Background to the 3 Running Days a Week Marathon Training Program

The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) marathon program was born when Bill Pierce and Scott Murr decided to enter a few triathlons in the mid 1980s. Just one problem: They hit the wall when they added biking and swimming to their running. The demands of the three-sport training were too much, so they cut back their running from six days a week to four.

To their surprise they didn’t slow down in local road races. So they cut back to three days of running. “Lo and behold, our 10-K, half-marathon and marathon times didn’t suffer at all” says Pierce. “The more we discussed this – and we discussed it a lot – the more we became convinced that a three day program, with some cross-training, was enough to maintain our running fitness.”
Pierce, chair of Furman’s Health and Exercise Science Department, has run 31 marathons, with a best of 2:44:50. At 55, he still manages to knock out 3:10 every fall by practicing what he preaches: running three workouts a week. While Pierce has retired from triathlons, Murr, 42, with a doctorate in exercise physiology, still wants to complete another Hawaii Ironman, having already done five. He has run a 2:46 marathon, also on three training runs a week.

Pierce and Murr’s discussions, and personal successes, amounted to little more than that until early 2003 when Pierce got university permission to form FIRST. “It helped,” he notes with a smile “that I ask for any funding.” By that time, he had assembled a team of four FIRST co-founders, including Murr, Furman exercise physiologist Ray Moss, Ph.D, and former Greenville Track Club president Mickey McCauley.

In the fall of 2003, FIRST launched its training program. Applicants were told they would have to undergo pre and post program physiological testing in Furman’s Human Performance Lab, and run three very specific running workouts each week. There were no restrictions on additional running or cross-training workouts, and there was no “final exam” test race.
The post-program lab tests showed that subjects had improved their running economy by two percent, their maximal oxygen uptake by 4.8 percent and their lactate-threshold running pace by 4.4 percent. In other words, the three workouts had led to better fitness and race potential. FIRST was off and running.

Fast forward to summer 2004. FIRST advertised a free marathon training program that would last 16 weeks and culminate with the Kiawah Island Marathon on December 11. To enter the program you had to be able to run 10 miles. All participants had to agree to lab testing, and promise not to run more than three days a week. In other words, this time the program came with a clear running restriction. Partially as a counterbalance, participants were encouraged to do two additional days of cross-training, such as cycling, strength training, rowing or elliptical training.

From about 50 applicants FIRST selected 25 subjects (17 with past marathon experience, eight first-timers), including engineers, accountants, managers, administrators, sales representatives, teachers, a nurse, an attorney and a physician. They began training in August with individualized workouts that Pierce calculated from the lab testing and a questionnaire. Each participant ran just three days a week, doing one long run, one tempo run and one speed workout. They trained on their own, in their own neighbourhoods, according to their own daily/weekly schedules.

To adapt the program for you, click on these links to see the training schedule and strategies.

In December, 23 of the original 25 ran at Kiawah. One had dropped out of the program because her house flooded, and one because of injury. “I had expected that we would lose at least five runners to injuries,” says Pierce, “so I was very happy with this outcome. It seemed to prove that our workouts, which were harder than most of the runners were accustomed to, didn’t lead to a rash of injuries.”

Two participants dropped down to the half marathon, because they had developed minor injuries during training, but recovered in time to attempt the shorter distance. Both finished the half marathon with good performances.
That left 21 FIRST marathoners on the starting line. How did they do? All 21 finished, with 15 setting personal bests. Four of the six who didn’t set PRs ran faster that their most recent marathon. “It was so exhilarating to watch them come in, and it was quiet a relief too,” says Pierce. “When you’re responsible for 21 people who cut back their marathon training because you told them to, well, that can make you a little nervous.”

What’s more, as post-race lab testing showed, the FIRST participants had improved their maximal oxygen uptake by an average of 4.2 percent and their lactate threshold running speed by 2.3 percent. Bonus: They also reduced their body fat by an average of 8.7 percent. “We think the results show that our program was a big success,” says Pierce. “Our people didn’t get hurt, and most ran their best-ever marathon. I think we showed that you can teach people to train more efficiently.”
Click on the following links to see the training schedule and strategies.