Pfitz Marathon Training Plans Explained: Everything You Need to Know

Pfitz marathon training plans are a popular option among serious runners.

They are challenging, and they’ll help you get to the next level. But they’re also scaled to various levels. So you can pick a plan that matches up with your current level of experience.

The plans are not a good choice for beginners. But the base plan – 18/55 – is a great choice for someone first dipping their toes in the waters of ‘advanced running.’ Meanwhile, the higher mileage plans can challenge even the most experienced runners.

Following a Pfitz plan involves more than simply running the miles and checking off the boxes. His plans include various workouts, and he offers specific prescriptions for pace and effort.

In this article, I’ll try to summarize what you need to know and answer the most common questions. But if you haven’t, you should absolutely purchase a copy of Advanced Marathoning. In the book, Pfitz lays out the plans and many additional pearls of wisdom.

Think of this as your quick reference guide. But the book is your training bible.

So let me say it again: Buy the Book.

Is a Pete Pfitzinger Marathon Training Plan Right for Me?

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not this is the right plan to follow, check out this article on the pros and cons of a Pfitz plan and this article on how to pick the best marathon training plan.

But the short version is that Pfitz training plans are a good choice for serious athletes who already have several seasons of running under their belt. If you’re an experienced runner, you can follow Pfitz for your first marathon – but it’s definitely not a plan for a true beginner.

The plans are quite detailed, and they are a great choice for someone who wants to set it and forget. They’re not so good if you want to have the flexibility to rearrange your training around work, life, and other priorities. Be prepared for long runs on the weekends and medium long runs during the week.

A more flexible option for advanced runners is the Jack Daniels 2Q. A better plan for less experienced runners is the one from 80/20 Running.

How Long Are Pfitz Marathon Training Plans?

The Pfitz plans come in two varieties – 12 weeks and 18 weeks.

18 weeks is the standard length. If you see someone mention the 18/55 or 18/70 plan, they are referring to the 18 week versions of those plans.

The standard 18 week plan is designed to build your mileage over the first five or six weeks, hold peak mileage over the next eight or nine weeks, and then taper off before the race.

By spreading things out, you’ve got more time to ramp up in the beginning. This is especially important if you haven’t been regularly running at or near the peak mileage. This holds true both for people venturing into new mileage territories and for people returning from a break.

But the longer plan also provides more benefits from higher mileage. It takes weeks of sustained mileage to reap benefits – and the 18 week plans ensure that you get plenty of time at or near peak mileage.

The 12 week plans are compressed versions of the 18 week plans. They include the same general structure of workouts and mileage. But they ramp up more quickly and peak briefly before tapering off.

Twelve week plans are a good choice for runners who maintain their mileage year round. You need to be prepared to progress to peak mileage in a few short weeks, and you’re not going to stay there long.

This can work out well for the runner who trains at a high level all the time and just wants to pivot briefly towards the marathon. But it’s not going to work well if you’re a seasonal runner, yo-yoing between training hard and sleeping in.

What Is the Peak Mileage in Pfitz Plans?

Peak mileage in Pfitz plans ranges from 55 miles per week to 105 miles per week. There are four levels fo peak mileage in the book.

The base level is 18/55 or 12/55. These plans peak at or around 55 miles per week. This is the closest thing to a ‘beginner’ plan that Pfitz has. It’s a good option for someone who has a history of running, but is moving up to the marathon for the first time.

The next tier is 18/70 or 12/70. These plans peak at or around 70 miles per week. This is a step up, but it’s not crazy high mileage. This is probably the most recommended plan for advanced runners, and the mileage is a good base to begin to excel at the marathon. It’s a good balance between demands and accessibility.

The next tier is 18/85 or 12/85. These plans peak at or around 85 miles per week. This is for serious runners who have already completed one or two cycles at 70 miles and want to kick it up a notch. It’s high mileage, and it’ll test your limits. Be prepared to put in the time with this one.

Beyond that is the 18/105 or 12/105 plans. These plans peak above 100 miles per week. Few runners will make it to this level, but those who do – and those who stay healthy – will reap the benefits. If you think long term, you can get to this level over the course of a few years and really max out your potential.

When Am I Ready to Start a Pfitz Plan?

There’s the ‘official’ answer – and then there’s the smart answer.

