Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Why the FIRST ‘Run Less, Run Faster’ Method Doesn’t Work

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know that I don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to training.

I believe each runner is an experiment of one and proper training needs to take each individual’s strengths, weaknesses and limitations into account to be effective.

That said, I do believe there are a few universal physiological truths of training that can’t be ignored and are critical to the development of any runner, regardless of their background, goals or speed.

I am pretty open to all methods or philosophies of training as long as they don’t ignore these physiological truths.

If you’re training for a marathon, for example, Hansons, Pfitzinger, Hudson, McMillan all have different approaches, but in the end the training all boils down to the same basic physiological components.

However, there are some “systems” of training that I feel completely ignore some of these basic beliefs of exercises physiology.

In this article, I want to discuss one of these methods – the FIRST: Run Less Run Faster approach – and why I think it’s highly unlikely the appropriate training plan for you.

What is the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach

The FIRST method is a “system” of training developed by researches by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss that centers around a few main principles:

  1. You run a maximum of 3 times per week with all runs being either hard workouts or long runs
  2. You supplement these runs with at least 2 days of hard cross training each week
  3. The running workouts are designed to be intense – usually as hard as you can go
  4. The long run makes up 60-70% of your weekly mileage.

The idea behind this system is you can maximize your time spent running by eliminating easy miles and only running hard workouts.

Why it’s appealing to most runners

1. Seems like a good fit for busy people and those that don’t like running

Obviously, this approach is very appealing to who have yet to fall in love with running. The promise of only having to run three times per week is attractive to those that don’t want to be running and are maybe only running the race as a charity or as a one-time event.

It’s also a tempting approach for busy professionals or parents, since it would seem that you only have to workout three days per week.

But, there’s a false logic in this belief because the cross training is an important part of the program. Using the FIRST method you’ll still be working out 5 days per week.

2. Plays on the misconception that mileage equals injury

Most importantly, there is a common misconception among runners that increased mileage has a direct correlation to an increase injuries. Beginner runners have an irrational fear that running more will automatically get them injured.

This simply isn’t true. Mileage alone does not cause injuries.

Intensity, mechanics, strength and unintelligent training (as we’ll outline below) are far more likely to cause an injury than running easy mileage.

But, the FIRST plan plays off the fear of mileage well enough that many runners see it as a way to avoid injury. Unfortunately, the FIRST method is more likely the best way to guarantee an injury!

The flaws of the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach

Now, to the real meat of this article – why I don’t recommend the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach.

Lack of long-term development

The most critical flaw in the FIRST approach is the blatant lack of focus on aerobic development. But, why is the aerobic system so important and why doesn’t the FIRST system improve it?

In any event longer than 5k, the aerobic system contributes more than 84% of the energy required to run the race. In the marathon, that number is 99%. Here’s the data if you don’t believe me.

That means to run your best at longer distances from 5k to the marathon you need to fully develop your aerobic system.

So, how do you develop the aerobic system? With slow, easy runs. If you’re curious, I outlined in great depth what the aerobic system is and exactly how easy runs develop it here. I highly recommend reading that article if you haven’t already.

The problem with the FIRST method is that it completely avoids easy running. Even the cross training you do is supposed to be hard.

That means you’ll spend 0% of your training time working on the energy system that contributes 99% of the energy required to run a fast marathon.

Hmmm – does that make sense?

Methods based on incomplete data

“But my friend used FIRST and ran well?” You might say.

Hard workouts, any hard training really, will make you generally fitter. This is especially true if you weren’t doing any running prior to the start of the program (as was the case with the FIRST method’s research subjects).

But, you’ll be limiting perhaps the single greatest factor in long-term improvement – aerobic development. So, you may improve a bit in the short-term, but I don’t think it’s a program designed for long-term success.

“Also, didn’t the researchers show that runners who used their program increased their VO2max by 4.2%?”

They sure did.

But, what did the control group, who ran nothing but easy mileage, increase their VO2max by?…Trick question. There was no control group, so who knows how much they could have improved.

Furthermore, the tricky element of aerobic development is that it’s difficult to measure. To gather data on aerobic development, you’d need to measure a runner’s myoglobin content, capillary number, and mitochondria size to name a few. That takes a lot of funding and participants usually aren’t too keen on being poked and prodded.

However, researchers love to measure VO2max since it’s pretty easy (just run on a treadmill) and painless to gather. Thus, researchers point to increases in VO2max as a sign of increasing fitness and a training system’s effectiveness. But, VO2max has little bearing on your ability to run a marathon.

