The Long and the Short of the Hanson’s Marathon Method

Hanson's Marathon MethodA few weeks ago during a conversation with a fellow running pal we got on the topic of marathon training. We talked about our plans, and I shared that I was following a new plan that was pretty intense, but seems to agree with me. Intrigued, my friend asked for more details. When I got to the topic of long runs, I told him that the longest run in the plan I’m following is 16 miles.

What happened next was a pretty common reaction. “Huh? Really? So you don’t run 20 miles for your longest run?”

Yes. Really!

If you are an avid reader of Salty Running or just someone who has run a marathon or ten, you know as well as I do that there are myriad marathon training plans out there. Yesterday, Cilantro discussed her recent foray into the CrossFit Endurance plan. I ran my first two marathons using a Hal Higdon plan that I found on the internet. The plan got me to the finish line, as promised, but my past marathon performances were slow, painful, and full of injury. In fact, the last two times I’ve attempted to train for a marathon, I got injured and had to stop training by the time I got up to 14 miles for my long run. I was ready to write off marathons completely because I didn’t trust my body anymore. I didn’t have faith that it could withstand the stress of marathon training without major injury.

Then all that changed.

In December, I came across something online that talked about Hanson’s Marathon Method and was intrigued enough to buy the book. Fifteen weeks into marathon training, with less than a month to go before race day, I am happy to report that I am still injury-free, in the best running shape I’ve ever been, and feeling confident I’ll get a big PR this time around.

But what makes the Hanson’s Marathon Method different?

Cumulative Fatigue: CF is at the core of Hanson’s method. The goal of CF is to provide a slow buildup of fatigue over the weeks of consistent training, but not to the point of overtraining. According to the book (which has seriously become my marathon bible over the past few months), the elements of CF are based on: mileage, intensity, balance, consistency, and recovery. The book covers in-depth the scientific basis behind why each of these elements are important in training, and how they allow for the necessary physiological adaptations to occur as you go through your training.

Mileage: This plan is different from plans I’ve used in the past. Never a “high mileage” runner before, this plan piles on the miles. While I’ve trained for marathons where the peak week is 40 miles, this plan has had me well over 40 miles and closer to 60 miles for a great deal of the plan. Many who run successful marathons already know the benefits of running higher mileage, and this is key to cumulative fatigue in this plan. The plan starts with three to four days per week of running at the beginning, and by the time you get to marathon specific workouts, you run six days a week.

Intensity: The focus of this plan is run easy runs EASY so you can run your hard runs well. In my past marathon training, I ran at mostly the same pace for every.single.run. I never ran a truly easy pace, but I also didn’t have enough energy in the tank to run a truly hard pace. The book provides a solid case for the benefits of easy runs, and the physiological adaptations that occur even during what some might call “junk” mileage. A big percentage of my runs are at easy pace, but it allows me to build mileage without taxing myself to the point of injury, and saves energy for the tempo runs and speed work.

Balance: This plan has a variety of types of runs: speed work, strength workouts (longer intervals slightly faster than tempo pace), long tempo runs, easy runs, and long runs. No “hard” run is placed back to back with another hard run in the plan. Easy runs are purposely placed in between key runs, which allows for active recovery without a true rest day.

Consistency: To maintain the fitness gains achieved during training, it is important to stick with the schedule. This plan is six days a week of running, which is a lot to plan for if you have a busy schedule outside of running. When I started this plan, I made a promise to myself to stick to the plan and only skip a run if absolutely necessary. I usually plan my running schedule a week in advance and make sure I’m able to fit the miles in somewhere. It is NOT always easy, but somehow I’ve only missed one run over 14 weeks.

Recovery: To achieve cumulative fatigue, this plan focuses on active recovery rather than rest days. Hanson’s rationale is that this trains you to run through fatigue, and recovery runs allow a person to continue to gain aerobic fitness while giving the body enough recuperation to withstand the next difficult run. CF helps a person train to withstand discomfort and adapt to the feeling of running on fatigued legs, which will simulate the final miles of the marathon. Many who use Hanson’s plan say that their legs continued to feel strong even at the end of their race.

Thank goodness for the short long runs because the tempos really are no joke.
Thank goodness for the short long runs because the tempos really are no joke.

Short Long Runs: So what’s the deal with a 16 mile long run? Simply put, the rationale has to do with time spent on your feet, the percentage of miles your long run constitutes in your weekly mileage total, and the muscle breakdown that occurs if too much time is spent on the long run. Additionally, the book says to look at your long runs differently. Instead of thinking about how close in mileage your long run is to the marathon, view your long run as closer to the last 16 miles of a marathon. Remember cumulative fatigue? You’re going to go into these long runs tired, which is the point.

