New Orleans, New Training: The three day per week marathon training plan

Every boring story about regimented training programs starts with a boring story about how you decided to run the race in the first place. Here is mine:

In the weeks following the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer I had pretty awful left knee pain and cut my running back pretty significantly. In the next months I was running with little purpose or direction, just putting in as many miles as I was inclined to at whatever pace felt comfortable, with little goal other than to enjoy myself and stay in some type of shape. One Saturday I went out for a run: the weather was great, I felt light on my feet and a random 4 miler stretched into a brisk 12. By the time I returned home I was already contemplating what race I’d run. I knew I’d need about 5 months to get into shape, so my first stop was naturally Marathon Guide’s race calendar. What began as an idle investigation quickly turned into steadfast resolve as I realized the timing was perfect to train for the New Orleans Mardi Gras Marathon. Sure, it’s probably a great marathon, but more importantly, Awesome Wife Kelly and I love New Orleans and I had a hunch I could convince my running partner, Lindsey, into joining.

Me: Lindsey, feel like running a marathon any time soon?

Lindsey: Well, I just had my baby and I haven’t really been running.

Me: When has that stopped you before?

Lindsey: But this is different, I’m really out of shape. I HAD A BABY.

Me: But it’s in New Orleans. Do you know how much Jambalaya we could eat? And oysters to recover after the race?

Lindsey: I just signed up as you were finishing that sentence.

I think more people would run marathons if they knew it would give them an excuse to binge at Acme Oyster House afterwards.

My strategy for training for the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer had been lots and lots of slow miles, consuming tons of hours and resulting in varied and sundry injuries. So that was bad.

Years ago I had read a Runners World article about a three day / week training plan that promised fewer injuries, lower time demands and faster race times.  — WORK FROM HOME, 20 HOURS PER WEEK, $500,000 PER YEAR!!! — Obviously I was skeptical, but I looked up the article just to check it out. I mean, who doesn’t like to Get Rich Quick?

A quick and insufficient summary of the two very good articles referenced above: Something called the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) – I wonder if they made up the Furman guy just so it would be FIRST instead of PIRST as you’d expect Bill Pierce’s institute to be named – came up with this idea of three high impact runs per week. The governing principle is that every run has to have a purpose – each week you run long (build endurance), tempo (increase lactate threshold running pace) and speed (faster leg speed). No long, slow miles whose purpose is, at best, poorly understood.

They have lots of serious sounding research apparently backed by actual real life results of people running fast and not getting injured. So I thought to myself:

1) I want to run fast

2) I want to not get injured

3) I want to spend less time running slowly on a treadmill

So there you have it.

So I’m just about finished with the program, as this is my last week before taper. Here are my thoughts to date:

Running is Fun

If running is ice cream, then running on this program is like only ever eating Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked (indisputably the world’s perfect ice cream and an integral part of any marathon training dietary regiment).

I run three days a week and each run kicks ass. On Monday night I excitedly look at the training log to see what intervals I’ll be doing on Tuesday. 12×400. Awesome, that means I’ll have to run as hard as I can 12 times! 4×1600. Sweet, a blend of speed and endurance, picking up the pace on the 4th lap of each mile to push my split time down further and further. On Wednesday nights I eagerly look to see how long the tempo run is. Ironically the shorter runs are harder, as you have to push much faster to make them seem worthwhile. The weekend long runs are more standard, but long runs are always fun and these are paced a bit more aggressively than the typical long training run.

Long story short: I’ve been more or less exhausted after every run I’ve done in the past three months. That’s a pretty awesome thing to say. You feel like they are all worthwhile and not in the “I’m building a base” kind of way but in the “I feel a raging animal deep down inside me is about to come out and do something awful in New Orleans in January” kind of way. And that’s fun.

Doing Other Stuff is Boring

I get that you don’t all live in New York and belong to the terrible Dolphin Gym (seriously, it’s too awful to even link to here. I’ll tell you about it some other time). For you fortunate folks, you can probably find a pool or even better, the ocean, or some really cool cross fit class where you get to lift really heavy every-day like objects. You probably enjoy the 2-3 hard cross training sessions you do each week. But me, I’m mostly stuck with the elliptical, which both boring AND dull. And at the Dolphin Gym angry gym employees poke you with a sharp stick on every third step, so the elliptical is not only boring AND dull, but boring AND dull AND painful. Lest you think I don’t make the best of a bad situation, I have a little game to keep it interesting: I do 30 minutes on the elliptical and keep score of my success by seeing how many calories I can burn during that time. I started off with about 450 calories and just maxed out at 512 – a 14% improvement! So yea, it’s boring but you can still see progress, it should be helping me achieve my goals and it’s low impact.

You Get Fast

My splits have improved significantly over the course of the training. Keep in mind, I’m not particularly fast, but my last 12×400 was done at a 6:00 minute pace for the 12 repeats. That’s slower than warm-up speed for a competitive marathoner, but it’s Ludicrous Speed for me.

Now, predicting race results is like the hardest thing you can possibly do, but there are two common methodologies.

The first is the Yasso 800s, which says do a bunch of 800s and however long it takes you to run the repeats, that’s how long it will take you to run the marathon. So a 6:10 pace for repeats means you spent 3:05 on each, which implies a 3:05 marathon.

The second doesn’t have a name that I know of (I’m sure it does and I’m sorry to Mr. Inventor for not crediting him here). The idea here is that you take the fastest 26 miles you’ve run in any given week and that’s as fast as you can expect to run the marathon.

Now if these two methodologies seem random and bizarre, I agree. But it’s like they say: The game is crooked but it’s the only game in town.

Based on these, I should expect to run a 3:05-3:10 marathon, significantly better than my PR of 3:19.

I Have No Idea What Will Happen

I’ve never gone into a marathon with so little mileage behind me. My peak mileage will be 32 + 2 cross-training sessions. That is light. Will the pace predictors hold up? Will the increased speed work make a 7:30 pace in the race seem leisurely? I honestly have no idea. I’m inclined to just go balls to the wall, push my pace and if a bunch of early 7:30s means I crash and burn at mile 18, well at least I went out swinging for the fences.

I will keep you posted.

Update:

Just did my final training run before the taper. 21 miles by the East River on a glorious 45 degree day with almost no wind. Great conditions, but I was dealing with a persistently sore hamstring. Nothing serious, but the kind of thing you expect towards the end of a typical training program. The run was pretty mediocre, clocking in just south of an 8:10 pace. Didn’t kill me, but also didn’t inspire much hope of a 7:30 pace over 26 miles. Let’s hope the taper, adrenaline, etc. make the difference.

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