My Hansons' Marathon Training Experience

I'm putting this up mainly because I was looking for something like it when I started my most recent marathon training cycle, but didn't really find anything that addressed the questions I had. I will assume you are here because you have heard about the Hansons' Marathon training plans, but need some more information and perhaps would like to hear a training cycle experience from someone who has used the plan. I hope you find your stay here useful. I'll also be happy to answer any questions, if you care to leave a message.

I'm a 41 year old male who has been running for about 8 years. I'm 5'7" tall and weight about 142 lbs. I have no health problems and have always been relatively injury free. Due to an automobile accident about 10 years ago resulting in a broken right patella, my right leg is weaker than my left leg and my running gait is slightly "off balance," but nothing major.

In the past I have run about 5 marathons, but I have never been able to break the "4 hour" barrier (4:15:55). In general, when not training for a marathon, I run 3-4 days each week, and probably average 30 to 40 miles per week. In preparation for my previous marathons, I have used one of the plans outlined in Pete Pfitzinger's book, Advanced Marathoning. I recommend that book as a good resource for all aspects of marathon preparation. The plan I tried to follow from that training guide peaked at 55 miles per week. The plan included three 20 mile runs and several 17 and 18 mile runs. You start out running 4 days per week and then bump up to 5, though a couple of those days are usually less than 10 kilometer recovery jogs.

I stress "tried" because my training was never very successful. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, none of them having to do with any drawback of the plan in that book. Thousands of people have used that plan to achieve their goals. My problem was not that the plan didn't help me reach my goals but that I couldn't reach the plan. I was usually tired and frustrated by week 5. The first 20-mile run of each cycle was usually the last straw for me. It was inevitably a bad experience; I never finished a 20 miler strongly. Furthermore, they wiped me out. On race day, I had always come to the starting line knowing that there was no way I could hold my goal pace for the duration of the race. I was never wrong.

If at fifth you don't succeed...
When I started my training for the 2009 Taipei Marathon, I figured it was time to try something new. I chose to follow the Hansons' Advanced Plan. Before you continue, read this article about the plan from the Running Times web page. The plan is there for you to see.

After you have read that article, you can go to any running forums on the Internet and you will find people passionately discussing the pros and cons of the Hansons' plan. Search for "Hansons" at Let's Run or at Running Times and you'll find that there are 3 different types of reactions.

In the first camp, I'll put those who criticize the Hansons' plan by saying that the plan I followed is not the same plan they use for their elite athletes. However, as you search online for information about the Hansons' plan that I am describing, remember that I am NOT talking about their marathon training plan for elite runners.

The remaining two camps are divided mainly along the "16 mile line." Some say that a training cycle that peaks at a long run of 16 miles is less effective than one that includes at least one--but ideally several-- 20 mile runs.

This may seem strange, but I am going to agree, in principle, with the critics, although their criticism results from a misunderstanding of the Hansons' plan. I agree that, in general, the farther you run, the better prepared you will be. The Hansons themselves also agree with this; their elite runners do not limit their distance training to 16 miles. However, if I understand the reasoning behind the 16-mile-longest-run correctly, the aim is to balance your weekly mileage over 6 days, rather than running 40+% on a single day. Anyway, it's all there in the article above.

That being said, the reason I decided to try the plan is because it sounded like it addressed my problem precisely. During previous training cycles, although I had rest days between workouts, the individual workouts seemed to be tearing me down rather than building me up. I reasoned that, even though the Hansons' plan has me running six days a week with no rest between workouts, the mileage and effort would be spread out a little more evenly. It was worth a shot.

Hit the Road
I began following the program on August 20, 2009 to prepare for my goal race, the Taipei Marathon, on December 20, 2009. (I'm writing all of this prior to the race, at the end of November. I will post my final result at the end, after the race, but I will not change anything that I am writing today regardless of what happens on race day.) In preparation for beginning the program, in the 2-3 months prior to beginning, I began altering my running schedule to run on back-to-back days. I was used to running every-other day, and the 6-days-in-a-row nature of the Hansons' program had me mildly concerned. So I started by putting two days together, then three, then four over the course of the preceding few months. I did not increase my mileage during this preparation time; I merely rearranged it. Prior to beginning the program, I probably averaged 30-40 miles each week. I used pace ranges recommended by the McMillan Running Calculator, based on my previous best marathon.

I followed the program very closely. With the exception of weeks ending in warm up races, I followed the program exactly. You can see my individual workouts at Buckeye Outdoors Training.