Also, 16 is the suggested distance for most runners. Long runs should be between two and three hours to encourage the proper physiological adaptations your body needs, but anything beyond three hours will do more harm than good. Even the godfather of modern American distance running, Jack Daniels, has long espoused this principle. Importantly, what this means is that means if you’re on the faster end of the spectrum, you can run longer long runs following Hanson’s, but if you run 9:00/mile or slower, the plan encourages you to cap your long run at 16.

***

This plan has been challenging, but by far the best, most balanced training plan I’ve done. This is the first time I’ve been injury-free this far into a training cycle, and my body feels better than it ever has during training. I am running miles I never thought I was capable of and, while it’s challenging, it doesn’t feel impossible.

The book, Hanson’s Marathon Method, is really informative and provides a lot of helpful scientific background for the method as well as helpful information about nutrition. The book provides a beginner’s plan and an advanced plan, along with very specific guidelines on how to figure out what pace to run each run. I’m glad I took a chance and tried this plan and can’t wait to see how this all comes together on race day!

Have you tried the Hanson’s method? How did it go?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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30 comments

  1. The first half of your post sums up my past experience to a T. I used Hal Higdon for my first 2 marathons, which always started off “good” and then last 6-8 miles was horrible, although I made progress to my ultimate marathon goal of under 4 hours I still have a long ways to go to get there. So a couple of coworkers and I signed up for a late June marathon and all of us decided on the Hanson Method for something different. I am in the middle of week 13 of the Hanson Method and everything has held up so far! I really like the book for walking us through all the different goals of the hard vs. easy runs and the goal of each! My weekly/monthly cumulative miles far surpasses anything I have done in the past!

      1. I would agree, the most I had ever ran previously was around the 165 mark in training for a marathon in 2015. My April had me at 235 and for May I am well on my way to that number again and probably more.

  2. Hmmm, you’re making me want to try this plan! But I feel nervous just thinking about going into a 16 mile run at all, let alone fatigued!! I wonder how you can do that and still be injury free!

    1. I was pretty nervous to try the plan too, but after reading the book, I was sold. My BIGGEST fear was injury, since I’ve been so injury prone in the past. I am definitely sore some days, but not in an injured way. This plan really works you up to the 6 days a week/ high mileage. The first 5 weeks are all base building, easy miles. Speed work and tempo runs don’t start till week 6. It’s a big time commitment, but if you can do it, I really recommend it!

  3. I ran my last (and 13th) marathon in March after training with Hanson’s for the first time. Overall mileage was higher that what I had completed in the past, so the “short long runs” do not mean low mileage (a common misconception about Hanson’s). The book makes the point that the long run shouldn’t exceed 20% of overall mileage, which means overall mileage is still high!
    Long story short, I never thought I could run so fast for so long, but the tempo prepares you for that. What made me nervous was not having run a 20 miler, but it was not an issue. I PR’d by 8 minutes (my third PR in my last 4 marathons) and was cruising through the whole thing– hydration (and training in 20 degrees but running in 60) was the only reason I didn’t beat my goal time; instead I hit it on the nose.
    Good luck!

    1. That’s awesome! I’ve done Hanson’s three times now and the last time I modified to do a 16, 18, 20 (but only 16 at LR pace). I think it was overkill and I could have just stuck to 16, 18, 18 like last time.

  4. I had a 16 minute PR the first time I went out with Hanson’s. It was a huge game-changer for me! I do think there is something to varying your training methods though; Hanson’s is starting to feel a little played out, like maybe I need to try something different. I switched to the Intermediate plan this last time around and I know my fitness was there to match my PR, I just had a bad race (and a thousand excuses, like last Friday’s post!). But I’m concerned that my overall fitness hasn’t changed much and I need to make a change of some kind to increase the benefits. Taking a cue from the CrossFit post the other day, I’m thinking of adding more strength training into my world and thinking about how I can increase economy and leg turnover. So next up I’m thinking I train hard for a fast half or 10k and use what I’ve learned about race specific training to try to get my body used to those faster paces.

    1. One thing you also might consider is running a training segment for a different, shorter distance. Humphrey mentions in the book that the Hansons don’t allow their elite runners to run more than three marathons in a row. At least once every two years, they generally do a trainining segment to prepare for a shorter distance, getting the gains that come from faster running.

      I don’t know if this is the case for their really elite runners like Des Davila or Brian Sell.

      1. I do know what that case is, actually. I also know I’m not running Des’ mileage and my training, fitness and goals aren’t really comparable to hers. Running is just running of course, but she’s running for place and I’m running for (much slower) time. It’s different.

        I also know that I did one more cycle of Hanson’s directly after that bad race and bad day (my excuses included food poisoning the day before race day) and broke that 16 minute PR by another 5 minutes. So take what you want out of that.

