Review: “Run Less, Run Faster” marathon training program

Disclaimer: I chose this training program of my own accord.  The folks who created Run Less, Run Faster have no idea I even exist.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Now that I’ve completed a full training cycle using Run Less, Run Faster, I feel qualified to offer up some non-professional opinions about it.

To begin with, here are the reasons why I initially chose the Run Less, Run Faster program:

  • Lots of cross-training: Great for a triathlete.
  • Three runs a week: I don’t always like running all that much.
  • Simple: Each week was structured the same way, and the paces were very easy to calculate.
  • Free: I found a version online for free. Yes, please!

There is a book which offers a more recent version of the program, along with cross-training workouts and ways to customize the plan if needed.  However, I just used the article I found on Runner’s World and put together a schedule using that.

The Run Less, Run Faster plan is actually quite polarizing.  There are some great reviews online and some reviews that are very critical of its entire premise.  I tried to offer a fair review here that acknowledged some of those criticisms.  Overall, though, I had a very positive experience with Run Less, Run Faster.  I don’t think it’s the right plan for everyone, but it was the right plan for me.

The Run Less aspect of the program is probably its biggest marketing point.  And it was probably my favorite part.  Now, “running less” does not necessarily mean working out less.  The Run Less, Run Faster program is supposed to include 2-3 days of cross-training on top of the three days of running.  I didn’t use the cross-training workouts provided by the book.  I mostly went on 30-60 minute bike rides and did Masters Swim Team practices.  A lot of the criticisms of the Run Less, Run Faster program revolve around this focus on cross-training.  Essentially, the critique is that to run better, you have to run more.  I think this criticism has validity to it, but when you are a triathlete (even an off-season one!), running more isn’t always better.  The Run Less, Run Faster program allowed me to keep cross-training throughout the winter so that I wouldn’t have as much ground to make up in the spring.  As an added bonus, I became a much better swimmer this winter as well as improving my running endurance and speed.  Becoming a better swimmer might not matter to a pure runner, but it does matter to a triathlete.  For this reason alone, I can’t see myself using any of the other common marathon training plans out there.  At this point in my life, I am focusing enough on triathlons that I can’t afford to take a four month break from two of the three disciplines.

The other major part of this program is the Run Faster aspect. And, without a doubt, I became a much faster runner using this program.  I’ve spent the past few years a little scared of running fast and just running long and slow (or, usually, short and slow)  But the track workouts in this program helped me pick some of that speed back up.  My ability to run faster over the short distances made the slower distances of my tempo and long runs feel much easier.  When I was training for my half Ironman a few years ago, I typically ran my long runs around a 9:00/mile pace.  My long runs during my marathon training were all under an 8:30/mile pace.  Not only that, but I found myself actually enjoying the speed work.  Because I’m often not a huge fan of running, I need some variety to make something as arduous as marathon training palatable.  I’m hoping that the speed I developed carries over into my Ironman training.  I know I will lose some speed as I focus more on the other two sports and more on just plain endurance, but I’m confident I’ll be faster than I would have been had I not worked on increasing my speed this winter.

FeetTrack
At the track, trying to run fast.

Another touted benefit of the Run Less, Run Faster program is injury-prevention.  According to the program, running only three days a week helps you avoid overuse injuries.  However, according to criticisms of the program, only ever running fast (like this program calls for—even the long runs are faster than with most programs) is more likely to lead to injuries than volume.  Honestly, I’m a bit on the fence about this.  Note that I did spend the last week of this training cycle not running because of IT band pain.  However, I don’t believe that is due to the Run Less, Run Faster program.  After doing some very official Internet Research™, I’ve come to the conclusion that my focus on cycling the past few years is what has made my IT band a problem when it never was before.  From what I read, triathletes who run a lot (me this winter!) often suffer from IT band pain because, with the amount of cycling they do, developing quads at the expense of glutes is pretty much inevitable.  It wasn’t the cross-training within the Run Less, Run Faster program that caused this.  It was the long rides up Big Cottonwood and the frequent rides up Emigration Canyon that were the culprits.  In fact, I think I would have started suffering from intense IT band pain much earlier in my training if I had been using a traditional program.  IT band pain tends to be worse on slower runs.  I noticed this myself.  I barely felt it at all during my intervals.  It was my longer runs that gave me trouble.  Doing cross-training on the days where I was not running hard gave my IT band a chance to recover a bit instead of going from hard run to slow run and constantly creating opportunity for it to get more and more irritated.