According to Pfitz, “you should be able to complete the first week of the schedule without too much effort.” He goes on to add that you should have completed a long run equal to the longest run of the first week in the last month. Finally, you should regularly be running 25, 45, 55, or 70 miles per week – depending on which of the four tiers you are following.

The idea behind the schedules isn’t to make you as tired as possible as soon as possible but to apply repeated training stress that you absorb and benefit from.

Pete Pfitzinger, Advanced Marathoning, “Before You Start the Schedules”

Frankly, I think that sets the bar kind of low.

The 18/55 plan starts with 33 miles and a Sunday long run of 12 miles. It also includes an 8 mile tempo run, with 4 miles run at effort.

If that’s your baseline, you are not ready for this plan.

Personally, I’d say you’re ready to start this plan if:

  • You’re comfortably running 75-80% of the peak mileage
  • You’re regularly running a 2+ hour long run
  • You’re either comfortable doing workouts at that volume or you’ve put in higher volume with strictly easy running

Take, for example the 18/55 plan. If you can comfortably run 40-45 miles per week with a long run, you’re probably ok. I’d be more confident, though, if you’d done that mileage including some intensity. If you’re just base building, you should be comfortable at 45-50 miles of strictly easy mileage.

For 18/70, you should have a baseline of 55-60. For 18/85, you should have a baseline of 65 to 70. For 18/105, you should have a baseline of 80+.

Maybe I’m conservative here. But what’s the rush?

You’ve got your entire life ahead of you to run – and you’re better off advancing a little more slowly than rushing into things and getting injured along the way.

A child building a tower with colorful blocks. Mesocycles are the building blocks of training, and the early cycles lay a foundation for later success.

What’s a Mesocycle?

In the book, Pfitz lays out his theory of periodization. He breaks the plans down into five mesocycles – or phases. These phases are like building blocks. The early ones lay the foundation for your later success.

The first mesocycle, endurance, is focused on building up your mileage and establishing a baseline of endurance. The mileage increases, and the workouts are lighter (compared to later in the plan).

The second mesocycle, lactate threshold plus endurance, puts an emphasis on the threshold workouts. This phase starts to hone down the base you’re building. The threshold workouts get longer, and you’re focused on grinding out the ability to run long at effort.

The third mesocycle, race preparation, focuses more on sharpening your speed. The workout focus shifts from threshold to VO2 max. On the weekends, there are two tune up races.

The fourth cycle, taper and race, is your last three weeks of preparation. The hay is in the barn, the miles come down, and your focus is on getting to the start line fresh and ready.

The fifth cycle, recovery, comes after the marathon. Pfitz includes a five week recovery plan that outlines your return to running after the race. It’s important to plan for your recovery before you launch into any future training.

What Kinds of Runs Does Pfitz Include In His Plans?

In the plans, Pfitz will refer to the following kinds of runs or activities.

The Easy Days

Rest or Cross Training. The plans typically include one to two days of either rest or cross training. Two days of rest is too much, and you should definitely incorporate some kind of cross training. The book includes a whole section on this, but the simplest suggestions are cycling (indoor being the easiest) and swimming. The goal is to get some additional cardio in without putting more stress on the body.

Recovery. Recovery days are meant to be easy, and they’re scheduled after hard efforts. Run slowly, and when in doubt, run more slowly. The goal isn’t to push the pace at all.

General Aerobic. These are your bread and butter easy runs. They’re not as slow as recovery runs, and you can push the pace a bit. But they’re not hard either. More on the intensity level later.

The Workouts

Strides. Some general aerobic runs are paired with ‘speed’ in the form of 10x100m strides. These strides aren’t full on sprints, but they’re an opportunity to open things up and run fast. 10x100m implies that you should do these on a track, but I find it’s easy enough to tack them on to an easy run and just count off 30-35 paces.

VO2 Max. These are the fastest workouts you’ll do, and they’re later in the plan as you sharpen up for race day. The goal is to improve your speed, and milk a little improvement out of all the miles you’ve put in. These are intervals, anywhere from 600m to 1200m, at or around 5k race pace. If you don’t have a track available, you can scale things to time and run at pace for 3-5 minutes.

Lactate Threshold. These are the most common workouts in the plan. They’re longer runs, with significant portions at tempo. For example, one workout is 10 miles with 5 miles at 15k to half marathon pace. These are mentally tough, and the trick is to dial in the right pace. Too hard, and you’ll peter out before the end.

