[133] Review: FIRST training program

Swim: 0 m/112,725 m

Bike: 12.9/1,323.8 miles

Run: 3.5/606.2 miles

Now that I’ve made it through an entire training cycle and PR’d my half-marathon, I’ll share some of my thoughts on the training plan I used to get here. The FIRST (Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training) program was featured a few years back in Runner’s World, and touted some impressive results from runners who used the plan to train for a marathon. While I focused on a shorter race, I trained by the same principles – in fact, the book includes training plans for all of the common race distances from 5k to the marathon.

Background: The FIRST plan focuses on three quality runs per week, plus two days of cross-training. The idea is that you push yourself hard during the three key workouts – a speed session, a tempo run and a long run – and then recover on the non-running days. The two days of cross-training mean you’re still building cardiovascular endurance but you’re not over-taxing the running-specific muscles that are getting hammered during the run workouts. This plan seems perfect for triathletes who have to train in three sports, which is why it sparked my interest earlier this year. When I was in the middle of tri training I wasn’t running more than three times a week, anyway, so this plan merely offered structure to my existing workouts. It gave me specific distances and time goals to hit, and when I found myself hitting those marks easily I just adjusted my goal time and, therefore, my target workout paces.

Speed work: I did my first few sessions at the local track, but within a few weeks the oppressive heat of the summer chased me to the gym treadmill. I found myself returning to the gym each week, even as the weather cooled, because I liked the pace control that the treadmill offered and because it was easier to maintain consistency from week to week since I didn’t need to worry about the weather or any other external factors. Because treadmill running is generally easier than outdoor running, I would increase the prescribed pace by several seconds for each interval. The workouts changed every week, which was a great way to keep things interesting and challenging. The intervals generally became longer as the season progressed, and even though the sessions grew harder, I found I was able to complete them all as prescribed.

Tempo runs: These were some of the most fun workouts, and I saw steady improvement throughout the cycle. There were several different tempo runs, but they cycled every three or four weeks so I could measure my performance improvements. My first 5-mile tempo was run at a 7:04 pace, and my final 5-miler was completed at a 6:34 pace. In a 7-mile workout that included two 2-mile tempo segments, I went from 6:30 and 6:29 paces in the first workout to 5:59 and 6:08 in the last.  In a 6-mile workout with a 3-mile tempo segment, I improved from a 6:42 pace the first time to 6:25 at the end. Looking back at my results over the training cycle, I improved in every workout, never regressing to a slower time as the weeks passed.

Long runs: My long runs saw a similar pattern. Unlike the tempo runs, I never ran the same course twice for a long run so it’s difficult to compare workouts. But, even though I was thrilled to hit a 7:37 pace on my first 8-mile long run of the cycle, I ran a more difficult 8-miler on the last week of the cycle at a 6:45 pace. My paces were steadily faster almost every week, even as the distance increased. Along the way I ran my fastest long run ever – 15 miles at a 7:08 pace – and my first double-digit run at a sub-7 pace (10.3 miles at 6:56).

Following the plan: With maybe two or three exceptions, I completed every workout as dictated (I missed a couple shorter workouts because of illness, but completed all of the long runs). I also got in at least two cross-training sessions each week, sometimes many more. I never found any workout more than I could handle, and made sure to hold up my end of the bargain my bringing my strongest work to each session.

Results: It’s hard to argue with the results – I got faster every week and ended up setting an 11-minute PR in my goal race. I never got injured, and, despite running only three times a week, I kept my mileage in the mid- to upper-20s for the duration of the cycle, which seemed appropriate for a race of this distance. I never felt burnout from overtraining – I think the three runs per week fits my schedule well and I was excited to get out and tackle each workout. And these were tough workouts – no matter if it was a 5-mile speed session, a 7-mile tempo or a 15-mile long run, I was spent at the end of each session and thankful for a day or two of no running afterward.

It should be noted that I started the plan in mid-July and finished in mid-November, so the falling temperatures over the course of the 18 weeks probably played a role in my continued performance gains. Putting in the hard work in the heat of summer paid off when the cooler weather arrived.

Of course, as with any training plan, you need to find what works for you. This plan fit my needs and my schedule, and I came into the plan with a solid running base from my triathlon training during the first half of the year. Other runners might feel the need to run more days or include recovery runs into their schedule. But, given the results of my experience with the FIRST plan, I’m happy to recommend it as a viable alternative to traditional training plans.

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