That being said, I do think there can be a risk of injury from the “run fast” part of the program for certain runners.  I ran track for eight years.  My body, despite the long break I took, understands running fast(ish).  And, in the grand scheme of things, “running fast” in a marathon training program still wasn’t fast compared to what I ran in college, especially because I was a hurdler.  Lots of short events.  So, while the speed work was a strain on my body, it was a good strain—the kind the challenges you and makes you better.  If you’ve never done speed work before, the intervals in the Run Less, Run Faster might overwhelm your body.  If you are just getting into speed work, it might be better to focus on longer intervals like mile repeats instead of 400s that are about :45/mile faster than your 5k pace.

The other major criticism of the Run Less, Run Faster plan is that the fast long runs and lack of longer, slow distances limit your aerobic development.  And during my marathon, I crashed hard.  I don’t think the training plan can be blamed for the entirety of that.  After all, I performed better on all my long runs than I did for the first 15-20 miles of my marathon.  I was failing just fine on my own before the plan even had the chance to fail me.  However, it’s possible that if I had stronger base aerobic fitness for running, the stress of life or my carefulness of with my knee or a bad day wouldn’t have been quote so devastating for my performance.  Obviously, there’s no way to know.

20160220_134811
Feeling awful after my marathon

So, would I use the Run Less, Run Faster program again?  I absolutely would.  As I said above, as a triathlete, it seems like the best option for me.  Even if I weren’t a triathlete, I loved the training (as much as I could possibly love training for a marathon).  I liked getting faster and seeing my progress.  I don’t enjoy recovery runs.  Because I don’t enjoy running as much as I do swimming or cycling, I have a hard time going on runs that are “just cardio” and aren’t actual, defined workouts.  The focus on cross-training kept me from burning out mentally.

If I did the program again, though, I think I would make some changes:

  1. Get the actual book. This way, I’d understand the plan better and be more equipped to make changes if necessary.
  2. More warming up and cooling down. I was not great at warming up and cooling down with my speed work and tempo runs.  If I use this plan again, I will make sure that my warm-up/cool down for these faster workouts is much more significant.  Like, running a mile or two before a five mile tempo run and cooling down for at least a mile.  This would help me get in some of that slow running that the plan doesn’t include.
  3. Longer bike rides. Because it was winter, my bike rides suffered.  I should have been getting out on some rides that were 90 minutes or longer.  That would have helped my general aerobic fitness and perhaps given me some of the same benefits as a long, slow run would.
  4. Strength training. Knowing what I know now about the IT band, I would make sure to include glute strengthening in any marathon training program from the get-go.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
  5. One more run a week. Maybe I would do this, maybe I wouldn’t.  But I would consider adding in one extra easy run a week, perhaps as part of a bike-run brick.

As I said at the beginning, overall, I had a great experience with the Run Less, Run Faster training plan itself.  The race that I trained for, however, didn’t go nearly as well.  How much of that is the fault of the plan is impossible to say.  I would eventually like to get some redemption for that shoddy marathon of mine, and when that time comes, I’ll be using this training plan with some of the modifications noted above.  Hopefully, the next time around, I’ll be able to write a review without the caveat of a bad race.