Moreover, having an absolute higher VO2max does not mean you’ll be a better or faster runner.

For example, consider the comparison between Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, two athletes whose VO2 Max values differed by 16%, yet whose best 3-mile times differed by even less (0.2 seconds).

Why is this?

Well, VO2max is only one component to how fast someone can run. Running efficiency and economy (believed to be the case between Prefontaine and Shorter), lactate clearance abilities, aerobic development, and a myriad of other factors.

Increased chance of injury from too much speed

As mentioned briefly above, most runners have an irrational fear that mileage is a primary cause of running injuries.

While I’m certain drastically increasing weekly mileage totals play a role in the likelihood of running injuries, my experience and research has shown that too much intensity is a far more likely reason you might get injured.

Intensity (or speed work) increases your chances of getting injured because it places a far greater stress on your structural system (muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) than easy running.

For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8 minutes per mile (or whatever your tempo pace is), but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the stress of the pace and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.

The FIRST training program prescribes speed work at much faster paces and much more often than most “normal” training programs. This is outlined in their literature and it’s their reasoning for why their system works – “you’ll run faster workouts than other programs so you’ll get fit with less running”.

Unfortunately, one of the selling points of the FIRST method is that running less will help you avoid injuries. In this case, I think running such intense workouts is more likely to get you injured.

Increased chance of injury from running too long

Another very common reason marathoners get hurt is trying to run far too long on their long runs. Not only does running 18-22 milers provide very little physiological advantage, but the chances of injury increase exponentially with each mile.

While there is no doubt that a 20-mile run (or longer) can be a great confidence booster, from a training and physiological standpoint, they don’t make too much sense. Here’s why:

Research has shown that your body doesn’t see a significant increase in aerobic development, specifically mitochondrial development, when running over 90 minutes. The majority of physiological stimulus of long runs occurs between the 60 and 90 minute mark. This means that after running for 3 hours, aerobic benefits (capillary building, mitochondrial development) aren’t markedly better than when you run for only 2 hours.

Therefore, a 16 mile long run for most beginners builds about as much aerobic fitness as a 20-22 miler.

We also have a lot of research that shows injury risk increase significantly during the latter stages of a long run. Specifically, we know that as you get tired your running form begins to breakdown due to muscle fatigue. This places additional stress on the hips and knees (two of the most common injury areas in runners) and forces the body to rely on smaller muscle groups, like the calves, to produce the forces necessary to maintain pace.

All of this leads directly to an increase risk of IT band, runner’s knee, shin splints, and achilles tendonitis.

For the full breakdown of exactly how this works, you can read our article on how running form changes during long runs here.

Despite all this research and the drastic increase in injury risk, the FIRST system places a huge emphasis on running 18 and 20 milers, which makes up 65-72% of a runner’s weekly mileage.

Of course, as a novice runner it makes all the sense in the world that to race a marathon you need to at least run 20 miles in training, right?

Completely false.

You can implement tactics like systematically utilizing accumulated fatigue, depleting glycogen stores, strength training, fatigue-resistant workouts and a myriad of other training strategies that train you for the race distance while reducing injury risk. Here are some great examples.

But what about those runners FIRST has worked for?

Of course, as with any training method, you’ll find countless runners who’ll say it worked for them. But, I’ll ask: was their success because of the FIRST method or in spite of the system?

  • Some runners will be able to finish, and run well, at a marathon regardless of their training method. That doesn’t mean they are reaching their potential. A 3:30 marathoner could very well be a 2:59 marathoner with better training.
  • Likewise, beginners often improve drastically from their first marathon to their second regardless of their training program (assuming they stay healthy).
  • For many, it’s the consistency – 10 months running is 3 times better than only 3 months training no matter how you do it.
  • You also learn a lot in your first marathon – pacing, fluids, fuel – that lead to direct performance improvements outside training factors.

My final thoughts

I’m usually not too hard on different approaches to training as I think there is value in exploring unique ways to train. As long as it keeps athletes healthy, it’s worth investigating. And, as I mentioned earlier, different methods will work for different people.

But, for programs like FIRST’s Run Less, Run Faster, the physiology just doesn’t make any sense. Worst, and most importantly, I believe it guides runners down a road that significantly increases their chance of injury.

Have you tried the FIRST method? I’m open to debate and would love to hear your take, experience, questions or thoughts.

