I had one thing on my running mind when the calendar flipped to 2018: The wall. (NO! Not that wall…) The wall that runner’s dread, that point in a race where what was free and easy is becomes a death march. Steady strides become an agonizing shuffle. The race to meet a goal transforms into a race to simply survive. I was determined not to hit the wall.
Though I had previous marathon experience, my first and only attempt before last year had been in 2016, when my own naiveté had me training with a plan that did enough to instill confidence that I could cover all 26.2 miles, but not much else. To get myself to a place where I could challenge for the audacious goals I had set for myself I needed to be toughened up, my mind and body made ready to blast through the moments where I would inevitably asked the question: Can you do this? Under a plan that would have me perpetually feeling like I was running at the end of a race, rather than at the beginning, I had hope that instead of hitting the wall, I would bust through, the Kool Aid Man on a marathon course. Oh yeah!
I knew I needed a plan that emphasized both distance AND speed during training, the speed element sometimes lacking in plans that are tailored to runners just hoping to finish a marathon, but not necessarily at a fast clip. I knew I benefitted immensely from interval training. I knew I struggled with and needed to master tempo runs. I loved running long, my 20+ mile runs being one of the few highlights from my 2016 training. I found what I was looking for in the Hanson brothers.
Kevin and Keith Hanson are best known in the running world for being Desi Linden’s coaches when she won Boston last year. They have been around long before that, largely misunderstood as the “short” long run guys. The phrase reflects a deep misunderstanding of their approach to marathon training. Yes, their prescribed long runs are shorter than what most plans dole out, but their training is as hard as any I have undertaken, it is based on sound scientific theory, and it gets results.
When I first read the theory behind the Hansons approach to training, several elements of the plan stood out to me:
- Running six days a week: This is not a Hansons exclusive. I have seen several plans over the years that dictate running six or even seven days a week, but these have often been in plans pitched to advanced runners. The Hansons dish out running six days a week even to their beginners. Of course, beginner here is a loose term. If you are tackling the marathon for the first time, I would not recommend the beginner plan to you. The intensity is ratcheted way up from other plans I have seen. Had I attempted running the Hansons way as a younger runner I think I would have been turned off to running, so intense are the demands. In Hansons terminology beginners have previous racing experience in marathons or shorter races and are usually looking to race a marathon to meet a challenging time goal (there is a Just Finish program in the book, Hansons Marathon Method for brand new marathoners with less running experience). So why run six days a week? It is important to build consistency. Consistency is the key to reaping the rewards of hard marathon training. In previous years when I ran four or five days a week it was easy to put off a run here, reschedule a run there. The result was training that was all over the place, which likely held me back. Running six days a week demands dedication and, while it is sometimes psychologically draining, I found it turned training into a regimented practice for the first time in my running career.
- Three key (Something of Substance or SOS) workouts: Again, this is not exclusive to Hansons. I came into last year with experience running intervals and tempo runs. Many marathon training plans, however, emphasize the distance and not the intensity needed truly race a marathon. The Hansons provide that intensity. Speed work is run weekly early in the program, helping the runner to build the strength needed to run longer, hard workouts later in the program. This speed work always adds up to three miles, but with recoveries, warm ups, and cool downs, the workout can total up to nine miles. Speed eventually gives way to what are called strength workouts, which double the mileage of speed workouts though they are run at a slower pace (still fast though at 10 seconds per mile faster than planned marathon pace). Again, with recoveries and the warm up and cool down, the overall mileage for a single workout can get up there, topping out at 11 miles. Tempo work is run at marathon race pace, with the longest workouts reaching 13 miles when the warm up and cool down are included. When people focus on the “short” long run, which I will touch on in a minute, they ignore the demands from the entire week of training. A hard week in the later stages of training sees a strength workout and tempo workout total 24 miles combined before you ever get into the rest of the week’s mileage. The long run does not need to be long but running long at higher intensity has already been achieved.
- The “short” long run: Long runs are the third SOS workout you do in a week. While they are shorter than a typical program prescribes (many programs have a runner attempting multiple 20+ mile runs), and you only run a true long run every other week, they come at the end of a week that is already high in mileage. The result, as the Hansons brothers are known to say, is that running one of their long runs is “not like running the first 16 miles of a marathon, but the last 16 miles!” This is critical in the program design. The Hansons plan focuses on building what is called cumulative fatigue, where the body is continually stressed and never really allowed to fully recover until the taper. This may seem Draconian, and it does mean that you spend a large chunk of the training cycle tired, but it is really building the sort of fitness needed to break through the dreaded wall. Workouts are not the test for runners, the races are. Hitting a workout feeling fresh may feel good and encouraging, but is likely doing nothing to prepare you for the rigors of breaking through the wall late in a race when the body needs to know how to run on tired legs. Trust me, runng 16 miles at the end of a typical Hansons week is done on tired legs. Now I will add a word of caution here: pushing to fatigue for the sake of it is not smart training and will lead to burnout and injury. The Hansons don’t run you into the ground. I found that the plan took me to the edge of my abilities, but never pushed me over the line. I followed a plan that met me where I was in terms of fitness. I had experience running tempo runs and intervals. I had run 40-50 miles a week the previous year. I felt that the beginner Hansons plan was right at the level that would push me but not break me. If I had decided to try to run 100 mile weeks instead, I would have broken down.
