Hansons' Marathon Method and Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning -- the two aspects of marathon training

On the message boards at RunningAhead, there have been a ton of recent threads about the new Hanson's Marathon Method, most of them comparing it with Pfitz' "old reliable" Advanced Marathoning. One of the smartest posters on the board (the guy solves Rubik's Cubes while marathoning) bhearn put together a comparison of the different marathon approaches that is truly excellent. If you are looking to get more intelligent about your marathon training, bhearn's summary of the similarities and differences in these two fundamentally sound approaches wouldn't be the worst place to start.

The most interesting aspect of bhearn's analysis is his comparison of the total mileage done at various intensities in the two plans over the course of a training cycle. He breaks it down in terms of the classic physiological moments of VO2max, Lactic Threshold, and MP (sometimes called Aerobic Threshold.) I am stealing his chart and pasting it below:

VO2max 2817.25
race (8-15k) 0~18
LT 4231
MP 12044

Looking at the plan from this perspective, it's easy to see that the Hanson's method emphasizes specificity in training. While the "radical" approach of the Hanson's is to de-emphasize the long run (it is commonly said that Hanson's limit the long run to 16 miles, though this is a bit of a misconception), we can see that the purpose of that de-emphasis is to get more work in at one's GOAL MARATHON PACE. In many ways, Hanson's is more similar to a 5k training plan, where you simply try to maximize your overall training volume while also doing a lot of specific work at 5k pace. The goals are two: 1) to become as fit as possible and 2) to master a certain pace.

Pfitzinger has a more "traditional" approach, as he makes the MARATHON DISTANCE the primary specific target of training. This approach seems  at first blush to make more sense, as for most marathoners running goal marathon pace is relatively easy while the distance is what is most intimidating. But really such an approach flies in the face of most ordinary distance training, with its focus on the two goals above. By emphasizing the long run, you are de-emphasizing the general work of fitness and the specific work of pace.

But the quandary of every distance event is equally about pace and distance, and I think this is what the comparison of the two plans really brings forward.  The true difficulty of marathon training is that it is almost impossible to be prepared for both distance and pace. The length of the race becomes a challenge in itself, which multiplies the problem of training. Not only do you have to get yourself fit enough to run a certain pace a certain distance, you need to also be strong enough to simply tolerate the distance.

This "multiplication" of training creates a bind. You can take a Hanson's approach and emphasize a lot of overall volume at marathon pace. But doing so means sacrificing the longest runs that get you comfortable with the duration of the event. Or, you can follow Pfitzinger and work on making 20 mile runs comfortable -- but doing so means forgoing in large part the specific focus on sustained moderate running that is what you will be doing when racing the marathon.

Unless you are training at 100+ mpw and are basically an elite or sub-elite runner, it's impossible to do both of the crucial things that have to be done in marathon training adequately. You have to choose: long runs OR high volumes of moderate MP running. The differences between Hansons and Pfitz reflect this choice.

Which plan is "the right one" -- as always, this depends on the context and background of the runner. If you've been using one approach for a while, you are probably best switching to the other, as a new stimulus -- all things being equal -- is better than an old stimulus. But hopefully what the two plans show us, and what bhearn's excellent analysis highlights, is that good marathon training oscillates between preparing for the duration of the race and the intensity of the race. Trying to find this right balance without cooking ourselves in training is what keeps us coming back to the marathon, over and over again.

The answer, as always, is found out on the roads, hopefully with friends and perhaps a coach. And if we screw up the proper balance, well, that's a good excuse to get out there once more, but this time smarter!


  1. That was interesting - thanks Jeff!

  2. Nice summary. I'm doing Hansons for Boston this spring, looking forward to seeing how it all works out.

  3. Hansons plan does address the long run concept: the cumulative fatigue. I am doing the Hansons plan in prep for LA marathon and I am at the 14-15-16 longest run section. While there are no 20-milers as in Pfitzinger's plan, the Sunday 14-16 milers are preceded by runs of

    7-10 miles at marathon pace on Thursdays,
    8-10 miles moderately easy pace on Friday, AND
    8-10 miles at moderately easy pace on Saturday.