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70 Responses on “Why the FIRST ‘Run Less, Run Faster’ Method Doesn’t Work

  1. I use the FIRST program. I have succeed with it to reach my goals. I am an older runner who find I need days off to recover – I cross training with cycling or walking on my off days. I am nor will I ever be Boston material. I base my program on conservative goals for improvement, maybe 1 minute on a half marathon. I will not hope to PR by those magical 30 minutes you hear so much about. I probably don’t do the program justice I listen to my body while running and don’t always make my pace goals – I will back off instead of pushing to the point of injury. I still will continue to use this program for the fact that it is only 3 days of running, strength training, and cross training are highly encouraged. I personally know I can’t do 5 days of running anymore.

    • I totally agree with your comments. Am the same, an older runner and my goals are consistency without injury. So far, so good

      • Hi Maureen, thanks for reaching out and for your thoughts. Staying healthy is the most important thing about running, so that is wonderful you are able to do that. Have you read our other posts about masters running? You may enjoy them, just let me know if you want me to send some over!

  2. I use part of the First programme except that for cross training in terms of spin, swimming etc. then I go easy! I’ve also checked my performance using vdot and mcmilan training paces as I like this structure. I tend to use events for a whole host of practical reasons for my longer runs using Jack Daniels’ easy paces or from Mcmilan. I tend to not take too seriously any plans that stipulate x mileage every Sunday as that’s a set up for failure!

  3. I use the basic principles of the First Method. I only run three days a week. I am 36 years old and started running on Nov. 29,2012 and ran the philly marathon in 2013. And my time was 3:06 (BQ). On the days I don’t run I cross train with the stationary bike, I swim, and I do Bikram yoga twice a week. I just found myself becoming a more overall healthy person by doing a variety of workouts. I felt more complete. Now don’t get me wrong the days I do run I lay down the hammer and get it in. But the next day I swim or use the stationary bike and I can go at a intense level and because there is no impact I can recover quickly. I don’t think your heart and lungs know the difference concerning your aerobic development weather your running or riding a bike. I think you can improve with this method but you do have to look within yourself and push yourself each day and every workout is important not just the days you run.

  4. I used the FIRST program with my fourth marathon and I had a 30 minute PR. The following marathon I used the Hanson method and ran 10 min slower so it seemed to work for me. That being said, I had a better base going into that fourth marathon than the fifth. After this last race I was a believer in the FIRST program. Now that I’m training with Coach Sarah I am confident that another PR is to follow this spring. I guess we will find out for sure after my next race what works better for me but I’m sure feeling great this training cycle! I do however miss my cross training a little.

  5. Great article. I tried FIRST once, and got injured within a couple weeks. Running every workout HARD is a recipe for injury.

    Yes, it might work for some, but that doesnt’ mean it’s optimal, or the same runner might have done better with a more traditional marathon training plan. Then, there’s the aspect of “what do you do the next time?” I don’t believe it’s a plan you can build upon or use year over year.

    The litmus test I like to use for most plans is “what are the elites doing?” That’s not to say we all should try to train like Elites, but Elites don’t use a FIRST model.

  6. Jeff I really enjoy reading your articles on Runner’s Connect and find them informative and in the case of the “First Program” you offer some interesting food for thought, particularly regarding aerobic base training. I did my PB on your RunKeeper Program designed for (3:30) and completed Mississauga Marathon 2012 (my first marathon) in 3:45 injury free (running last half 20 min slower, maybe I could have run faster). I have trained for and completed 3 more marathons since then with a mix of traditional, faster finish long runs and mega mileage programs that got me similar results but 4-10 minutes slower. With your program there were some pretty brisk quality runs in the program that remind me of the ‘Run, Less, Run Faster’ program I am currently doing, but what I also remember is that similar to Hanson Program you have us running on some back to back days like tu/wed/th or sat/sun. So more of a fast/slow mix, or rather quality/easy mix. It seems ‘First Program’ is missing the ‘easy’ stuff, and even suggests that more rest from running (pounding) or rather recovery is the more important and that easy stuff can delay that and….. maybe the cross training mix can fill the easy aerobic training void. So the real question is…. what is the difference between added slow volume running and added slow volume cross training? Let’s also look at triathalon training structure. Now I have taken uo the First Program and want to see it through. The cross training (using the First App) has hard/easy pace for bike and at age 51 I seemed to hit all recommended paces 9 weeks in with fewer nagging feet but… this program is not a short cut. Running hard 3 x per week is physically and mentally tough, and to be honest Jeff it really reminds me of your fabulous program that got me my PB but instead of 2-3 slow runs per week I hit the bike for 35-60 minutes. At 51 I wonder if maybe I should only run 3-4 x per week. The real question is where is the tipping point for too much fast and not enough slow? Could we improve the ‘First’ program by making the weeking a 2 day event? Pre exhaust slower run Saturday and a 15 miler Sunday vs the single weekend 20 miler? Maybe alternate that on some weekends 2 runs?