The Long Days

Medium Long Run. These are typically scheduled during the week, although the lower mileage plans include some medium long runs on Sundays. They are around 2 hours, give or take, and you should push the pace a little here.

Long Run. These are your weekly long runs. Expect to be out well over two hours, and the distance can get up to 20+ miles. Pfitz is a plan of the long run, and he is not afraid to prescribe 21 or 22 mile runs. As with the medium long run, push the pace a bit.

Marathon Pace Run. These are long runs with significant portions at your goal marathon pace. These are both confidence builders and reality checks. If they go well, you know you’re on track. But if you can’t hold your marathon pace (or close to it), you might want to rethink things. These can be tough, and again the trick is to make sure you’re pacing them appropriately. Getting greedy is a recipe for disaster.

How Fast Should You Run Your Easy Runs?

The fad on the Internet these days is Zone 2 runs – keep your easy days easy, and keep your hard days hard. That’s not how Uncle Pfitz looks at things.

Your general aerobic runs should be easy, and they should be done in the aerobic zone. But you should not be constantly looking at your watch to make sure your heart rate is barely elevated, and you shouldn’t be shuffling along at a slow pace.

Your aerobic zone is much larger than people often think. The ventilatory threshold – where you start to transition from aerobic to anaerobic – is the pace you an hold for two to three hours. It’s close to your marathon pace. There’s a lot of room between an easy shuffle and a marathon paced run.

Specifically, Pfitz recommends the following:

  • If you’re using paces to guide your training, your general aerobic pace should be about 15% to 25% slower than your marathon pace.
  • If you’re using heart rate to guide your training, your effort should be around 70% to 81% of maximum heart rate or 62% to 75% of heart rate reserve.

Let’s say your goal is to run a 3:15 marathon. That’s a marathon pace of around 7:26. Round it to 7:30 for easy math.

7:30 per mile is 450 seconds. 15% is an extra 67.5 seconds and 25% is an extra 112.5 seconds. So your easy pace should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 8:30 to 9:15 (rounding things off to clean numbers).

Your recovery days might be slower, but you should be pushing the pace slightly on your general aerobic runs. I usually start at the slow end to warm up, and I find myself at the high end by the end of the run.

How Fast Should You Run Your Long Runs?

Again, you’ll find a lot of advice on the Internet to run your long runs slow. That makes sense if you’re a first time marathoner, and you’re trying to progress from 10 miles per week to 40.

But with a Pfitz plan, you’re used to the distance. You’re learning to run it fast.

You shouldn’t push your long runs all the way to your marathon pace – with the exception of the designated marathon pace runs. But you should push the pace a bit beyond that of a regular general aerobic run.

Specifically, Pfitz recommends the following:

  • If you’re using pace to guide your training, aim for 10% to 20% slower than your marathon pace.
  • If you’re using heart rate to guide your training, aim for 65% to 78% of your max heart rate or 74% to 84% of your heart rate reserve.

Again, let’s take the example of a 3:15 marathoner (7:30 pace, or 450 seconds per mile). 10% is about 45 seconds slower and 20% is about one minute and 30 seconds slower.

So a long run should be somewhere between 9:00 and 8:15. Not that much faster than general aerobic, but slightly faster.

And again, it makes sense to start out on the slower end and speed up as you go. I usually take the first few miles slow (possibly outside the range) to warm up, hit the high end of the range for the remainder of the first half, and then move into the lower end of the range for the second half of the run.

A group of runners running on a track. With a Pfitz marathon training plan, you don't necessarily need to run your workouts on a track - but you can if you want to.

Do You Need to Do Workouts At the Track?

This is a matter of preference.

Some people like the atmosphere of working out at a track. It feels more like a workout and less like a random run. Plus there’s the potential social aspect of hanging out with other runners, even if you’re not all doing the same workout.

Personally, I find it to be very inconvenient. It’s a 20 minute drive for me to get to an available track, so a 90 minute workout becomes almost 2.5 hours. If possible, I’d rather just leave my door, start my workout, and get on with the day.

The only time I really try to hit the track is if I’m doing short repeats – 200m or 400m. The precision of the track helps with pacing.

For longer reps – like the lactate threshold runs or VO2 max workouts – I don’t find the track as necessary.

