Pros and Cons of a Hal Higdon Marathon Training Plan

So you’ve been bitten by the bug, and you’re thinking about running a marathon, huh?

26.2 miles is a long way. You’re going to need to commit some serious time to training for that, and you should definitely follow some expert advice on how to structure that training.

Luckily, there are plenty of marathon training plans out there. Some are geared towards advanced runners looking to run fast times. Others are geared towards beginners and intermediate runners, who are more interested in finishing than finishing fast.

If you’re considering a Hal Higdon marathon training plan, you’re probably in the latter group. Hal is immensely popular, and many runners have followed his advice to run a half or a full marathon.

So what’s so great about this plan? And what are the drawbacks? Let’s break it down.

Where Can I Learn About a Hal Higdon Marathon Training Plan?

Marathon, the Ultimate Training Guide by Hal Higdon. Book cover.

Hal Higdon is a runner and a running coach. In his younger days, he was a pretty impressive marathoner himself. His best marathon time was 2:21:55 – still an impressive time today, although no longer considered elite. He achieved that time at Boston in 1964, where he finished in fifth place.

Hal also comes from an earlier era than most other popular running coaches. He and Jack Daniels were contemporaries, but they were running long before Pfitz and the Hanson brothers. In the years since his own running career, Hal has transitioned to a coach for the masses. He has written a series of training plans to help novice runners and intermediate runners reach their goals.

His training philosophy, advice, and plans have been distilled over the years into a book – with the fifth edition of Marathon, Revised and Updated being the most recent. This edition was released in 2020. As always, you should read the book if you plan to follow the plans.

The book is geared towards beginners. Much of it is about the power and wonder of the marathon – including its origin story. You won’t find a lot of exercise science here, although there is some discussion of how best to train. He also explores topics like diet and recovery.

What Makes Hal Higdon’s Training Plans So Special?

With many options out their for marathon training plans, there are probably two things that set Hal Higdon apart. First, the simplicity and approachability of the plans. Second, the emphasis on the long run.

Hal’s plans are simple, and they are designed to be accessible for true beginners. If you can run three or four miles, you can start his beginner plan. The more experience you have with running, the better you’ll be able to handle the training – and the increase in mileage. But this is a plan that a beginner can start after a few months.

He also doesn’t place much emphasis on workouts. The plans are focused on mileage, which makes them very simple to follow. The advanced plans do incorporate some simple tempo runs and intervals, but you don’t have to worry about complex workouts with specific pace or heart rate targets.

As for the long run, Hal places more emphasis here than most others. Jack Daniels and the Hanson Brothers both take a more conservative approach to the long run, limiting beginning runners in how far they run. Hal goes all out, taking true beginners to 20 miles in training and challenging intermediate runners to tackle the distance multiple times.

Overview of the Hal Higdon Marathon Training Plan Options

Within the book, there are actually seven different marathon training plans – with varying degrees of difficulty. Six of them are located in the last chapter (“Programs,”) while the seventh is in the previous chapter about qualifying for Boston. All of them are 18 weeks long.

Marathon: Novice 1. This is the true beginner plan. You run four days a week and cross train (i.e. cycle) for a fifth. In the first week, you’re running 3 miles during the week and 6 in your long run. But this will progress to a single 20 miler – the capstone of the training plan. It won’t be easy – but it is approachable and doable if you stay consistent. There’s no speedwork to worry about, just miles.

Marathon: Novice 2. This is still a beginner plan, but it assumes that you have a little more running experience under your belt. The first week includes a 5 mile midweek run and an 8 mile long run, and the long runs progress more quickly. You’ll still only hit 20 miles once, but you’ll hit 16, 17, 18, and 19 along the way. Still no speedwork, but you’ll exceed 30 miles per week through the middle of the plan.

Marathon: Intermediate 1. The intermediate plans are better suited for someone who’s already completed a marathon, or at least a couple halfs. In this plan, you run five days and cross train for a sixth. You start out at 24 miles per week, with an 8 mile long run. But you’ll peak over 40 miles per week, and hit 20 miles twice. You also start to incorporate some simple tempo runs at race pace.

Marathon: Intermediate 2. This is the same basic structure as the previous plan. But the mileage starts higher, and you hit 20 miles three times in the second half of the plan. You’re still peaking in the 40’s, but your long runs ramp up fster.

Marathon: Advanced 1. In the advanced plan, the day of cross training is swapped out for a sixth day of running. There’s also a workout during the week, alternating between intervals, hills, and a tempo run. So this is a bit more complicated, but it will help boost your speed. With this plan, you’ll exceed 50 miles at the peak.

Marathon: Advanced 2. In this plan, you still run six days per week, but Tuesdays and Thursdays are both workouts. Again, you’ll peak between 50 and 60 miles. This plan requires a strong base of running, but if you can put in the miles and the workouts you’ll be well prepared.