  7. I used a system somewhat similar to FIRST a little while ago. I ran 3x/week and cross trained 2x/wk. After 16 or so weeks, I was in excellent condition and ready to PR at the marathon. Unfortunately, I had an accident at work that stopped me from running so I never got to truly test the program. However, I felt I was running stressed very frequently. Additionally, my initial races for the training segment were not ideal and I felt it was because of the lower mileage.
    I am time pressed thus very high mileage is difficult. I also find cross training to be critical for injury prevention. Thus, the ideal training for me is somewhere in-between low mileage and high.

  8. To the author of this article: THANK YOU! I was directed to this article because the runners I train – over 420 through 20 running groups told me this article seemed like something I would write. The truth, people, is that an abundance of easy running days between Long Runs and Speed/Tempo work allows you to actually develop real speed and complete long runs more effectively. There is a reason elite triathletes are nowhere near as capable of competing with the worlds elite distance runners at their particular discipline as was the case when most of us elite level marathoners did when Lance Armstrong laughably claimed he figured he would run “about 2:15″ for his first marathon” despite his outrageously high Max V02 with or without the help of drugs: They: triathletes, cyclists whatever have to share other forms of aerobic conditioning with the aerobic benefits of more running itself. If you are faster on FIRST than you were, I would say to you – keep doing what you do, supplement or ADD running to your cross-training between, even if it is 15-30 minutes with the goal of achieving more days running and running easy and you will see improved performances in both your speedwork AND long runs. Once you adapt (you will) to this load, upgrade it to 30-45 minutes per day between and I GUARANTEE you that you will see improvements adding in no other factors. The authors of FIRST write without experience on running and also prove their inexperience in that their method received traction in the 80’s before, under a different name and also failed. As a runner who ran in through the 80’s to present, It’s even more laughable to see it resurrected under the idea that it is something entirely new. I will applaud it’s death a second time (and a third).

  9. Jeff, thank you for having the courage to take this on. Here are a few thoughts from an older mid-pack runner:

    1. Runners who go hard 3x/week are really pushing it to get effective recovery in. This is especially true if they are older or less fit or don’t get enough sleep .
    2. My experience when weekly long runs make the majority of my miles has been unsuccessful every time. The LR crowds out everything else after a while.
    3. This kind of training will turn off a lot of people. Easy miles allow you to enjoy running ans support active recovery. i bet if you followed runners who go hard every time they all quit.

    Again thanks to all those at RC. Not only do you share your priceless knowledge but you are examples of the great work ethic and positive attitudes of great endurance atheletes.

      • I tried the Run Less program and it helped me push harder than I had during previous training cycles. However, I am starting to dread those hard interval sessions! Someone noted above that taking the enjoyment out of running may drive some to quit. That rings true for me. I love a good long run on a nice bright day but if every one of them needs to be agony I’d rather pass. And, those sweat sessions, trying to hit the pace given for intervals (I do them on the treadmill), are becoming aversive! I’m going to take what’s useful and keep intervals in my training but also keep the runs I enjoy and not worry about killing myself 3 times a week.

        • Thanks for your input Chris! Seems you are not the only one to feel this way, but at the end of the day, running should be about enjoying, and if that means backing off a little, then that is the right thing to do. You are making the right choice!

  10. I loosely follow the FIRST program. I was able to run a 3:24 at the Boston Marathon in 2013 (3:38 this year due to injury during training)… That first year of following FIRST, I only ran 2 days a week – the speed/track and the long run. I didn’t miss a workout. I felt great during the 2013 race. I got injured this year but it was a freak thing – pinched nerve in the back that caused heel pain. I don’t think that was related to not running enough. I think FIRST can work if you train your butt off on the cross training days. I would do marathon sessions, easy pace, on the elliptical and stair master.

    All this said – I’m now training for an October marathon. I do like to run and I’m not a beginner so I’m interested to see what I can do for time with more days of running and following an approach more like the one you suggest. Reading this article was very interesting and gives me some hope to improve on the 3:24 time given I only ran 2 days a week last year! Thank you, Amanda

  11. I think people don’t really understand the First program and end up doing something that is more reasonable. . Like “I train 3 days ( 1 long, i interval, 1 tempo) and cross train 2 days with some light swimming and cycling”. Yes cross training can be good for any program. That isn’t the basis of the First program… it is doing it all pretty hard even the long runs.
    EG on the 10k program long runs for a 20min 5k runner would be 7min17 a mile. Running for 10 miles at that pace for some weeks. But normally a long run pace would be recommended as 7.34-8.50 a mile.

