and will likely be even more difficult)
  • When you run a 26.2 mile race as fast as you can, finding a way to run that whole race just a minute faster, let alone 5+ minutes faster, is for many impossibly difficult.
  • Preparing for and running a 26.2 mile race is extremely tough. It’s not like a 5K where you bounce back in a couple days and could run one again right away. Most runners require 2-4 weeks or more to recover from the physical damage of running a marathon, which the human body was not designed to do. (In fact, in the historical origin story of the race the guy who ran the distance to warn generals of an impending battle… dropped dead at the end)
  • Anyone who has run anything close to a marathon, let alone the actual race, would understand how insane the idea of lopping 5 minutes off a well-executed PR can be.

Okay, that sucks, you say. A lot of people want to run Boston, and the Boston Marathon has got to cap who gets in. That’s tough, but fair.

There’s one big problem: Many of the people who got in this year… cheated to get in. And every year, countless runners who BQ in another marathon did not do so legitimately. That wouldn’t be a big deal… if by illegitmately getting in they did not deprive another runner who legitimately BQ’d.

How do people cheat?

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