Best Marathon Training Plan: Comparing Top Training Methods

Have you ever wondered the difference between all the marathon training plans out there? How do you begin to pick a marathon training plan? Will a free marathon plan off the internet do the trick?

There’s a lot to consider when looking not just at the different styles of training, but at the levels provided by each running coach.

We’re going to first cover some basics of each plan to help you get a feel for the programs and then dive into the specific things you need to consider when picking the best marathon training plan for YOU.

While there are a WIDE variety of training styles, I’ve picked out some of the most common to breakdown for you. The programs I’ve selected for this article are focused on newer to intermediate runners.

More advanced training schedules for those really looking to hit Sub 3 hours like Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathon plan or high volume of Lydiard are not included.

Today we are going to focus on Galloway, Hanson, Run Less Run Faster, Hal Higdon, Low Heart Training and lightly CrossFit endurance. So whether you’re training for London, Chicago, NYC or any of the other thousands of races, one of these will help you get there with plans confidence.

Comparing The Best Marathon Training Plans

Every marathon training program could be an entire article.

Which means for many of these you will find detailed articles providing more information included feedback from fellow runners and coaches who have completed marathons with it. That will provide you more information about who it works for and if it’s a good fit for you.

Since plans can run from low mileage with high intensity to high mileage with low intensity and a smattering of things in between, it’s confusing to understand what is really the best way to train!

My philosophy is that no “best way” exists, it’s about finding the program that WORKS for you and hopefully the following deep dives will help you make the best decision when picking a marathon training plan.

Marathon Training Programs

A quick comparison with links to additional details:

Following I’ll provide a brief description of each marathon training program. As noted, you can read more on the additional pages once you’ve found what might work best for you.

What is The Best Marathon Training Plan?

Later in this article we’ll look at the questions you need to ask yourself to choose the right marathon training plan. But when looking at the overall structure of a marathon plan it should follow some key principles.

  1. Mileage should progress slowly to allow your body time to adapt (read how long does marathon training take)
  2. You should have a cutback week roughly every 3 weeks, that means a drop in volume and intensity to recover
  3. 80/20 principle should be followed to prevent injuries. This means 80% of your weekly workouts are an easy effort.
  4. Strength training should be part of your weekly training. If it’s not listed in the plan, you need to seek out ways to include it. This improves speed, endurance and is key to injury prevention.
  5. Includes a peak week followed by taper. Generally we recommend a two week marathon taper.
  6. Don’t get hung up on things being listed on a Saturday or Sunday. Move the schedule around, just keeping a few days between hard efforts like run workouts and long runs.

No one specific way of training will lead to a Boston Marathon Qualifying time. But certainly you’re going to find that more likely with enough interval training, specific goal pace work and usually higher weekly mileage.

Great now we’ve got some guidelines, so let’s dive in.

Best Beginner’s Marathon Training Plan

There are marathon programs that easily fall in to this group for first time marathon runners. My first pick is always going to be Galloway because I believe so many runners can benefit from the run walk run style of training.

Galloway Marathon Training Overview

Jeff Galloway is not the inventor of run walking, but he made the systematic approach to it accessible to hundreds of thousands of runners.

Offering a ton of basic free online marathon training plans, this is a phenomenal place to start for many runners.

  • Runs are all a combination of run/walk/run at varying lengths
  • Walking breaks help to reduce the intensity of the effort and are key to increasing running endurance
  • Method can work for beginners to advanced runners
  • Ideal in hot weather environments to train for long distances without overtaxing the body
  • Ideal for coming back from injuries or postpartum running
  • Since he does not emphasize strength training for runners, that’s a component you will need to add to the plans on rest days or as a second workout.

Best Marathon Training Plans

Hal Higdon Marathon Training Overview

I did not do a separate post for the Hal Higdon marathon plan or McMillan running plans, which would fall in to your classical training plan program. He provides a wide range of programs for the new runner to the novice marathon runner and beyond, making it easy to slowly level up your training.

They follow a very similar pattern, which you’ve likely seen:

  • 5 runs per week
  • a long run up to 20-22 miles
  • very low on speedwork across most plans
  • recommends cross training
  • slow and steady build

You can assume that 90% of the free training plans you find online are based upon that classical style of marathon training. One that I frequently recommend is from Train Like a Mother, though next March I’ll be pointing you to my new book!!

There are tons of these marathon plans and they absolutely work.