  12. I have used the FIRST program, minus most of the cross-training days. Running seemed to get so much easier for me, and I loved the challenge of pushing myself on the speed days. I liked how down to the second everything was. I didn’t always hit the paces they requested, but I did feel so much stronger, and when I did my first 10K in Nov. 2012, it felt really good. Committing to running more than 2-3 days a week is a struggle for me. I don’t run all the time, I’ll occasionally take a few weeks off. I’m currently using the 10K for Pink App which is good for me as well, and is 3 days a week. I was considering adding some of the FIRST runs to this.

    I do have to say though, as I was training for a marathon (on rough roads unfortunately), I was getting very sharp pains in my ankle/top of my left foot. I blamed FIRST for it, and decided to stop training to let it heal. However it could have been due to the surface I was running on. I am no expert, but I think that FIRST’s long runs count pretty well as an aerobic activity and as the tempo runs get longer, even though you’re pushing yourself, they’re pretty aerobic as well. Just some thoughts.

    I really do appreciate your perspective, it is definitely food for thought, I’m just trying to find the best way currently to make running a little less of a struggle for me. Thanks again.

  13. Hi Coach Jeff!
    Thanks for the great article! Yes, aerobic development first is the “base” or foundation. It takes patience and time to development to its full potential for each runner. Arthur Lydiard said it many times to development the aerobic base first to its highest degree possible for a given runner. That’s why his great 5K and 10K runners did marathon distance training.

  14. Hi, this is an interesting view on FIRST, but I offer a different opinion. As a more experimented runner with 7 years running at least 4 times a week, I came to a performance plataeu. After my 5th marathon at 45 yrs old, I couldn’t seem to get under 3:30. FRIST made me train more focused and greatly improve my speed (getting PRs in 10k & 21k) along the way to my best marathon yet at 3:12. Yes the program is very stringent and required a full commitment to completing the speed workouts, I find it is very valuable for runners that had a good aerobic base.

  15. Geez Jeff why did have to burst my bubble! LOL I am trying a FIRST for the first time. So far I like the program a
    Though I actually do cross-fit and Body Pump on the evenings of my run workouts and easier cross training ( rowing or indoor cycle) on the non run days with one complete rest / stretch day. So far seems to be working okay. I have run many marathons however so I wonder off it works better for people with a well developed base already.

  16. So I am a 36 yr old Officer in the Army. I grew up doing gymnastics so running was not a really big part of my workouts growing up hence I never really learnedhow to properly run. Now in the military I have to complete a 2 mile run for our bi-annual required physical fitness tests and I have my struggles. I maintain a high level of fitness as I do work out 5 days a week, but I constantly struggle with my run. I know that I am in serious need of help with my run I just don’t know what to do, were to go, or how to go about it. I would love any help out there as I would really like to not only improve my running ability, but I would also like to start enjoying running. Can anybody help? Thanks. Just for SA, by the way my last APFT I completed my 2-mile run in 15:02.

  17. I think Rob has hit upon what I believe is the key to having success with FIRST- having a good, or at least fairly decent, base. It also seems like it is the basis for their program as you set your goals based upon where you are. If you don’t have a base and the workouts injure you, you most likely didn’t set your goals realistically.

    As an older runner I have tried many, many different programs to get beyond a certain point where I would flame out and give up- usually with my knees feeling like they were in shreds. As I followed the FIRST program I was able to burst through that glass ceiling as my body responded to having those days to recover. I did much, much better. It also fit in my schedule much better.

    I did suffer a couple of injuries when I got thrown off schedule and tried to go too fast too soon upon resumption.

    • Mark, you bring up an important point. The book states that the training programs are based on having a base built up already. It tells you that you should not start a FIRST training program for a specific BQ time if you can’t do three workouts in a specific amount of time all in one week. The book cautions that if you start a training program that you do not have the base for, you run the risk of…INJURY.

      I had a good experience with my FIRST training. I used FIRST to train for my third marathon, but I already had a base built up from training for the first two. I met my BQ goal. However, I went contrary to the book’s recommendations for my fourth marathon; I didn’t rest enough (four months between marathons) and I sought to decrease my time by 10 minutes (too much too soon). The interval workouts were hard for me. I actually did the interval workouts from the 3:45 BQ training program, and the tempo and long run workouts from the 3:40. I ended up injuring my hamstring and had a slower marathon instead.