    1. I think it’s definitely doable if you’re able to make the schedule work! The book has a beginner and an advanced plan. I am using the beginner plan since this is my first time running high mileage.

  5. I trained with Hansons for two cycles and made huge gains.(over 10 minutes off my former PR!) This time around I tried a different method to keep it fresh. I don’t think 16 is enough of a long run for me personally, but I love the plan.

    1. When I started the plan, my running fitness was LOW and my mileage had been consistently under 20 mpw for many months. The first 5 weeks of the plan give you a really nice base building. It starts at 3 days and works you up to the 6 days a week by the time you get to the marathon specific workouts at week 6. The book has a beginner and an advanced plan. I am using beginner this time around!

      1. The book (I am using the 2nd edition) requires 3 plans. Just Finish, Beginner and Advanced. the difference I see between beginner and advanced is the first few weeks of miles as the beginner starts out slow to build some base miles. The Advance plan you start out running 40ish miles. The just finish it plan has a goal of that, just finishing!

  6. I have the book but have yet to follow exactly. I love the idea of easy = easy and hard = hard, though. I think the program would be great for a time crunched advanced runner (like myself). The only reason why I haven’t followed it is because my work schedule is wonky and any “set in stone” formula doesn’t work for me.
    I’d be concerned about a new runner going max 16 miles and then jumping into 26.2. I think the mental toughness is 99% of the game, and running a 20+ miler builds that up the best.

  7. I’ve been running the Hanson’s plan for a couple of years now with a lot of success. The key to the program is to trust your training. It really works but you have to follow the plan. The culumative fatigue is no joke! Also, sometimes life happens and you won’t get all your runs in. Keep the SOS runs in at all costs but ONLY running the SOS runs won’t get you the time you want. Beginners can use the program as long as you can do the weekly mileage that the program as in the first few weeks. I would say being able to do that mileage for the month prior puts you in good shape to start.

    1. I think you echo much of what Pumpkin talks about in her post. Great to hear more anecdotes about how the plan works for others too, especially for those considering using the plan. Glad it works for you!

  8. Im doing the beginner plan and have a goal set. I can carry my pace fine while on the track and still have gas left when I’m finished. I’m wondering if the track makes it too easy? I’m also getting rolling hill miles on every easy and long run with at least a 325 feet elevation gain. Did you do your strength & tempo both on the track? Has everyone’s projected time matched up with finish time?

    1. Luke Humphrey, the Hanson Distance Project runner who wrote the book, generally discourages track running for a few reasons. First, people tend to run faster on the track. It is both a bit easier to do so, and easier to run too fast and incrase chance of injury. Second, it doesn’t mirror thte type of running you will do in the marathon.

      Sometimes I have to run on the local track, but when possible, I try to run roads, even for my speed and strength workouts. The tempo runs are long enough that I think running on a track would drive me insane.

  9. I am currently doing a week by week review of the Hanson’ begginer plan. I am currently in week 11 as of 09/07/16. I am attempting to follow the plan with NO modications unless I feel the onset of injury. It may be of some interest to others currenly using the plan or thinking about it.

  10. Has anyone had success doing a second round and improving their time significantly? I just used this and loved it but will be doing a second round this coming Summer for a Fall marathon. I’d like to drop about 10 minutes off my time of 3:45, but im just wondering if a second round of this plan is as successful as the first round? Of course I’d be following the calculations for the time I want, but just curious :)

  11. I followed the Hansons Marathon Training plan (Advanced) for my fourth marathon and I improved from 3h19′ to 3h6′, and I never run more than 16 miles as a long run, but every week I did almost 55 miles as an average, I hardly recommend it.

  12. I’ve got the book and have been trying to decide on a plan for Chicago this Fall. I’ve used Higdon for my previous two marathons, plus for another marathon training cycle where I got injured and DNS. I was afraid Hanson’s was too aggressive, but based on everyone’s comments here, it’s making me feel like maybe it is doable for me, and a better alternative since I’m pretty injury prone as well.

  13. Our group of 3 guys did this plan last fall and followed it to the letter missing only 3 days. We were training at the 3 hour pace and it worked wonderfully (I finally got a sub 3!) No wall, nailed goals, my last mile was actually my fastest in the race. We will be doing a second round this fall. Here is where we took liberty – our easy runs were always at the slowest pace because we were sore, Just like strength and tempo day, we added a warm up and cool down mile to our long runs and stretched them to 18 miles. Independently we all did a little core work and dropped a few pounds. The tempo runs were the day to fear, we never thought twice about the long runs. Tempo days are a beast and probably 75% of the time we missed the pace by a little bit. I have done Run Less Run Faster and also Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, and prefer Hanson. Pfitz was also good, but the long tempo runs have become the single item I believe in that help you avoid the wall.