- Active recovery with easy runs that simultaneously build a mileage base: This really is where the six days of training a week come in. Each week consisted of three SOS workouts and three easy runs. The easy runs brought two benefits. First, they served as active recovery for my weary legs. So long as the easy runs were run at a true easy pace, at times for me this meant up to two minutes over my planned race pace, my legs enjoyed the benefits of having extra blood circulated through the tired tissues, which brought with it healing agents, while avoiding the microscopic muscular damage that running at a faster pace brings. This speeded my recovery. These easy days also helped establish a larger base of weekly mileage. In the beginner program I topped out at 57 miles in weeks of overall running. These easy runs, though not fast, built bone density, grew additional mitochondria, spurred tendon and muscle development, and helped build endurance. The formula of these runs plus the SOS runs paid dividends on race day.
How I ran the Hansons way in 2018
For both the Cleveland and Columbus Marathons I ran using the beginner programs. Again, beginner is a misnomer here and I was pushed to my limit training for both races. At the easiest, once training began in earnest, I bottomed out at 38 miles in a week and topped out at 57 miles in a week. Speed week built from 400m intervals run at approximately 5k pace to 1200m. Strength runs ran through a pyramid structure, starting at 6 x 1 mile and building up to 2 x 3 mile runs, before descending back down again to 6 x 1 mile. Tempo runs run through three-week cycles, starting with a block of running a five-mile tempo once a week for three weeks, then jumping to a three-week block of running eight miles, then a three week block of nine miles, then a three week block of ten miles. For variety, I occasionally ran my long runs as hills runs, choosing to run most of the second half of those runs uphill to further challenge my fatigued legs. That decision paid dividends when I was able to tackle several small but challenging late-race uphill stretches during the Cleveland Marathon.
Largely I followed the structure and timing of the plan. The six day a week schedule makes moving workouts around challenging anyway. Race training in northeast Ohio during late winter/early spring can be hectic though. There were times when I had to rearrange my schedule to fit runs in when the weather would allow. I avoid, at all costs, running on a treadmill because I hate it. This does not mean I take unwise chances running in icy conditions or in dangerously cold weather. What it did mean was that if any tweaks had to be made, I tried to make sure easy runs were done inside and hard runs done outside. I avoided, at all costs, putting two SOS workouts back to back. The body just cannot recover fast enough to safely handle that much intensity over two days. I knew I would be risking injury if I tried. When concerns like that arose, I would rearrange not one, but two weeks of my running schedule to fit everything in. By being flexible, I was able to run almost every workout I was supposed to.
The results speak for themselves. I nailed two PRs, two BQs, and finished just three seconds away from gaining entry into this year’s Boston Marathon. Cramping and a bout of late-race nausea in Columbus held me back, and they are concerns I will have to address. However, a lack of fitness never caused me to hit the wall I so feared.
Pushing it forward in 2019
Sitting in my office are two dry erase boards filled with what every day of the next 16+ weeks will look like. It is my running calendar for the next four months, my plan for breaking three hours in the marathon. I am sticking with the Hansons plan and will be for the foreseeable future in my marathoning and half marathoning. I am that happy with the results. I have pushed on to the advanced plan and, barring some sort of injury setback, it will carry me through to race day.
The advanced plan follows the same basic outline as the beginner program. Mileage does not increase that much: where the beginner program peaked at 57 miles the advanced program peaks at 63. However, the increase in total mileage is significant. The beginner program sees five weeks that go 50+ miles. The advanced program more than doubles that to 11. Intensity begins earlier too. Speed and tempo work does not begin until Week 6 in the beginner program while it begins in Week 2 with the advanced plan with tempo work beginning the week after. The result is a plan that asks for more mileage and more high-intensity mileage, further steeling your legs against the demands of racing 26.2 miles.
I have also added some small tweaks to some of the SOS workouts. The hill runs will remain. They really did make a difference in the late stages of my races last year and I am hesitant to remove that training stimulus. Plus, I just love the course I run for those workouts. Training is supposed to be fun after all. I have, however, decreased the number of hill runs and added in a few fast-finish long runs. A main mental component of my training this year is reinforcing my race plan during training. Where I have jumped into my race pace early in recent races, I want to hold back something in the early stages of my races this year, and then turn on the afterburners later. Fast-finish long runs seem like a smart way to do that. I have also added a few tempo-hill sandwich runs. Mario Fraioli first published this workout in Competitor Magazine several years back and it quickly became a favorite workout of mine. The link describes the workout, so I won’t waste time going into detail here. What I will say is that the workout combines two workouts into one, challenging multiple systems and recruiting a wide variety of muscle fibers. It is a workout that is long, with its multiple breaks, and truly difficult as the second half of your day’s tempo run is completed after two sets of challenging hill sprints. While exhausting, it is a workout that leaves you feeling confident when you finish that last mile. I really felt I improved on my ability to run workouts at tempo pace last year and I am hoping this small tweak to a few tempo workouts seasoned in over the next several months will provide just a little more of an edge.
For information on the Hansons marathon training method check out these resources:
- Marathoning the Hansons Way This was my first exposure to the Hansons, read in a long ago edition of Runner’s World
- Hansons Marathon Method: Run Your Fastest Marathon the Hansons Way The source itself. This book covers in detail the intricacies of training the Hansons way, the physiological adaptations that occur when you follow the program, and the science that supports their approach to training
I will check back in after the Cleveland Marathon to report on how all this goes. Until then, happy running.