      Every runner is different, of course. I found the interval and tempo workouts to be invigorating. They were hard, but I loved them. I found the long runs to be fairly easy, as you gradually increase your pace until you get to your goal mile time. I rode my mountain bike on three of the cross training days–short but hilly rides–and did an extended core workout on the seventh day.

      After the fourth marathon, I decided to train for 50Ks instead, focusing on endurance rather than speed. Someone asked me after I ran my first 50K if I was in the best shape of my life. I said no. I was in my best shape after FIRST training. Having spent two years training for ultra marathons, I have now come full circle. I want to improve my 50K times next fall, so I have started doing the FIRST workouts again. I am starting out at the 4:15 BQ pace for the interval and tempo runs (my BQ qualifying time is now 3:55). The long runs are too easy with the aerobic base I have from ultra training, so I am doing those at whatever pace feels good. I am also following my own schedule:

      Monday: vigorous mountain biking + core
      Tuesday: tempo workout + core
      Wednesday: short, easy trail run + core
      Thursday: interval workout plus circuit training
      Friday: extended core workout
      Saturday: long run (alternating between 10 and 16-20 miles) at even pace OR trail run
      Sunday: 6-10 easy miles

      The back-to-back longer runs on the weekend come from my ultra background. As I move into my ultra training in July, I will have to spend more time on the trails, and run up to 12 miles on Wednesdays and up to 26/10 on Sat/Sun, so I am planning to run tempos one week and intervals the other. (The ultra training I follow alternates easy weeks with hard, so I don’t run 26/10 every weekend!) With the exception of Sunday’s runs and the interval or tempo run, most other runs will be on trail. Not exactly the FIRST program anymore, is it? We’ll see how it goes.

      • Hi Ellen, thanks for sharing! We agree with your points, and as you can see, we have our doubts about the method. If you would like any more information about ultra running (or anything else) let us know, we would be happy to help! We have lots of great articles. Good luck with your ultra!

      • Ellen,
        I was glad to see someone putting this into ultra training. I am training for fall 50k/50mi. I just finished a trail 50k for which I constructed a training program based on long slow running and hill workouts and not much speed work. I am starting a new cycle and looking at putting together some new ideas. I stumbled on the the FIRST program but like you said I want to stick with the back-backs. At first I thought it makes no sense to add lots of speed work into ultra training, but I am looking at some flatter races where maintaining a fast steady pace may be possible. I plan to bike the cross train days but not go hard, rather do recovery. I don’t think I read the book close enough because it sounds like people are saying the plan is to go hard on the cross train days–that won’t work for me as I know having active recovery days between hard days works best for me. Whether running or cross training. I do wish they would go into more detail why they picked specific intervals they did given all the possible options. i would be curious to hear how it goes maybe let us know in a future post… Chris

          • Okay I read the first program a little closer and I see the cross training days are not recovery days si I would say definitely I won’t be doing that program. I need the active recovery days. After 2 speed workouts and a fast long run last week my calf is hurting. Which was an injury I had 3 weeks prior to my last 50k. Less running and more biking/strength training was the way I got through that time and did the hilly 50k with no injury. My prime injury time is always the weeks following a race. So I was very cautious and didn’t run for 4 days after the race. I am going to ramp up mileage for now and add back speed work later. I think I will go back to Daniels 2Q program speed work with more realistic paces.

            Btw Tina, I really enjoy the podcast, great info, I listen to it on the commute. Thanks for putting all the work into it.

          • Hi Chris, thanks for reaching out and sharing your story. We would love for you to give our program a try, and you can sign up for it on this page. We have a great video series explaining what we do if you are interested? Would love to have you on the team. Oh, and thank you so much for your kind words about the podcast, comments like that really make my day 🙂 Any requests for guests?

        • Chris,

          The 50Ks I do all are on trail and hall ave significant elevation gain, ranging from 4500 to 5500 feet. After my hamstring injury from marathon training and a pelvic injury when I trained for my first 50K, I was kind of afraid to do any speed work. I just focused on endurance. However, I found that I could only improve so much that way.

          Even if you intend to run a mountainous 50K on trail, speed and tempo work are still necessary if you want to improve. I have read that the front-of-the-pack ultra runners include both.

          I had forgotten how much I loved the tough FIRST interval and tempo workouts. So far, it is going well, even though I am running on two of the cross training days. My long run mile time has come down 15 seconds a mile already. I am super pleased with the improvement. I haven’t been doing as much trail running lately, but this weekend I will do 20 miles on hilly trail. I am anxious to see how I do.