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14 thoughts on “Review: “Run Less, Run Faster” marathon training program

  1. I absolutely think this was the right plan for you. I have the book and have used it in years where I did more triathlons. I would caution people against using this if they are not diligent and committed to equal cross training. I have a friend who uses this plan but her cross training consists of yoga and pole fitness classes. She often wonders why she crashes in her races and I’ve told her that she should get in a pool (she’s a good swimmer) or on a bike. Even an elliptical. In the book, they stress that cross training like yoga is not an adequate substitute because it doesn’t provide the same kind of aerobic benefit that running does. You did a great job of following the plan, the paces and the cross training schedule. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you are right about the cross-training! Strength/flexibility cross-training can be really useful (and would probably be a great addition to the plan!), but it shouldn’t be substituted for the 2-3 sessions of cross-training the plan calls for.

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  2. Hanna @ TheMillennialNextDoor

    I think this is definitely a great program for triathletes, like you, because of all the cross training. I’ve heard many success stories about RLRF but like Allison said, it all hinges on committing to the XT and I think a lot of the people who are more running-focused forget that when they choose these plans. I’ve long been intrigued by these plans, but ultimately, I just don’t like XT enough to pull it off. I’m always afraid to admit that because I know people will be like “OMG HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE XT IT IS SO GOOD FOR YOU!!” Yeah, I know, but I just don’t enjoy it. Sorry. Maybe one day I’ll fall in love with it but I’m not holding my breath. I do marathons because I like running. I sometimes hear about runners saying they do RLRF plans because they don’t want to run as much; to each their own, but, I can’t help wondering why someone would sign up for distance running events if they hate running so much. That said, it sounds like a great option for those who can’t/don’t want to run sky-high mileage and like a little more variety in their training. Great review! 🙂

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    1. I think some people like running, but not enough to want to run every day. In those cases, the cross-training can be a nice break. I think other people want to have run the marathon because it’s a “thing” but don’t really want to put the time in, so they think the RLRF program is a “shortcut” method to a marathon (which it’s not– the cross-training takes time too!).

      I’m a huge fan of doing what you want to do in training! I never understand the “you should do this!” exclamations for people. I mean, at a certain point, you need to do things you really don’t enjoy *if* you want to reach the next level as an athlete. But beginners/casually competitive runners like you and I have a lot of room to improve while still doing things we actually enjoy.

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  3. Really helpful review! You’re the second person whose blog I read that did this program, and it worked well for both of you. I think the speed workouts look fun and wouldn’t mind incorporating them into my schedule, but I like running more and don’t have any interest in swimming or cycling (I would maaaaybe do a spin class), so I’m better off with a more traditional training program. I do cross train, but it’s the non-aerobic variety strength work.

    Thanks for writing this up. I love hearing more about different training methods.

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  4. Thanks for your review, very interesting! I do think that there are pros and cons to every marathon training program, but I tend to favor the more traditional plans. Particularly the ones with several longer runs of 20 miles. I think those runs are very important for aerobic development as you say. I’m going to look into this program though, thank you!

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  5. Thank you for this!! I am reading the book now, making up a training plan for myself for my next half. Thanks for the tips on things you would change. I’m planning on posting my weekly workouts on my blog during my training!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! I have question, maybe you could help me out with. I’m looking at the speedwork/track runs and let’s say there’s a 400m one so on that chart I found my target time to be 2:09. Now is that how long I should run the 400m in or is that a pace?? If it is just the amount of time it’s ran in, then if I wanted to run it on the treadmill, do I need to figure out the pace from this then? I hope all that makes sense! It’s just that if 2:09 is supposed to be a pace isn’t that kind of ridiculously fast? This is like the one thing that is tripping me up but maybe I’m just overthinking it.

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      2. That’s the time you should run the 400m in. So you have to figure out the actual pace from that. Since 400m is (basically) one quarter mile, though, the math is pretty easy. You just need to multiply the 2:09 by four. It comes out to 8:36, I think?

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  6. Pingback: Training for Half Marathon # 2 & 3 – Lifting in Scrubs

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