The first challenge for me would be the "speed" workouts. I had never done any speed workouts in preparation for my previous races. I had been convinced that "long, slow, distance" was the way to go, especially for someone like me with poor endurance at the end of marathon distances. Not having incorporated any speed into previous regimens, I was interested to see how my body would react. I did my first speed workout on a track. After that, I did them all on the road (possible thanks to my Garmin Forerunner 305), complete with gradual uphills and downhills (to mimic actual racing). The speed workouts come on the 6th-day-in-a-row of running. This is intentional. You will not be going into your speed workouts on fresh legs. I ran the paces and alternated through the workouts recommended in the link at the bottom of the article cited above (or click here to connect directly). These workout were challenging to me, but not so challenging that I was unable to hit the paces or complete the repetitions. These workouts were also wonderful psychologically: you do your hardest, fastest running of the week on tired legs but you complete the workout AND you get a day off the next day. Brilliant.

The second challenge was the "tempo" component of the program, workouts to be run at your goal pace. I was actually more worried about this workout than the speed workout simply because of what it would tell me. I knew that if running 10k at my goal pace was challenging, there was no way I was going to reach my goal of breaking the four-hour barrier. Although you go into your tempo run after a day off, you are still not running on "fresh legs." My first tempo run was comfortable and that also brought me a great amount of relief, if not confidence. I knew that running 42k at marathon pace is different from running 10k, so while success was not guaranteed by my first tempo run, failure was not predicted either.

The third challenging workout would be the "long run," though according to many marathoners the long runs are not actually long runs per se, but simply the longest run of the week. Whatever. I tried to keep the long runs at at "long run" pace, slightly slower than my regular runs, but, as the long runs were not THAT long, I found it difficult to do so. I ran most of the long runs at my "regular" pace, and told myself that if I started to feel overly fatigued as the weekly mileage increased, I would work harder at slowing down the long runs.

I think that I was fortunate that the paces I followed for the workouts early in the training cycle were suitable. The speed workouts shouldn't wipe you out completely. The tempo workouts shouldn't leave you huffing and puffing. The long runs shouldn't have you popping ibuprofen. I had a good set of paces to begin with. If you're having trouble completing any of those workouts, I would recommend adjusting your paces appropriately rather than skipping days; in my opinion, it is the weekly progression of the workouts that are key: speed work on tired legs, marathon-pace work on one day of rest following the speed workout on tired legs, and then the longest run of the week...followed by more speedwork on tired legs...etc.

I'll let you see some of the preliminary results in the next section, but let me first mention that one result of the training was that even the faster end of my original training paces started to feel less and less challenging. I was going faster and farther on less effort. Thus, when it came time to begin the fourth challenging workout, the "strength" workouts that begin about halfway through the cycle, I decided to reevaluate my paces based on my newly developing abilities. The strength workouts (check out the post on this thread from Mrunner about half way down the page) are supposed to be run at 10 seconds faster per mile than your goal pace. My goal was to break four hours. However, my level of fitness based on one of the races to be discussed below seemed to be even better than a 3:59:59. Thus, I had "two" marathon paces, a conservative one and an "optimistic" one. I ran the strength workouts at 10 seconds faster per mile than optimistic marathon pace. Again, these workouts were challenging, but not torturous.

Preliminary Results
Regardless of whether or not I ultimately achieve my goal of breaking four hours on December 20, 2009, I am certain that I have made great improvement using the Hansons' plan. I have several data points to back that up, some of which are anecdotal and some of which are "warm-up" race results.

Let's begin anecdotally. On my training runs, I am running faster for longer distances at a lower effort than ever before. I wear a heart rate monitor, but the data in my training log will seem overly optimistic since the training cycle began during the summertime when all of my runs occurred at temperatures 80 degrees and above. Later in the year, the temps are mostly in the 70s, so naturally my heart rate will be lower as I don't have to sweat as much. I'm referring to my perceived level of effort.

Next, I ran my first warm-up race after training for about 7 weeks. It was a half marathon. My previous best half-marathon time was 5 years old: 1:50 something. My most recent half marathon--approximately 2 years ago--was 1:55ish. My plan was to run this half marathon at my goal marathon pace (5:35/km) for the first half, and then pick up the pace if I felt good during the second half. You can see my splits at my training log in the entry for October 4, 2009. All of them were under my goal marathon pace and the fastest occurred at the end of the race. It was a personal record for me and I still had gas in the tank at the end. This race was a great confidence builder.

My second "warm-up" race was a mountainous full marathon called the Taroko Gorge marathon. This was an even more important data point. Last year, I ran this same race at the same point in my training cycle and it turned out to be my worst marathon performance ever. I used everything up going uphill (an elevation gain of about 1600ft) and hit the wall on the way back down. I suffered through the last 10k and finished the race in 5:00:03. Yikes.