Best Marathon Plan for Beginners

I focused the in depth additional reviews on other plans that you may have seen less to help understand the differences in training methods and why they might work for some people and not others.

For example, my friend Corey thrives on the hard fast 16 miler, while I need the chill of LHR training to make it through months of long runs.

Best Marathon Training Plan for Cross Training

Run Less, Run Faster

Designed by a couple of triathletes, this plan provides plenty of room to spend time biking, swimming, hiking and doing other cross training. In fact, that’s a fundamental tenant of their program.

Many runners see that it’s only 3 days of running and stop there. But to get the full value of this program, they are recommending a good volume of cross training each week.

  • 3 runs per week – tempo run, speed intervals and long run (often at marathon pace)
  • 2 days of cross training — this is not strength work, but additional cardio workouts
  • Great for those who don’t love lots of running or often get injured on high mileage
  • Can be used for a first marathon if you’ve been training for awhile and the body is adapted to the stress of running

Best marathon training

Best Marathon Training Plan for Those Who Love Speed

Hanson Marathon Method

You may have heard of this method due to the fabled maximum 16 mile long run. It’s been used by athletes like Desi with great success and has some fabulous science behind it.

It’s also a plan that requires you to know your body, your capabilities and to truly understand what it means to run in a state of constant fatigue.

  • Long run is 16 miles on many plans
  • Requires running 6 days a week, which is how long run can cap at 16 miles and work so well
  • Does not leave a ton of time for strength training or other cross training
  • Injury prone runners may find the intensity or lack of rest problematic. Others find that not having such long runs really works well for their body.

What is the Best Marathon Plan?

Best Marathon Training Plan for Chronic Illness or Injury

Low Heart Rate Method

This is the training style that I adopted in 2012 when my hormones went sideways. It’s what has allowed me to continue running at a fairly high volume while staying healthy, hitting PR’s and not feeling run down or injured.

  • Initially the plan calls for nothing but slow easy running
  • Once you have a base it transitions to an 80/20 model
  • You’ll use a formula to define your MAX HR and keep all easy runs below that threshold

Best Marathon Training Program

If there is another method you are curious about be sure to leave a comment!

Still not sure what plan is right for you? In personalized 1-1 run coaching, we can help you decide and create a personalized plan to get you to the finish line!

How to Pick the Best Marathon Plan?

Hopefully an inside look at each method will help you select a plan not just to survive, but thrive during marathon training!

For all of the training programs a few key factors should be considered when deciding which one is right for your body, your training and your goals.

Just because it works for your running partner or even your coach doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Here are the biggest factors to consider when you choose.

#1 Current Running Ability

If you’re a newer runner, returning from injury or have recurring injuries, then selecting a high intensity plan may be a recipe for disaster. These plans require dedication to proper running form, recovery and nutrition.

#2 Training Timeline

Longer training plans (18-24 weeks) allow your body to gradually adjust to the higher volume of miles, but they also require extended mental and physical commitment.

  • Advanced runners may find they peak too quickly on a longer training cycle and new runners can burn out.
  • If selecting a longer plan, try having smaller goal races like a half marathon or 10K sprinkled throughout.

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#3 Preferred Intensity

Does the thought of a track workout make you cringe or get your inner warrior fired up?

The use of speed workouts is going to appear in every plan, but the intensity level and repetition will vary, so look for the one that matches your preferred method of training.

#4 Running Frequency

Depending upon the other types of training you’d like to incorporate and your injury history this could be one of the biggest factors in plan selection.

  • If you don’t like running 5 days a week, don’t feel pressured in to a training plan that requires it.
  • If you love doing CrossFit as a runner or Zumba to spice things up, make sure your plan involves adequate cross training days.
  • Many advanced training plans can have up to 6 days of running each week with very little cross training and that’s great if it excites you!
  • Or you can scrap all that and go to a 10 day training cycle like Bart Yasso

#5 Long Run Preference

The crux of marathon training plans is most the weekly long run.

Each plan has a different logic behind the number and distance of long runs, reviewing that is important, but it’s also crucial to know what will help you mentally feel prepared.

Many runners enjoy doing multiple 20 mile runs because it gives them the confidence they need to cross the finish line, while others simply feel burdened by that schedule.

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It’s also important to realize that one plan my work for many years and then suddenly You find you’ve plateaued or are injured or simply can’t keep it up as life changes.

That’s ok and normal! Don’t be afraid to explore other options when trying to pick a marathon training plan.

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