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.
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.
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.