Pete Pfitzinger Marathon Training Plans

imageYou did it!! You just signed up for your (1st, 10th, 147th) marathon. Once you hit submit for your online registration and receive that confirmation email, it’s final. Sometimes we sign up for races a long way out and other times we sign up the week of. Regardless of how far out, some form of training plan is suggested. It’s kind of hard to wing 26.2 miles.

NOW WHAT?! Naturally, running comes to mind. But with so many plans available, how can you decipher the good from the bad and what will work best with your current life situation? A simple Google search of ‘marathon training plans’ reveals over 5 million results within half a second. Here at Salty Running, we have outlined the Hansons and Lydiard methods, but because we are all different and we know that there are few things better than variety, here is the low down on the Pete Pftizinger Advanced Marathoning plans.

Who is Pete Pfitzinger?

In short, Pfitzinger knows what’s up. He won the 1984 Olympic Marathon Trials and went on to be the first American at the Olympics in Los Angeles later that year, finishing 11th. Four years later in 1988, he finished 14th in the Olympic Marathon in Seoul, Korea. Not only was he super fast, but as a trained exercise physiologist he understands the adaptations that occur during marathon training. Naturally of interest to me, Pete is a Kiwi, residing in New Zealand, my home country.

Pete appeared on my radar after I sustained a tibial stress fracture in the spring. A friend suggested his pool running schedule for maintaining aerobic fitness. As much as one can enjoy being injured and having to cross-train, I did enjoy his pool running workouts much more than the ad hoc pool sessions I had been doing. With this in mind and being cleared to run again, I thought it wise to do my due diligence on his marathon training plans.

Armed with my fresh copy of Advanced Marathoning, I eagerly began dissecting the book. The recommended length of his marathon program is 18 weeks. This length allows adequate time for your body to make the necessary adaptations in terms of increased oxygen uptake, glycogen storage and recovery, as well as increasing your overall running economy. I like that Pete’s approach towards training is realistic and empirically based, as he states training for a marathon should be relatively simple. As someone with a tendency to overthink many aspects of life, a simplistic plan is ideal and helps to keep the stress of needing to come up with workouts to a minimum.

Is this plan right for you?

  • Are you looking to do more than finish a marathon?
  • Do you want to run a marathon as fast as you can, without putting your life on hold?
  • Do you enjoy a variety of different types of runs and workouts?

If you are still reading and developing a head nod, let’s continue!

The beauty of these plans is that they are not specifically for high mileage runners. There is flexibility between schedules to suit runners with different histories, tendencies towards injury and so forth. Programs differ by:

  • The number of weeks until your target marathon: 24, 18, or 12 weeks
  • Your goal weekly mileage: Less than 55, 55-70, 70+

A couple of friends have used Pete’s plans to varying degrees and this is what they had to say:

  • “We all find it very hard to stick to a plan seven days of the week, and because Pfitz had a rest day built in, it allows for some more flexibility.”
  • “Each day has a purpose and there is a lot of variability throughout the week which keeps training exciting, which is very important to me during marathon training.”

A look at the Pfitz terminology

Before bounding into your chosen plan, let’s take a step back to run through the basic terminology that each of the programs consist of. Several different types of runs all serve a purpose and hopefully this review will be the quick and dirty you need to get going!

General aerobic running – Less than 10 miles at a steady pace; not too fast, as it will become a lactate threshold run. These are the standard, moderate miles that constitute the bulk of your training miles.

Medium long runs – These serve to reiterate the training effects of long runs, however are not quite as long, usually 11-16 miles.

Long runs – Anything longer than 17 miles. The suggested pace for long runs is 10-20% slower than your goal marathon pace. 

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V02 max workouts – For this you should use a recent 5K time to calculate goal paces for these workouts. These workouts are hard and fast. They range from 600m to a mile. Why do V02 max workouts while training for 26.2 at a pace that doesn’t compare to your 5K pace? Your V02 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your heart is able to pump to your working muscles. NOTE: your muscles need oxygen to fire and produce energy.  Your body will thank you for these increases in efficiency in the latter phases of your marathon.

Lactate threshold workouts – Lactate threshold workouts are what you might call tempo runs. You can either use a current 15K or half time to calculate your goal pace for these workouts. Depending on the length (weeks) and volume (miles) of program you ultimately settle with, lactate threshold workouts vary between four and seven miles. The principle of the lactate threshold run is that you are working at high intensity, thus producing more lactate than your body is able to clear. Not surprisingly (and sadly), you can only maintain this pace for approximately 15-21km.

Speed – Quick leg turnover for 50-150 meters. The goal of these is to improve leg speed and to help any lingering form issues.

Running at marathon pace – Perhaps (in my opinion) the most important part of any marathon plan. Running at your goal pace is the only way for your body to get the physiological practice it needs. These runs can serve as great confidence boosters and are scheduled on medium long, or long run days.

