Marathon Training Plan Showdown (Rundown?)

A key mantra when preparing for a marathon is “trust in the training.” But for those of us dedicating 4-6 months of our lives to said training, how are we to know which programs are worthy of our trust? This is a question that applies to both newbies and seasoned veterans alike – asking both “where to start” and “where to go from here.”

Please note that this analysis is based solely off of my own experience. Therefore, the plans that I will be comparing are plans that I have actually used (Higdon and Pfitzinger). My hope is to provide those searching for a training plan with a synthesized outline of the plans that I have used – the good, the bad, and the ugly. 
HIGDON ADVANCED I
The Basics
  • 18 week training plan
  • Peaks at 55 miles per week
  • One rest day per week
  • Total training miles = Approximately 750
  • Longest midweek run = 10 miles
  • Recommended base mileage to start = approximately 31(depending upon interpretation of mileage for first hill workout)
The Good

Higdon plans (especially Higdon’s novice and intermediate plans) are great for runners who are training to finish a marathon or to start incorporating speed work into their training programs. Higdon’s advanced plan incorporates higher mileage and speed work than the novice and intermediate plans, which I think is great for anyone who has already ran at least one marathon and is looking to take their training to the next level. Higdon’s plans are also less intimidating than many of the others (possibly because he maintains days with minimal mileage throughout the training cycle). 
Higdon is also good for those who don’t like rest days (he only incorporates one per week at the advanced level). The plan moves in three-week cycles, with two weeks of higher mileage with a cut-back in mileage every third week. The speed work varies between tempo runs, hills, and intervals, which also keeps things interesting. The mileage is spread out in such a way that the day before the long run is half the distance of the long run, which amounts to much of the mileage being stacked at the end of the week (and the long run being run on somewhat tired legs). This is especially the case during the weeks in which “pace” runs (meaning, runs at goal race pace) are stacked the day before the long run (see week 15, with a 10 mile run at pace the day before a 20 mile long run – yikes!)

The Bad

One rest day per week can be viewed as either good or bad depending on the runner. Also, the Higdon plans may not be challenging enough for those who are truly looking to drop substantial amounts of time off of their PRs. 

The Ugly

As stated above, I find the most challenging part of the plan the medium-long run/ long run placed back-to-back. Combined with the fact, that there is only one rest day per week, there are quite a few days following the long run without rest. Week 15 is by far the peak in difficulty of this plan. 
PFITZINGER 18/55

The Basics
  • 18 week training plan
  • Peaks at 55 miles per week
  • Two rest days per week
  • Total training miles = Approximately 805
  • Longest midweek run = 14 miles
  • Recommended base mileage to start = Week 1 of plan starts at 33 miles
The Good

Pfitzinger utilizes mesocycles throughout, meaning that training is broken up into four phases. The first six weeks are focused on building endurance (with the sixth week being a recovery week). The next five weeks are focused on both lactate threshold and endurance, which incorporates more speed workouts (both tempo and intervals), with the fourth week being a recovery week. The next four weeks are dedicated to race preparation, which focuses on shorter, faster intervals as well as “tune-up” races. The final three weeks are taper, which cuts back the mileage while still maintaining some shorter speed work.

Again, while a matter of preference, Pfitzinger incorporates two full days dedicated to rest or cross-training. 

The Bad

With two rest days and high average weekly mileage – the daily mileage can be pretty high, especially during the peak weeks of marathon training. For those with busy schedules, this may make it more difficult to squeeze in the weekday training runs. Pftizinger’s plans can also be quite intimidating, especially for a runner who is newer to speed work.
The Ugly
Pfitzinger’s plan incorporates a number of tune-up races (8k-15k race with additional warm-up and cool down) on Saturdays, with the long run on Sunday. This means that some long runs will be run on extremely fatigued legs. There is also far more speed work in Pfitzinger’s plans than Higdon’s.

CONCLUSION

In sum, each plan has positives and negatives, depending upon your personal life circumstances, race goals, and preferences. For me, I have found that my body reacts better to higher-mileage with more rest days. I have also found the Pfitzinger plan to be more challenging, but I also believe that it left me better prepared. However, I note this with the caveat that I waited until my third marathon to attempt Pfitzinger’s plan and was therefore a more experienced runner than I was when I was training with Higdon’s.

What is your favorite marathon training plan? Do you loathe or love rest days? Do you run marathons, or do you prefer other distances (or do you just run for fun and avoid racing completely)?