          Good luck to you! I hope we both find the speed work improves our ultra races.

  18. Have been running long distance for almost 10 years now. This year started using FIRST and I feel stronger and my long distance runs are going surprisingly well as I train for an October marathon. Not only do I feel great, but my gait feels more natural…always felt like I was using too much quad at a slower pace. I also do not feel overwhelmed by training as I have in the past. Works very well for me.

    I disagree with you assessment, but respect your opinion.

  19. This is going to sound like I’m defending the Run Less Run Less Program – but I just wanted to point out what I perceived when I read it. When you read the book, you notice immediately the pains the authors take to start people of slowly. Their first program is the 5k Novice program that begins with walking. With the Boston plan’s it is pretty obvious that you must have a great base to begin these programs. There are test runs for each of the qualifying times to see if you are ready to tackle the program. They address running injuries and their experiences seem to point towards reduced injuries. All that to say I AM IN NO WAYS AN EXPERT OR EVEN CLOSE. Just a few very limited observations. 🙂

  20. Hi Jeff,

    I enjoy reading a lot of your articles but this time I feel that you’re being unfairly critical. To claim that the FIRST method “doesnt work” is a statement that many would refute.

    I don’t think that the FIRST program is particularly well suited for beginners; you have to enjoy running fast to enjoy the plan. I’m using the FIRST method to train for my second marathon after getting injured repeatedly after trying various more conventional higher mileage programs. I’m 38 and my knees are in poor shape so I need more time to recover. I also really like to fast and push myself in training so the FIRST program suits me well. That said, with every run being a quality one with a specific prescribed pace, I sometimes miss the nice easy runs that allow you to really take in your surroundings. If I had tried FIRST for my first marathon I’m not sure I would have made it to the starting line.

    But now, with my sights on a BQ, I enjoy the physical and mental challenges that the very precise target paces bring about. Some of the cross-training is not that hard and helps boost aerobic fitness. I would love to run more often but that may not be in the cards for me. A plan that keeps me injury-free as I get faster is one that I can get behind.

    • Thanks, Johan. I think you missed the part where I talked about injuries though. You’re far more likely to get injured running fast than you are running more (but slower).

      Glad it’s working for you though. Let us know how the race goes.

  21. I am following FIRST (novice, not experienced) for my 2nd marathon. I did Hal’s novice to complete NJ in April and now I’m shooting for Philly in November. I think I have a pretty solid aerobic base, however I’m finding that my legs are burning almost every day of the week on this program! I am doing the cross training, but, to be honest, I’m not finding the cross training all that challenging yet. It actually has me worried! I switched to FIRST for two reasons: 1) I love triathons and this seemed like a great way to keep cycling & swimming in my routine 2) We didn’t have a time goal for our first marathon – and I’m training alone now…so I want to see how fast I can do it. I kind of feel like they lured me in with the Run Less part…and they are trying to kill me with the Run Faster part!! I am injury free so far (6 wks into it…knock on wood) – but my legs are ALWAYS burning and tired! I am also struggling to hit my tempo & track times. It seems that if I hit my track times on Monday, my legs are too tired to hit my tempo time on Wednesday. I am improving though. (as the temperatures drop and I get used to doing these types of runs!) My long runs are slow, and I have yet to miss hitting goal pace for those. (in fact, I find it hard to run as slow as they want me to on the long runs!) We’ll see how things hold up!! I ended up dropping one run/wk during my last marathon training (Hal Higdon) because I had foot pain that only seemed to pop up after 2 consecutive running days. That seems to be a trigger for me. However, pace used to be an issue for me (as far as injuries are concerned) – when I first started running, 6 years ago. Hopefully FIRST doesn’t bring back those old “you ran too fast” pains!!

  22. Well, been following “first” now for 11 weeks (love the speed work) PB in my half marathon last week by 8 minutes ( 6 years to break two hours ) all runs have been on schedual and paces — except my long runs which have been 25 seconds too fast ( will try to correct next few) I work two jobs and I am soon to be 54 so time and energy are at a premium . Your article makes a lot of sence but really wasn’t what I wanted to read this late in training. Three marathons under my belt crashed and burned with severe leg cramps each one . Finished each but not with a smile. Wish me luck in the MCM October 26th
    Thank you again for all the great advise . Stuart

  23. Hi guys,

    I ran FIRST program starting from a moderate base of milage (8 milers) but not too unfit (42 min 10k). My aim was a sub 3hr marathon. My PB was 3:26. I really liked the FIRST program as it had specific targets related to your current fitness level. I ran the program for four months but rarely did the cross training. After two months I did a 3:15 and 8 weeks later I got my sub 3 (2:59:11) so for me it worked. Thats not to say other programs wouldn’t have worked either but I love the intensity of the runs.