This year, the experience was quite different. I ran the race approximately 11 weeks into my Hansons' training, on November 7, 2009. I slaughtered it. For the first time in my life I ran a marathon without hitting the wall. In fact, although I don't have accurate splits, I estimate that I ran the last 3 kilometers of the race at my half-marathon pace or faster. It felt great. I was passing dozens of people. I honestly wanted the race to continue. I felt like I had another 10k in me! Had the course been marked more clearly, I might have tried to set a personal record, but I didn't realize how close I would ultimately come to that benchmark. I finished in 4:20, a forty minute improvement on the same course at the same point in my training, and only about 4 minutes off my best marathon time ever.

I say that this was an even more important data point because I was definitely concerned about the "16 mile long run" issue, especially as I had never finished strongly in previous marathon attempts. Many runners whom I respect had waved that red flag, and though I had remained agnostic, I was not dismissive. This race showed me not only that I was improving but that I could finish a marathon powerfully. Even if I do not reach my ultimate goal this time around, the success I had in this race on only 11 weeks of training has convinced me that the Hansons' plan can be an excellent tool. I do not expect to have the same degree of improvement in my goal race, but only half of that improvement will put me sub-4.

Why Did it Work?
A lot in this section is going to be anecdotal and speculative because one training cycle by one runner without any "control" group cannot offer anything better than that. So, for what it is worth...

I feel that the primary reason that the program worked for me is because I was able to complete it. While I had been unable to complete other programs in previous years, I was able to handle this one. I have two speculative reasons for this.

First, although it may seem counterintuitive, running six days a week felt easier on my body than running three or four days a week. Spreading the mileage out over six days, rather than four, is one part of the equation. Another, more psychological reason is the daily consistency, the habit of running. Running wasn't the extra thing I had to fit into my day on certain days of the week. Rather, it was part of virtually every day. Coupled with the feeling that every workout had "equal" value, it was rarely difficult to motivate myself to get out there.

Now, for some physiological speculation. Running high mileage is supposed to trigger mitochondrial development in slow-twitch muscle tissue. However, you need to run enough to trigger that development. I'm speculating here, but it's a least possible that the plateau I had hit in my running was due to the fact that my training was not reaching a high enough level to pull the trigger. It is plausible that the six-days-a-week regimen finally induced the previously mythological mitochondrial development. Thus, the Hansons' plan seemed to set me up in a positive feedback loop: running six-days-a-week fostered the changes that made running six-days-a-week at consistently higher levels possible.

I also credit the consistency of the weekly progression. It was wonderful always knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, why I was supposed to do it, and how it fit in to the bigger picture. This kept me "honest" about hitting my paces, though I was often guilty of running faster than I "should" have been running. However, I was always mentally trying to keep myself in check, in deference to the other workouts. For example, when running a Tuesday speed workout, I was never tempted to "sprint" the 400 meter repeats knowing that on Thursday I wanted to do a strong run at goal pace. During the Thursday marathon pace runs, I knew that I could run strong at my goal pace and have two days of "regular" runs before I was faced with running the longest run on Sunday. On Monday after the long run, I could choose to run at either the faster or slower end of my pace range, based on how I felt, knowing that I would have to come back for a speed workout the next day. In other words, I felt more like I was training "week by week" rather than "day by day." In this way, even the occasional "bad days" didn't feel so bad, comprising only 1/6 of my training week.

Will It Work for You?

I can answer that question with a wholehearted MAYBE! If you are already training successfully at higher mileage and intensity, you probably would not want to take a step back, unless you were burning out and wanted to ease up a bit. I'd even go so far as to postulate that the advanced plan + 10% or +20% distributed evenly over the six workouts might make a good training schedule for those training in the 60-70 miles per week range, but, as I have never run at that level, don't take my word for it. If you currently train in the 50-60 mile per week range for your marathons, I'd say give it a try for a training cycle. It might be a good change of pace and may help you arrive at the starting line fresher. If you are a first time marathoner and you are ready to train in the 50-60 miles per week range, I'd say to do what I did and start putting together three- and four-day-in-a-row easy, regular runs in order to see how you handle it for a month or two. If it feels good, I'd say the plan could certainly prepare you for a strong first marathon if you follow the plan the way it is set out. If you feel you can't run everyday, I'd say to pick a plan that factors in rest days rather than this one.

Best of luck to all of you, and to me as well! I'll post my result after my goal race, successful or not.

Posted: November 25, 2009

See you after December 20, 2009!

The Result: December 20, 2009
It was a perfect day for a marathon, 50 degrees and overcast and not as windy as it can be at this time of year in Taipei. I did not waste the opportunity.


Yes, it was a good day and I even exceeded my own expectations, but I will continue to stress that my success did not occur on race day, but instead in the months that led up to it. If you want to read more about my race day experience, you can click here: Taipei Marathon Race Report.

OK, now it's your turn!

Posted December 21, 2009