Pros and Cons of the Grete Waitz Marathon Training Plan

Cover of Grete Waitz' book, Run Your First Marathon.

Whether you’re running your first marathon or looking to improve over your last one, it usually helps to follow a training plan of some kind. But there are tons of training plans out there, and they vary wildly in quality.

Which one should you choose?

Today, I’m going to look at the marathon training plan in Grete Waitz’ book, Run Your First Marathon: Everything You Need to Know To Reach the Finish Line. Note that I read the second edition of the book, but I don’t think anything has changed substantially with the third edition.

Who’s Grete Waitz?

Grete Waitz was a world class runner from Norway. Early in her career, she ran shorter events on the track. But she transitioned to the marathon in the late 1970’s, and she was a dominant force in the women’s running scene throughout the 1980’s.

She won her first New York City Marathon in 1978, and she went on to win that marathon another eight times. She also won London (twice) and the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, and she won silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics marathon.

Grete was the first women to run a marathon in under 2 hours 30 minutes, and she set the world record four times. Her last record, set at London in 1983, was 2:25:28. As impressive as that is, the record stood for one day – before being beat by Joan Benoit the next day at Boston in 2:22:43.

Clearly, she knew what she was doing in the marathon. But her book is not aimed at helping others shatter records. Throughout the book, she describes helping first timers tackle the marathon, and that’s the target audience here.

About the Book: Run Your First Marathon

Any time you follow a marathon training plan that comes from a book, you should make sure to read the book itself. Run Your First Marathon is no different. The plan gives you a simple roadmap, but the book itself is full of valuable information.

It’s a short read – clocking in at under 200 pages. It covers all of the usual topics, including the training itself, what to expect on race day, dealing with chafing, and other such things. It also mixes in personal stories and anecdotes throughout the book to balance things out.

There is a particular focus on pacing yourself, and this theme is recurrent throughout the book. A great reminder for first time marathoners!

It offers some good insights into how you should train – especially for your first marathon – without getting bogged down in the science and specifics. This is a big difference compared to more advanced books (like Jack Daniels Running Formula or Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning), but it’s appropriate for the target audience.

Overview of the Grete Waitz Training Plan

There are two training plans in the book. The first is more of a “pre” training plan to help you transition if you are very out of shape. I’ll be focusing on the main training plan, which assumes you can do a bare modicum of running before starting.

Who Is this Training Plan For?

As the title suggests, the book is written for first time marathoners. The training plan is designed with them in mind. This training plan will help you tackle your first marathon, whether you’re a weekend warrior used to 5ks or someone who has never run much in their life.

This training plan is not for someone who is looking to improve their times significantly over previous marathons. It could be useful for someone who is not running their first marathon, but was terribly unprepared for their previous races.

Before you start the plan, you should be comfortable running – or run/walking – three miles at a time. If you’re not at that point, you can start with the basic fitness plan that starts with walking and progresses to running, before you dive into the actual marathon training.

How Long Is the Plan?

As written, the plan is 16 weeks long. However, it is quite flexible.

Grete suggests that you may want to start 18 or 20 weeks before your race. That way, you can repeat a couple weeks if you have time, to get some additional training in. Or, you can skip a week or two if life happens.

Overall, it’s quite a flexible plan, and so you should plan to commit at least 16 weeks – but you can decide exactly how long to train for.

How Much Do You Run With This Plan?

Throughout the plan, you run four days per week.

This starts with a modest 14 miles per week in the first week. Three days are 3 miles and the long run is 5.

Things slowly progress from there. There are a few cutback weeks included, and the peak mileage is 40 miles per week. In week 14, the plan prescribes 40 miles – 2 days at 6 miles, 1 day at 8 miles, and 1 day at 20 miles.

Later in the plan, this can be a hefty time commitment for some of the weekday runs. In the last four weeks, those weekday runs are 6+ miles. If it’s your first marathon, and you’re not particularly fast, this could take you well over an hour to finish. Keep this in mind as you consider if this fits your morning routine.

How Flexible Is the Plan?

Whether this is good or bad depends on your preference. But the plan is very flexible.

It does not indicate specific days to run specific distances. It simply lists four distances per week, and it’s up to you to schedule when those runs occur.

Typically, the long run will be on the weekend and the shorter runs will be on the weekdays. Your advised to only run one to two days in a row, giving yourself plenty of time for recovery. But it’s ultimately up to you, whether you run MWFSa or TThFSu. And there’s no reason you can’t mix and match weeks, juggling things as they come up.

It is not flexible on the number of runs per week, though. Although you could adjust things yourself, I don’t think Grete makes any mention of spreading things out over five runs per week instead of four runs.

How Much Speedwork Is In the Plan?

There is no speedwork of any kind included in the plan. So you don’t have to worry about tempo runs, intervals, or sprinting.

The focus is strictly on putting in the time on your feet, logging the miles, and getting used to running for 2+ hours.

This keeps things simple, as specific workouts and paces can be a source of confusion for beginners. But it may also heighten the monotony of the plan.

How Well Does Trail Running Fit In?

I’m a big fan of trail running, and I like to work it into my routine. Grete suggests you spend some of your weekday runs on the trails. One of the benefits of having no speedwork is that it makes little difference whether you run on the trails, the road, or a track.

However, she does suggest that you make sure some of your runs are on the roads – and as you approach the marathon more of your runs should be. You want your body to be used to the pounding of the pavement, and you don’t want race day to be a shock.

Will This Plan Prepare You For Your Marathon?

At the end of the day, if your goal is to finish your marathon, then this plan will get you there. It slowly builds up mileage in a pretty sustainable way. It doesn’t push you too hard, and it recommends incorporating walking breaks throughout.

As long as you follow the totality of Grete’s advice – to take things easy, pace yourself, and stay within your limits – you should do fine. There are stories throughout the book of people who used this plan successfully, and there’s no reason it can’t work for you.

To summarize, some pros of the Grete Waitz marathon plan are:

  • It is simply to read and implement, focusing exclusively on distance.
  • It builds slowly in the beginning, and increases in a sustainable way.
  • It emphasizes time on feet, and the long weekday runs will help your endurance
  • It gives you permission to walk/run, an important concession for beginners.
  • The plan is very flexible, and you can fit it to your own life and schedule.

But you should also consider some of these cons to see if it’s right for you:

  • Flexibility isn’t great for people that want clear cut instructions to follow.
  • Lack of race pace running may make it hard to pace accordingly on race day.
  • Weeks 11-14 are tough. If you can, take her advice to repeat some of those weeks.
  • It’s debatable whether 20 miles is really necessary, and if you don’t take things easy you may push too far.

Ultimately, though, if you are a beginner this is a great plan to use. Make sure you get the book, read it, and plan ahead so that you can reach the finish line at your first marathon.

If you’ve used the plan yourself, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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