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Tabloid Training
Run a qualifying marathon - training only 3 days a week!

Tabloid Training

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By Chris Russell
Posted Wednesday, 25 January, 2006

No it's not a late night info-mercial for the latest fitness program. Nor have I sunk to the depths of yellow journalism. There's actually some truth to this one. We did it and you can too.

I'm going to pass one my personal experience with the 'train 3 days a week' program. My running buddy, (we'll refer to him as 'Ted'), and I both used a 3-day a week program this fall to qualify. I'll attempt to give a practitioner's rendition of the pros and cons of it. I'll talk about what we would do differently and how effective it was.

As always, this is free advice and worth every penny! Be warned that neither of us followed the proscribed plan religiously. We changed it to suit ourselves, but I think there are some inferences that while not scientifically rigorous are still valid.

We both started in the same place. That place would be needing to train but feeling old, tired and broken. I was still recovering from my car crash last year and Ted was coming back from a hip fracture. Both of us were fairly afraid of piling on the miles for a fall marathon campaign. Setting forth on a 6 day a week, high mileage program would be about as effective as throwing ourselves down a long flight of stairs. Guaranteed to pull or break something.

In the early summer we read this article about the 3-day-a-week program in that famous running magazine. I won't name names, but this particular publication recently changed its format from a "runner's" magazine to what I would describe as the "Glamour Magazine" of the sport. They've bulked up on multi-page glossy national advertising and changed to what I believe to be a 3 point font. I can't be sure, because the scanning electron microscope I was using to read it is on the fritz.

Did I miss something? Do we really need Viagra ads? As runners we have lots of issues, but I don't think poor circulation is one of them… But, hey, it's a business. If they have to make a devil's compact with pharmaceutical companies and make me squint to take a profit, I say 'more power to them". Besides, I graduated from prep school with the owner of the publishing company and we alumni have to stick together, (omnibus lucet!)

Returning from rant to narrative…Ted and I both read the article and decided to give it a try. The concept is not that different from any quality marathon training plans we would have run in our youth. We would always focus on 3 quality workouts a week. Speed, Tempo and Long. (If you need refresher on what these terms mean, reference some of the handy training plans and associated articles on Cool Running)

This is, and always has been, the recipe for anyone who wants to dramatically improve their times from the 10k on up. You have to spend some time in your 'discomfort zone'. It's valid for competitive runners like Ted as well as broken down plow horses like me. Just piling on more slow miles doesn't improve your finish time. It will give you the distance, but won't help your time.

We had always worked on a 12-16 week marathon plan built around speed, tempo and long. Our traditional plans also had another 20 -30 miles of 'easy' or 'recovery' base mileage as well. The theory was that you needed a base of miles to build your quality workouts on top of. For me as an amateur mid-packer this meant running 6 days a week. The common perception was that this base mileage was the minimum ante to get into the game.

We've all heard stories about the elite marathoners training 120 or more miles a week for their peak performance. The more miles the better, right? More miles make you stronger, right? I guess if you're a 25 year old elite it's all good, but for me, especially since I turned 40, more miles means more injuries and I'm constantly trying to find the line where I get enough to make my time but don't make the cranky tendons angry.

Even when I was younger I noticed that by the end of a hard training program I would be in great shape but something was always sore. I could hit my qualifying time with ease, but I couldn't stand up out of a chair without wincing. It was the old "no pain, no gain" game.

The difference with the 3-day a week program is, (obviously), you only run 3 days a week. That's it. You only run the hard stuff. No easy mileage or recovery runs, just quality workouts.

Before I tell you whether I think it works or not I have to explain the fine print. You still have to work out 6 times a week. It won't work if you just do the running, you have to do some sort of quality aerobic cross training on 2-3 other days. Ted and I mostly did swimming.

The other fine print is that your long runs have to be pretty fast. You can't amble along at a snail's pace. You have to stay within 30 seconds of your goal pace, and that can be a challenge. Essentially your long run becomes another long tempo workout.