Recovery –  Shorter and relaxed runs that aid in recovery before your next hard session. These are the slowest and most restorative of runs.

To help make sense of all this, below is an example of a week from the ‘up to 55 miles a week’ plan:

Monday: Rest or cross-training

Tuesday: Recovery run, 6 miles with 6 x 100m strides

Wednesday: Medium long run, 12 miles

Thursday: Rest or cross training

Friday: Lactate threshold, 11 miles with 6 miles at half marathon pace

Saturday: Recovery, 5 miles

Sunday: Long run, 20 miles

An added component of the Pfitz training plan which I think is commonly overlooked in many other plans is an additional five-week post marathon plan to help you recover from the marathon (the first week is typically two easy runs and the rest are either cross-training or rest days) and then gradually reintroduce some base miles. Recovery is something that we runners tend to struggle with, so I find it very helpful to have a plan laid out for a period of time after the marathon to ensure that my body gets adequate R&R.

Other areas of interest

A word about doubles

Something that surprised me was that Pete does not recommend doing doubles unless you are routinely running over 70 miles per week. The benefit of keeping your runs as singles if you’re running less than 70 miles per week is that you are training your body to deal with depleted glycogen stores, which is a necessary part of quality marathon training. If you’re running shorter runs with breaks rather than the longer midweek single runs, your glycogen stores will not be depleted as much and have time to replenish between runs, so while running the same overall mileage, those miles will be less effective.

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Typical macrocycle consisting of five specific mesocycles

Tune up races

This is another feature of the plan that I find particularly attractive. Sometimes you can feel disconnected from the running community if your goal race is a little off sync with the race that your buddies are doing. Tune up races en route to your goal race are a great way to practice race day nutrition, paces, and clothing options while providing an opportunity for a hard workout which mentally is very important in the middle of a training cycle.

There are even specific plans for doing two marathons close together. I’m currently holding back from looking too closely out of fear that I will convince myself that’s a good idea!

Besides the obvious training plans outlined in much greater detail, nutrition, hydration, race day strategies and supplemental training are also addressed in detail. This is an excellent resource for first timers and seasoned veterans alike. I find myself referring to this text frequently and it has taken a permanent residence on my night stand. Even better, with the beauty of Amazon, it can be at your door tomorrow.

Give it a try! Have you used a Pfitzinger plan? How was it?

I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience while sipping on wine & coffee in Northern Virginia. Together with my husband and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Gracie we battle to keep the Tupperware cupboard organized for more than two days at time. I recently ran my first marathon (2:51) and am excited for what is to come. I like to ramble about running post injury, finding a work-life balance and running quickly.

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  1. Is it recommended to buy the Advanced Marathoning book to fully understand the plan? This one sounds interesting! I really liked Hanson’s, but this could be a good plan to try as well!

    1. He has some pretty specific workout terms/paces, so make sure you find good descriptions of those if you’re not going to buy the book itself. ($10 used on Amazon, though — heck of a bargain and a great investment.)

  2. I used the Pfitzinger 55-70 plan for NYC last year– it took my speed/endurance/mental toughness to a whole new level, a year later I run that mileage for my base mileage.

  3. I used a modified Pfitz plan for my 4th marathon (I didn’t really follow plans at all for first 3 honestly). I loved the flexibility and variability of the plan as you mentioned. I think his plans are solid and in general the book is a really good read. I like how he explains WHY he does things the way he does- that helps me better understand purpose of workouts and I can execute better.

  4. Do any of you think Pete’s plans are written exclusively as men’s training plans? (the difference being the benefits testosterone has on muscle recovery and training volume). I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelf for nearly 15 years. Maybe I’m biased, but it just isn’t a training plan I personally have ever liked. Though I have many friends who used it. Specifically, I dislike the plan because it is too complex and too bunched together. It seems like a men’s training plan. Even the pro women in Michigan run more sane 9 day training weeks.

  5. I used the 18/55 plan for my first marathon and really liked it. The only issue I had was doing shorter speed work at the end of the plan rather than the beginning (like the 800s and 1200s are all in the last month). But I loved the medium long runs. I felt really ready for my race,

  6. I’ve used several plans out of this book over the years, and several plans out of his Road Racing for Serious Runners for other distances. These always jived pretty well for me, although I always had trouble finding tune-up races. I always used the 12-week plans, because 18 was just too much for me. I like the recovery weeks and the mix of workouts, and definitely like the recovery plan after. I frequently found the early workouts to be intimidating, though — there are some substantial MP long runs early on that I never felt ready for and usually skipped. That’s probably the biggest issue I had, so I definitely recommend solid base-building before starting one of these (especially the 55 and 70 plans). I did use these plans to run 3:10 on two occasions, so I’m not going to knock them too much. 😉

    1. That is an excellent point Tracy. I guess it’s assumed that people have a decent base. It would be pretty tough/not ideal jumping into 55/70 miles! 2x 3:10s sounds like it worked pretty well for you!