Choosing a Marathon Training Plan: Which One Is Best For You?

The marathon is a beast of a race.

You can wing it through a 5k if you’re in decent shape. You cannot wing it through a marathon. Or at least you won’t have a very enjoyable time if you try.

This is kind of event that demands a well thought out training plan and schedule. If you just go about things in a haphazard way, you run the chance of a) getting injured before the race or b) showing up unprepared for the race.

But how do you pick which plan you should use? There are a lot of options out there, and many of them are good in one way or another.

I’ve read just about every book about marathon training on the market, and I’ve tried a few plans myself. Where I haven’t tried them myself, I’ve heard feedback from plenty of other runners who have.

So let me help guide you through the process of picking the best marathon training plan for your specific situation. Answer the questions below, take a look at the list of options, and then read through to the end for some tips on which plans are best for which situations.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There are many good marathon training plans out there – but not every plan is right for every runner. So the first thing you should do is take account of where you are in your running journey and what you’re looking for in a plan.

Here are a few questions you should be able to answer before looking for a training plan:

  1. Would you consider yourself a novice, intermediate, or advanced runner?
  2. Is this your first marathon?
  3. Is your goal to finish – or to finish in a specific time?
  4. In the last three months, how many days per week have you typically run?
  5. In the last three months, how many miles per week have you typically run?
  6. In the last year, how many miles per week have you typically run?
  7. Do you have time to run for more than an hour on some weekday mornings?
  8. Do you prefer to do fewer, longer runs or more, shorter runs?
  9. Do you (or would you like to) spend a lot of time running on trails?
  10. Do you want a plan that spells everything out in detail – or do you prefer one with lots of flexibility?

A Brief Overview of the Plans

Here’s a quick overview of some of the popular marathon training plans out there. I’ll share a brief overview, the book the plan comes from, a link to an in depth article on the plan, and some thoughts on who the plan would be good for.

Grete Waitz Marathon Training Plan

Grete Waitz shares a basic marathon training plan in her book Run Your First Marathon: Everything You Need to Know to Reach the Finish Line.

She won New York City Marathon multiple times, and she set the world record for the marathon. As the title would suggest, her book is geared towards beginners. The plan is a basic outline of how to build your mileage slowly but surely and how to approach running your first marathon.

This is a good choice for true beginners with little to no running experience. Follow the advice, be patient, and you’ll get to the finish line. But this is definitely not the right choice if you’re concerned about a specific goal time.

Read more about the Grete Waitz marathon training plan here.

Hal Higdon Marathon Training Plan

Hal Higdon shares several marathon training plans in his book, Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide.

Hal’s plans run the gamut from beginner plans to more advanced plans, depending on your experience and goals. However, he is most popular among beginners who are running their first or second marathon. Among that audience, he’s probably the most popular option.

His plans place a big emphasis on the long run, and one critique of his plans is that they are a bit lopsided with that over emphasis. But if you have a limited amount of time during the week and you’re looking to prepare for a first marathon, these are a good option.

If you have a goal time in mind, one of the other training plans is probably more appropriate than his advanced plans – but they’re not bad if you’re a fan of Higdon.

Real more about Hal Higdon marathon trainings plans here.

Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Marathon Training Plans

Matt Fitzgerald has a beginner, intermediate, and advanced training plans in his book, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower.

His beginner plan is good for someone who has at least a few months of running under their belt, but they are otherwise new to longer distances. At the other end of the spectrum, his advanced plan is geared towards experienced marathoners who are ready to train 10+ hours per week.

The plans are solid, and they offer a good balance between training hard and recovering well. The big problem, though, is that they are very confusing to follow. If you can make sense of his system, it’s a good choice. But if you’re looking for simplicity there are other options out there.

Read more about Matt Fitzgerald and 80/20 marathon training plans here.

Pierce and Murr FIRST Marathon Training Plans

Bill Pierce and Scott Murr of the Furman Institute for Running and Scientific Training offer a variety of training plans in their book, Run Less Run Faster: Become a Faster, Stronger Runner with the Revolutionary 3-Runs-a-Week Training Program.

It does what it says on the tin – mostly. The appeal of these plans is that you only run three days a week – a long run, a temp run, and some intervals. This makes it a great choice for people with a limited amount of time to train. Although the plan does require you to put in some additional time cross training twice a week – so you’re really working out five times a week.

These are a good choice for triathletes who would otherwise spend a lot of time cross training, and they quite possibly could help you get over the hump to a specific time if you’re already in decent shape.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the plans, though. I firmly believe that volume is king, and that the only path to long term success is to run more miles. Prioritizing intensity will net you some short term gains, but it can short circuit your long term success.

That being said, some people swear by the plan. If you’re short on time or you want to limit your running – but you still want to run a fast marathon – check out this book.

Hanson’s Marathon Method Training Plans

Luke Humphrey and the Hanson brothers have a beginner and an advanced plan in their book, Hanson Marathon Method.

What makes the Hanson marathon plans unique is that they limit the long runs to 16 miles. They place more emphasis on overall mileage and midweek workouts.

The beginner plan is too advanced for a true beginner, but it’s a good choice for someone going for their second or third marathon and looking to step things up. The advanced plan is a good option for serious marathoners, but be aware that it isn’t a high volume plan. This makes it inappropriate for very serious runners who are running 80, 90 or more miles per week.

Read more about Hanson marathon training plans here.

Pfitz and Douglas Marathon Training Plans

Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas have a variety of marathon training plans in their book, Advanced Marathoning.

The plans, often referred to simply as “Pfitz” plans, range from 12 to 18 weeks and cover a wide spectrum of weekly mileages. None of them are beginner plans, and anyone attempting a Pfitz plan should already have a solid base of running under their feet and consider themselves a fairly serious runner.