An example week might be a swim M-W-F and run T-TH-S. (and on the seventh day he rested)

  • Monday - 30 minutes of laps in the pool
  • Tuesday - speed workout
  • Wednesday - 30 minutes of laps in the pool
  • Thursday - Tempo workout
  • Friday - 30 minutes of laps in the pool
  • Saturday or Sunday - Long run at 15-30 seconds slower than race pace.

Like all good marathon programs it runs in 3 week waves of increasing difficulty and is capped with a 2 week taper.

This is the plan that was in the magazine:

Week TuesdaySpeed ThursdayTempo SaturdayLong
1 4 X 400 3 10
2 8 X 400 3 10
3 4 X1200 5 12
4 6 X 800 7 13
5 3 X 1600 3 10
6 10 X 400 5 14
7 5 X 1200 5 15
8 7 X 800 8 17
9 3 X 1600 10 13
10 12 X 400 3 18
11 8 X 800 5 15
12 4 X 1600 8 20
13 12 X 400 5 15
14 6 X 1200 5 20
15 7 X 800 4 15
16 3 X 1600 8 10
17 5 X 50 Sec 20 minutes easy
18 26.2

What were the results you ask? Actually the results were pretty good. I made my qualifying time and Ted ran his best marathon in 10 years. It is definitely a valid training plan. Like I said before, our results are not 100% valid because neither of us followed the plan religiously.

I jumped into the plan at the 6th week and swapped some of the longer tempo runs for shorter races. I was in pretty good shape already from triathlon training. Ted only followed the last 5 weeks of the program and also swapped out some of the workouts with races.

What worked? What worked very well was how healthy we felt. We not only stayed injury free but we felt great with no aches and pains. Swapping the recovery runs with cross training is amazingly synergistic and holistic for your body. Psychologically it keeps you from getting burnt out on running. It also gives you more flexibility to move workouts around. If you miss a day, you can make it up without screwing up the whole plan.

What didn't work? Ted and I both felt that the pacing and the distances for the speed work were too easy in the program. I did the math the way they instructed and felt like I was running my speed work 10-30 seconds per mile too slow. (Of course I didn't complain at the time) We both felt the speed work was too short. The marathon isn't a track meet and you'd be better served working up to 1600's as quickly as possible and staying at that distance. It hurts more, but you're not going to get as much aerobic benefit from 400's late in a marathon plan.

We also thought the long runs could peak out a little higher than 20. That really left me without much juice at the end of the race. Ted actually snuck in a 30 miler one week and I ended up running two warm-up marathons. You're cutting it close with the long runs that they have in the plan. If you run into weather or some other problem you won't have much of a reserve to make up for it. (I guess that might just be the old "more miles is better" syndrome manifesting from our subconscious.)

We would also recommend swapping out a few of the tempo runs for races. That's what we did. It will allow you to get out and test yourself and still get a good workout in. I'll take a 5 mile race over an 8 mile tempo run any day.

Most importantly, I think the biggest drawback is that you never get to 'just go for a run'. It made my dog very depressed that I was hitting the track and the treadmill instead of heading out into the woods for a fun run with him.

That's our story and we're sticking to it. I'm going to use this as the base for my run up to Boston this year. It's very clean and efficient. Only running 3 days a week keeps this Clydesdale from pulling up lame.

See you out there!

If you have any comments about the contents of this article, we invite you to post them in our Point of Viewforum .

Cool Running Note:
Chris has just finished writing his first book. The Mid-Packer’s Lament is a series of short stories on long distance running, racing and the human comedy inherent in all sports enthusiasts, but prevalent in the mid-pack. This is a book for runners and wannabe runners. There are stories about training, eating, special places and special races. There are stories about the accidental athlete in all of us and the stupid things we do for even amateur endeavors. Whether you are a weekend mid-pack runner or a competitive club runner, you’ll find something thought provoking and amusing that you can relate to in the Mid-Packer’s Lament. Cool Running encourages you to buy the book. It can be ordered directly from



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