Friday, October 7, 2011

Review; Furman Institute of Running & Scientific Training (FIRST) HM plan

This is the not the first review (no pun intended) of a FIRST plan, I wrote about my experiences and success using the 10k plan in February last year and up until July this year my 5k PR from November 2008 was attained by poaching a lot of the interval workouts from the FIRST marathon plan.

At the risk of not reinventing the wheel a lot of what I have written here I have talked about before but for some readers this will be new. 

The FIRST Plans are captured in the Runner’s World Book Run Less Run Faster. So as a reminder the basics of the plan are three runs a week; Intervals, a short Tempo and long Tempo run, interspersed with cross training for which I used cycling I also threw in a smattering of core work and some comfortably paced recovery runs

The basic science behind the plan is that the volume of running is decreased but the intensity of the runs is increased. Each run is designed to improve vo2Max; the measure of an athlete’s ability to produce energy aerobically; through the use of oxygen. Increasing Lactate Threshold; Lactate is an organic byproduct of anaerobic metabolism; an improvement in the LT is an improvement in the muscles ability to do endurance work. Finally an improvement in running economy is expected, running economy is expressed either as a velocity achieved for a given rate of oxygen consumption or the vo2 needed to maintain a given speed. Improvement in running economy generally takes the longest period of time for measurable improvement.

As you can already see this is different from you typical plan which tends to have a long(ish) slow run at the weekend, comparatively all of these runs are fast. So the first question is how fast, well there are a lot of tables, each run is based on a different pace and the pace is derived from a recent 5k race time. I initially used my existing 5k race time and then with a month to go before race day I used my new PR which was 30 seconds faster at 19:11. I made a couple of substantial modifications; I cut the plan short by 5 weeks  from 18 to 13 to coincide with Race Day and changed two runs at the end to simulate race pace.

So lets look at some results:

image Week 1 Day 1 400m intervals


Week 13 Day1 400m intervals the last week)

That’s a decrease of somewhere between 10-17 seconds per 400 meters or 40-68 seconds per mile. Here are some stats from the Short Tempo runs:

image Week 1 Day 3 2 mile warm up 3 miles at tempo 1 mile cool down


Week 10 Day 3 1 mile warm up 5 miles at tempo 1 mile warm down

Less than a minute and a little over a mile longer, some things to note in the data, ‘cos a I nerd like that. Heart Rate is consistent but look at the cadence, significantly faster turnover. And the final result, Race Day:

imageWent out too fast and kinda lost it in the last three miles but hung onto the end! Now all the quantitative data let’s talk about the qualitative:


  • Good for people who like a very structured training plan
  • It’s ultimately not super high mileage even with additional runs I maxed at 49 miles in a week, most weeks were late 30s early 40s
  • It’s very rewarding, speed work, in my opinion, is instant gratification
  • You really can measure your improvements and progress
  • It works…kinda obvious really but the results do speak for themselves
  • With only three prescribed runs a week you have some flexibility although they recommend a day in between each runs
  • Speed opens you up to injury although sensible cross training helps mitigate the risks


  • It’s not easy be prepared to work hard
  • It’s probably not a plan for someone who complete rather than compete
  • It’s very structured, each run has a specific goal, pace distance etc
  • You have to be a bit of  a data junkie
  • While not essential investing in a Garmin really helps
  • You need to have a pretty solid base for the HM plan, don’t expect to jump in deep out of the gate
  • It can get a bit boring, essentially each week is the same

So there you have it…I have to say I am very pleased with the results, I reduced my Half Marathon from 1:37:32 to 1:28:41…that’s a big drop for a 13 week investment! My 10k was reduced by over 3 minutes last year, I took 30 seconds off my 5k time and it looks like I will be making a dent in my Marathon PR next month!

If you are looking for some more info you can hear Bill Pierce one of the authors of the book being interviewed on the Run Run Live Podcast here and a follow up interview on the same Podcast with yours truly as a case study talking about my results here.

Now with all of that being said I do believe that this plan was only one leg of a three legged stool, the second being my transition to midfoot striking and the third being my shift into Newton shoes…more on those to follow.


  1. honestly, at my stage, sticking with ANY plan is probably going to help me PR, but plans like this seem to definitely help those who are "serious". Know what I mean. Well done on all your improvements!

  2. Stuart - I have been using the FIRST 5K and 10K programs with great results for the past 2 years. I recently started the HM plan and I am now approaching week 9. I am very confused about the track repeat workouts that require 1 mile and 2 miles given that the rest of the work outs assume a 400m track. I certainly expect to run a 1600m instead of 1 mile, but I don't understand why FIRST is not consistent. Also they don't have the 2mi or 3200m target paces given. I was wondering what you use for targets in these cases and if you can shed any light on this seemingly strange mix of intervals. As you recall the 5K and 10K programs stay consistently metric. Thanks in advance. J.

  3. Yes, I'm looking at an insanely old post. I love this training plan for running races for exactly the reasons you point out. Also, your blog and blog posts put mine to shame. I love all the details you have here!

    1. Emily thank you for your kind words...I have been at this a while, trust me the first iteration was pretty rough!


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