The lower level plans have a moderate amount of mileage, and they’re a good choice for someone attempting their first solid marathon with a time goal. But as runners get more advanced, they can up the mileage and push their limits. These are a great option for all but the most advanced runners.

Pfitz places a large emphasis on the long run, and he also includes fine levels of detail in his plans. There is less flexibility, but less is left up to you as the runner to figure out.

You can read more about Pfitz marathon training plans here.

Jack Daniels 2Q Marathon Training Plans

Jack Daniels offers many different marathon training plans in his book, Daniels' Running Formula.

The most popular of these plans is the 2Q – or 2 quality workout – plan. It offers a flexible framework, with 2 long workouts per week and a total number of weekly miles. You can then fill in the rest of the details yourself. It’s a great choice if you desire maximum flexibility, but it’s not great if you want a cookie cutter plan to follow.

His plans range from a moderate 40 miles per week to over 100 miles per week. They are very demanding, and at comparable mileage they are more intense than Pfitz plans. If you’re comfortable at a given mileage, these are a great option to push you to the next level. But if you’re reaching a new volume for the first time, they may be too much.

There are also other types of plans in the book, and there are options for sub-elite runners putting in well over 100 miles per week. Read the book, and you’ll likely find an option that fits your needs and desires.

You can read more about Jack Daniels 2Q marathon training plans here.

There are a lot of choices to make when picking a marathon training plan!

Choosing a Plan

Now that you’ve got a good idea of what is out there and you’ve taken a personal inventory of what you’re looking for in a plan – which is the best marathon training plan for you?

Depending on how you answered the questions above, here are some suggestions on which way to go.

Whichever plan you do choose, make sure you buy the book that goes along with it. Some plans are more complicated than others, but in every case the offer lends some insight into how to follow the plan and approach your training.

Trying to follow a training plan you printed off the internet – without reading the underlying philosophy – is a surefire way to short-circuit your training.

First Timers With No Running Experience

Stick with Grete Waitz or Hal Higdon.

The advantage to Grete is that she’s builds up really slowly, and she has a great philosophy for first timers – hurry slowly. Her plans are probably the best choice for someone looking to go straight couch to marathon and who has no ambitions as far as time goes. She’s also great for someone who doesn’t really consider themselves a runner – but who really wants to complete a marathon.

Hal offers a few beginner options that are still very approachable but will give you a little more preparation. His plans are popular with beginners for a reason. So if this is your first marathon and you have a little running experience – but not much – give Hal a try.

Experienced Runner Moving Up in the World

If this is your first marathon – but not your first rodeo – I’d suggest either Hansons or Pfitz. Pick a plan that’s in line with your current peak mileage, which is probably the Hanson’s beginner plan or the lower level Pfitz plans. These plans are challenging, and as long as you plan conservatively they’ll get you in shape to try and reach a specific time.

If you aren’t yet running 30+ miles per week, the intermediate plan in 80/20 running might be a better choice. It’s more approachable than Pfitz or Hansons, and you can grow into the marathon. The plan is a bit confusing, but if you take the time to translate his workouts into a simple spreadsheet it isn’t really that complicated.

Pushing Into High Mileage for the First Time

So you’ve run a few marathons, but you’re looking to bump up the mileage. That’s a great way to reach your potential.

Try Pfitz 18/70 or Pfitz 18/85 – depending on where you’re already at. The 18 week plan ramps up more slowly than the 12 week plan. At the same time, Pfitz is both demanding enough to whip you into shape and gentle enough not to break you down.

The other decent option is the advanced plan in 80/20 running. It’s a lot of running – 10+ hours at its peak – and it will get you used to high mileage. Again, just take your time to read the book, understand it, and map out the plan onto a calendar so that it all makes sense to you.

Comfortable at High Mileage

Are you already comfortably running 70-80 miles per week, and you’re just looking to bear down and perfect your marathon?

Go with Jack Daniels. His 2Q plan is demanding (see this post for a comparison with Pfitz), but if you have the base to survive it you will come out the other side in the best shape of your life.

And for the true mileage monsters, there are some other really interesting options in the book. He probably has the most to offer someone running 100+ mpw. Of course, at that point you may already have a coach designing your plans and workouts for you.

You Want Flexibility in Scheduling

When it comes to flexibility, nothing beats Jack Daniels 2Q. He gives you two workouts – one for the weekend and one for the weekday – and you just pencil in the rest. If you need to run 40 easy miles, you can decide how many runs to split them over and how many to do each day.

Just pick a level of mileage that’s appropriate for your ability. The 55mpw plan should good for an experienced runner with a decent base. Only bump up to the 70mpw or higher plan if you’ve already prepared for a marathon at that mileage before.

You Can Only Run Three Days a Week

I mean it’s in the name, right? This one’s pretty obvious.

If your time is limited and you can only run three days a week, go with the FIRST training plan. Just understand that this will work better if you’ve already built a base of mileage in the past.

This much intensity can be a good way to sharpen your speed – it just won’t be a good way to build your capacity for long term improvement.

Your Weekday Time is Limited

If you rarely have more than an hour to spend running during the week, you can pretty much forget about Pfitz and Jack Daniels. They both have hard, long runs during the week.

Instead, you should consider the plans from 80/20 running or one of the Hansons plans. They both spread out the miles over more runs, and they limit the length of most of the weekday sessions. You still might have to stretch a day to 90 minutes, but it’s not as bad as doing 2+ hours on a Thursday morning.

Which Marathon Training Plan Did You Pick?

Now that you’ve had a chance to weigh your options, which marathon training plan did you decide was the best for you?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Let us know what your thought process was – and after the race come back and let us know how you did!

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