Run Less, Run Faster?

After completing a number of half marathons, a few months ago I decided that it was time to move onto the next level and take on a bigger challenge. My eyes are set on nothing less than the Marathon distance this time – and where could be a better place to start than my home country?

The Budapest Marathon has a convenient flat surface with a route leading through the most spectacular parts of the city, and on top of this, it happens at the best time of the year, in early October when the heat of the summer is replaced by the coolness of autumn. It is also ideal for training for the race which can be done during spring, summer and early autumn when we have the most daylight and can avoid having to train in adverse weather conditions. (Although I might have to rephrase it for England and say “the lowest likelihood” of adverse weather as anything can happen in good old Blighty, regardless of whether it is winter or summer – with the difference between the two sometimes being barely noticeable!)

The best way to describe how I feel about the prospect of having to run 26 miles (42 km) is “intimidated”. This is very similar to the feeling I encountered before running my very first half marathon in Marlow last November. The distance ahead seems almost impossible to tackle, often leading me to question my sanity when I signed up for the race. However, for the very same reason, I am very excited about going for this new challenge to see if I can make the impossible possible with enough determination and commitment to training. I very well remember the times when I felt like the “weakest link” at school, so completing this challenge would forever overwrite the “blueprint” of my old self. I think it is very important to know why you are doing something, otherwise what will you do if your motivation flails?

We are talking about running for a couple of hours without stopping. The question I keep asking myself is how my body will cope with this…I know I have good endurance: I could keep going for a whole day, if only my legs allowed me to! The race will clearly be an orthopedic challenge for my body, especially my knees and overpronating feet. I can now happily run a half marathon any time, but I need to remind myself that this time I will need double the effort.  And to build up that endurance base and help my body adapt to the longer distance without wrecking myself in the process, I know I need a lot of patience, time and commitment to follow through a structured plan.

So first of all, I did some research around what training plans are available for this distance to suit my abilities and circumstances. First of all, I have limited amount of time to run besides a rather stressful full time job, a busy social life, a husband, and secondly, I do like to workout or attend group classes in the gym sometimes, so for me it’s not all about running. With all this in mind, I was first disappointed to see that most training plans require you to run about 5 – 6 times a week, piling up monster miles and completely lacking in variety in training modes. I do not only have no time to do 5 runs a week, nor the inclination to run that often, bearing the above mentioned circumstances in mind.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I finally came across the FIRST Marathon running programme, which was developed by The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training. The inventors of this revolutionary training programme Bill Pierce and Scott Murr rely on one basic principle: a three-day running programme, with some cross-training, is enough to maintain and improve our running fitness for a marathon distance! They believe that their training programme will limit overtraining and burnout.

The centrepiece of this 13 week training programme is doing 3 quality runs a week with each running sessions having a specific goal:  a long run which pushes the body out of its comfort zone to build endurance and to build mental focus for the longer distance; a tempo run to improve efficiency at the pace you want to run the marathon; and a HIIT (high intensity interval training) session that includes fast repeats with short recoveries and is designed to improve overall speed. On top of the 3 quality running sessions, they recommend 2 cross-training sessions a week inbetween the running sessions. They believe that if you cross-train correctly, you can use it to increase your overall training intensity, without increasing your injury risk by using the same muscles over and over again through running. At the same time, you can still go out and run hard the next day!

I got so excited at this revolutionary approach  that I decided to buy their book which further explains the theory behind this programme which was carefully tested through lots of lab tests on volunteers and gives specific guidance on each training session. After reading this book, I was even more convinced that I wanted to give this programme a go, however, at the same time, it has become clear to me that even though the whole concept almost sounds too easy, it actually is quite challenging for the following reasons:

  • You need to be absolutely spot on with the paces you run the different running sessions with, if not done correctly, the whole purpose of the session is defeated. You do need to have access to facilities/gadgets which enable you to measure and monitor your effort levels and pace, such as a treadmill, sportswatch, running track. The book does have a lot of charts with recommended paces which are calculated based on your current 5k/10k/half marathon etc. times so you can pick the one that suits your current fitness level.
  • For the above reason, you do need to have a Maths focused mind because as you improve in training, your average times improve and therefore you will need to re-calculate your training paces to ensure continuous stimulation for improvement.
  • Because each running session has a specific aim, you need to give a 100% effort and focus on all of them to be effective, given you only run 3 times a week. No more junk miles!
  • The option to do cross training may sound like a relief from running, however it turns out that not all modes of training count to be effective. For example, Pilates, Yoga, Body Pump classes are not recommended because they do not aerobically challenge the body, but swimming, rowing and cycling are best. The exceptions can still be done as a form or “recovery”.
  • Fitting in all these 5 sessions requires a lot of foreplanning and coordinating with work and social schedule in order to ensure none of them are missed.

I am going to write regular updates in the coming weeks about how I am getting on with this plan to see whether it works not only on paper but also in practice!

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