    Do the 14 milers twice, 15 milers twice, and 16 milers twice, each of the six Sundays preceded by the Thursday - Saturday miles. The purpose is to not have the 20 milers totally dominate the schedule. But those 16 milers are not easy by any stretch.

    Pfitzinger's plan usually slightly tapers down in mileage before the long runs and has an easy or off day after.

    I can attest the cumulative fatigue is really there when you are still 30-40% tired from 8 miles at marathon pace on Thursday, 7 miles on Friday, and 8 miles on Saturday, and then having to do 14-16 miles. It's like training for the second half of the marathon with that amount of fatigue, but without all of the physical pounding dispensed in one day.

  4. I disagree - I am training now with Hanson's and can't say yet how effective it is for me - but after reading the book twice I do think I understand the philosophy. You will be prepared for the distance. Think of a runner who runs 4 miles every day. Will they be prepared for a 10K race, if they only run 3 days that week? Of course. They won't have any problem. the total weekly mileage is less! its just consolidated.

    P.S. my last marathon, I did a 4-day a week approach and my long runs were 18-22 miles at marathon pace every weekend for 6 weeks before tapering. My weekly mileage got up to 40. I was very comfortable with the distance. I think it's totally possible to prepare marathon on low mileage via focusing on the long runs. I am trying Hanson's for this next race because all the physiology and philosophy resonates with me. I want to give it a shot. but if I don't like it, I will go back to what I did before. Worked well.

    1. Wow, 18-22 mile runs at MP, running a marathon on 4 days of running and 40 mpw...

      I think any plan would be better than this. :)

      Good luck with your experiment with Hansons and with more emphasis on weekly mileage. I certainly think that is a better choice than your last plan (though I don't think your last plan was Pfitz.)

      I'm not sure what exactly you are disagreeing with in my post -- I was trying to describe a certain tension in marathon training between volume and specific work. The only way that tension can be resolved is by training one's self to truly be prepared for the marathon distance, which to my mind takes years and sustained training of 100+ mpw. For the rest of us, training will always be a matter of dealing with this tension the best we can, rather than resolving it.

  5. I'm focused on exactly this issue now. I ran Hanson's method for a recent half and it was very effective. I had been in a marathon training rut so I needed to focus on speed. But the balance you speak of wasn't really necessary for the half--in fact, I kind of cheated and added additional mileage to the Sunday runs (not much). So it was about 50 MPW. So the question is whether I can hold my speed and switch back to Pfitz (which will have the long runs aplenty) or stick with Hansons and focus on speed and total volume.

  6. Someone Should do a chart using Jack Daniels Vdot Intensity training table and compare the points per week in each plan. That would be a better comparison vs poorly defined Zones. One of the weaknesses of pfitz is poor definition of target paces.

  7. I've always found the idea of 'marathon pace' a strange one. What you are capable of, will rise & fall depending on the strength & endurance you gradually gain in your training build-up.

    But most people seem to choose a random pace they WANT to run a marathon at & regard that as their 'marathon pace' even if they cant sustain it over any decent distance. I've always found that strange & prefer to do runs at either easy, steady or hard & if I really want to know that I am being objective about those terms, I use my heart rate to determine which of those paces I am running at based upon past experience & keep a note of heart rate versus perceived effort to keep that equation up to date.

    As the plan progresses, I get fitter, my 'marathon pace' increases, until a month or so before, I am at a pace which I know is 'right' & I then go for that.

  8. I couldn't agree with this comment more and I think it's easily in the top 3 mistakes marathoners make.

    I'll have runners signup to work with me as a coach and they're 3:30 or 3:20 marathoners wanting to run 3:10 to qualify for Boston, which is great. But, when I assign them workouts at marathon pace they ask "how am I supposed to run 3:10 if my MP workouts are not at 3:10 pace"

    They don't understand that marathon pace is your aerobic threshold and if your physiological fitness level is 3:20 for the marathon, than 7:40 pace is your aerobic threshold. Running 7:15 pace turns this workout into a high end threshold run rather than an aerobic threshold run. You can't change your physiological realities.

    I wrote pretty in-depth on this topic here: http://runnersconnect.net/coach-corner/marathon-training-set-realistic-marathon-goal-time/. Jeff, I hope you don't mind the link, but I think it's a good further explanation of this concept.


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