For the lactate threshold runs, I will incorporate them into a regular running route. I try to avoid massive hills, but rolling hills are ok. If I were training for a hilly marathon, I’d make a point of incorporating more hills. If the terrain fluctuates, feel free to adjust the pace up and down a bit.

For the VO2 max workouts, I usually convert them to time. Shorter intervals (600-800m) I’ll peg as 3 minutes. 1,000m I’ll convert to 4 minutes. And 1,200m I’ll convert to 5 minutes. My Garmin can estimate the pace for me, and I’ll jog 2, 3, or 4 minutes for a recovery.

It gets the job done.

What Pace Do I Use for VO2 Max Workouts?

VO2 max workouts are medium length intervals of 600m to 1200m in length (3-5 minutes in duration) with several minutes (2-4) of recovery in between.

Traditionally, these workouts are done at around 3k pace – so slightly faster than you would race a 5k. Physiologically, your VO2 max pace is a pace you can hold for about 10 minutes.

For Pfitz marathon training plans, he advises you back things off a little bit and aim for closer to your 5k pace. Take a recent 5k race effort, and use that to set your workout paces.

Alternatively, if you’re using heart rate, you should be hitting 93 to 95% of your max heart rate or 91% to 93% of your heart rate reserve.

In terms of perceived exertion, they should be hard but not impossible. It’s fine if you’re breathing hard at the end of the rep, but if you haven’t fully recovered by the end of the recovery jog you’re going too hard. The first few reps should be easier – and you should hold back a bit – whereas the last few will feel tougher.

If you finish a 4-5 minute rep, and you’re not breathing hard, then you weren’t running hard enough. Pick it up.

What Pace Do I Use for Threshold Workouts?

Tempo and threshold can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Physiologically, you can measure your lactate threshold – the point at which lactate starts to accumulate too fast. But you don’t necessarily need to run precisely at this pace to work this system, and with longer efforts it’s better to stay a little bit below that threshold.

Pfitz recommends the following:

  • If you use paces to guide your training, aim for your 15k to half marathon race pace.
  • If you use heart rate to guide your training, aim for 82% to 91% of your max heart rate or 77% to 88% of your heart rate reserve.

For a 3:15 marathoner, that’s probably around 7:00 to 7:15. Start conservatively, though, and see how the workouts go.

Long, continuous efforts get to be real draining after a while. 7:00/mi pace might seem fine at first – but after 2-3 miles you might wish you had started out a little slower.

The 18/55 plan includes a peak workout of 12 miles with 7 miles at threshold – and you definitely want to be conservative with the pace here. Trying to maintain your peak threshold pace for that long will probably not end well.

Better to be a little too slow than a little too fast. Use the earlier, shorter workouts to gauge what’s appropriate and then dial in your pacing as you go.

What Pace Do I Use for Marathon Pace Runs?

You use your expected marathon pace, right? Duh.

Seriously, though, you should how you’ll expect to progress over the course of the plan. If you’re already operating at a very high level, and you’re trying to eke out a few extra minutes, you might be good to go with your target pace in the beginning.

But if you’re coming back from an extended break or stepping up mileage for the first time, you can expect a significant improvement from the first week of the plan to the last. In the second week, you’ll have a long run with about half of it at marathon pace. Trying to run that at your target pace may not go well if your target pace is aggressive and assumes a significant improvement.

There are two marathon paced runs in the first five weeks of the plan. Start with either heart rate or perceived exertion on these runs and see what feels do-able for marathon pace. It should be harder than your regular long run, but you should finish without being wiped out.

As you get to the 3rd or 4th marathon pace run in the plan, try and dial in your expected race pace. At this point, if you can’t hit it (or come close) you may want to reconsider your pacing plan.

If you’re using heart rate to guide your training, Pfitz recommends aiming for 79% to 88% of max heart rate and 73% to 84% of heart rate reserve.

Where Can I Find the Pfitz Marathon Training Plans?

All of the Pfitz marathon training plans are included in his book, Advanced Marathoning.

Although you can find the details online, you should absolutely purchase a copy of the book. As this article has shown, it’s not as simple as following a schedule and counting down the miles.

There is a lot of nuance to a Pfitz training plan, and if you’re going to commit to this level of training you ought to do it right. I’ve tried to lay out a quick reference guide here, but this is no replacement for the full book.

If you have a question that hasn’t been answered, though, leave a comment. I’m happy to add to this guide over time and help explain as much about the Pfitz marathon training plans as I can.

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