Sample Week from a Hal Higdon Marathon Plan

To give you an idea of what a week in Hal’s training plan looks like, here’s Week 10 from the Novice 2 plan. The novice plans are by far the most popular.

  • Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: 3 miles
  • Wednesday: 7 miles
  • Thursday: 4 miles
  • Friday: Rest
  • Saturday: 15 miles
  • Sunday: 60 minutes cross training

Notice that there’s no paces or workouts prescribed. Again, it’s very simple, and it’s focused on helping you build up your mileage over time. The two rest days give you enough time to recover, and the sixth day spent cross training helps reduce some of the stress from all the running.

Hal doesn’t offer any advice about flexibility, but you can probably move things around without worrying too much – especially in the beginner and intermediate plans. The advanced plans are a bit full, so it gets more complicated.

The Pros of a Hal Higdon Plan

Hal Higdon’s marathon training plans are very popular. He claims in the book to have helped a half million people run a marathon. That’s got to say something.

So what’s great about Hal’s training plans? Here are some of the highlights.

  • They are simple. If you’re using a beginner or intermediate plan, you don’t have to worry about knowing anything about running. You don’t need to track your heart rate, hit a specific pace, or remember a set workout. Just get out there and run. It’s about as simple as it gets.
  • They are approachable. While the 20 mile long run later on is daunting, the first week is very approachable. If you’ve been running for a few months, you should have no problem with the first couple weeks of the training plans.
  • Weekday demands are light. You get multiple days off, and most weekday runs are pretty short. Later on, the Wednesday run can get over an hour. But you don’t need to worry about committing too much time during the busy workweek.
  • You can easily integrate trails. Because there are no programmed workouts, you can basically do any of your runs on a trail. You may not want to do that for your weekend long run, because it will take longer. But a weekday run on a trail is an amazing way to start your morning, if you have one that’s convenient to your home.
  • It’s popular, and you’ll find others doing it. If you frequent running communities, you’ll see and hear many people talking about Hal Higdon. There are plenty of people who can give you advice or commiserate about your experience. You most definitely won’t feel alone.
  • There’s an integrated app. There’s a mobile app, Run with Hal, that lets you directly track your runs. I prefer the old fashioned training log myself, but this does make things simpler and more streamlined.

The Cons of a Hal Higdon Plan

But Hal’s plans aren’t for everybody. Depending on your goals, they may not be sufficient. And their approachability may hide just how difficult they are.

  • Over-emphasis on the long run. If you’re a true beginner, and it takes you 3.5 to 4 hours to run 20 miles, it’s debatable whether that’s actually a wise way to train. If you take it super easy, you’ll be ok. But pushing yourself too far is a surefire way to get injured before your race. Even the advanced plans place a lot of emphasis on the long run, where it might be better placed on the weekday workouts.
  • Lack of balance. Overall, the mileage in the beginner plans are relatively low. It may seem like a lot if you’re just starting out, but an 18 mile run in week 13 of the Novice 2 plan is 50% of your weekly mileage. That’s a lot, especially as this lopsidedness isn’t a one time thing. Again, there’s a very real chance you’ll injure yourself if you push too hard.
  • No speedwork. Yes, the lack of speedwork makes the plan simple and approachable. But it limits the possibilities. This may be ok for a beginner who’s more interested in finishing than in how fast they finish. But if you have aspirations to finish in a certain time, you’ll want to spend some more time building your base and then using a move advanced plan. The Advanced I is probably the first plan that will do a legitimately decent job of preparing you to run a specific time, assuming you pick an appropriate goal.

Hal Higdon Marathon Training Plans: The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, many people use a Hal Higdon marathon training plan to prepare for their race. So while they aren’t perfect, they do work.

If you’re a beginner, and you’re looking to cross the finish line for the first time, the Beginner I and II plans are good for you. Just know that the long runs are challenging, and make sure you take them easy. It’s very important that you recover, and that you don’t push yourself too hard.

Another option, if you’re a beginner, is a Grete Waitz marathon training plan. It’s very similar to Hal’s beginner plan, but in my opinion her book is a quicker, easier, and more useful read.

If it’s not your first rodeo, and you’re not ready to graduate to a more challenging plan, then the Intermediate plans are a good option. They will challenge you, and they will introduce a bit of harder work. But they’re still pretty accessible. It’s a good bridge to more advanced training.

If you’re an advanced runner, putting in 50-60 miles per week, then the Advanced I and II plans are an ok option for you. But at that point, you may want to consider an alternative – whether it’s Pfitz, Daniels, or Hansons. The Hansons marathon plans actually have a comparable structure to the Advanced II plan, but there’s much greater balance when it comes to the long run.

At the advanced level, you would also benefit from reading a book that covers exercise science and training philosophy in more depth – like Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, Jack Daniels Running Formula, or Hansons Marathon Method.

But if you’re sticking with Hal, make sure you get a copy of Marathon: Revised and Updated.

Have you used one of Hal’s plans? Which one? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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