  24. Rather than a one size fits all training plan approach, I would advise people to hire a certified coach. There simply is no substitute for getting personalized attention on a regular basis from a qualified expert, and I cannot argue with the results thus far (lowered my 10k PR by nearly 3 minutes in just two months).

    If you try to do something that is not geared specifically to your fitness / goals, you are taking a serious gamble with your body.

  25. I have used Run Faster Run Less for about five years. I stumbled on this page while trying to find the workouts online, as I’ve misplaced my copy of the book.

    A three-day-a-week program is for more than just people who “have yet to fall in love with running” or “don’t want to be running and are maybe only running the race as a charity or as a one-time event.” Due to a long-ago knee injury (torn medial meniscus) and surgery, my knee gets sore if I run on consecutive days. So I do three FIRST-style runs each week and bike on three other days during good weather. (I sometimes use a rowing machine on worse days.)

    I don’t follow the FIRST plan exactly – the way I feel on a given day affects my speed and distance. But basically, I do one LSD, one tempo, and one set of intervals each week, as the book recommends. It may not have the optimal proportions of speed / LSD / etc., but I think its philosophies helped me go from a 5 mi/wk casual runner to finishing four half-marathons and a full.

    Thanks for using your expertise to critique the FIRST program. I’ll give your advice some more thought.

  26. I want to try this… but love running long slow hours .. one problem I always have with programs where you don’t run every day but do cross training activities or rest is that I seem to put on weight. Only running…. long, slow every day… seems to give me the energy expenditure balance I need versus the calories I consume. I am small and light and seem to need to eat the same vegetables etc. as everyone else to get the nutrients (otherwise I get colds and feel sick and tired) but if I don’t “over do” the exercise compared to a normal size person I put on weight. Once I follow programs that have too many days off I get slower because of the excess weight.

    • Hi Susan, that is okay. If you have found something that works for you, and you enjoy doing it, then that is all that matters! This post was focused towards those who are striving after time goals. If you are running to keep the weight off, or just enjoy running for the simplicity it brings, then keep going with what you are doing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Let us know if we can help you in any other way!

  27. Hi,

    I am huge fan of the FIRST method but was very interested in your article after I happened to see it in some google search results. A bit of background: I ran my first marathon when I was at uni with a program that had me running 6 days a week, I ran 3,53 having come down with shin splints about a month before the race and not doing any more training. The shin splints lasted a good few yrs. Then at the age of about 34, I was desperate to run another one and wanted to beat my time and my brothers time (3,40). I liked the sound of the FIRST program and took it up. I love my running and am flying high on endorphins after a good workout so I really got into it. I wasnt doing the ‘plus 2’ other workouts but was doing track repeats once a week pretty hard, together with a mid distance and a long distance run. I was going for a 3,13 time which based off long distance times was feasible. Then about 7 weeks before the race I came down with hamstring problems. I was out for about 15months, thinking time and rest would heal it but I have since seen a physio who has helped me get back into running again very slowly. I agree with your synopsis but I do think there is a place for the FIRST program if slightly adapted. I run three times a week now but dont do the track repeats and I also avoid the hills, I’m really focused on getting the base fitness up before pushing it again, and think the FIRST program doesn’t emphasise this enough. Either that or new runners just push right past it and get injured. If your someone who really gets aggresive with the high intensity workouts (and/or the long distance runs) you are asking for injury, especially if your getting a bit older.

    • Thanks for sharing Mark. You are right, and glad you have found what works for you. Sometimes it does take us a little while to understand our body, and figure out what is best for us. You are right that a lot of new runners do end up injured as they are not sure how to do this. Thank you for sharing your story, it will be great for others to learn from. Stay healthy 🙂 Oh, and as for getting older, we found that you are at a lower risk of injury 🙂

  28. As a novice runner/triathlete I tried the FIRST plan as my first training program, using the cross-training days for my biking & swimming. At the time I was 65 years old. I found myself just wasted from trying to attain my target paces given in the plan, and also had a frustrating feeling of inadequacy. I kept it up as best I could for about 6 months, at which time my naggingly painful knees became a moderately severe injury that totally sidelined me for 3 months and took over a year to (almost) completely recover from.
    Although I had had some instruction in running form, in my emphasis on attaining the given pace, I developed bad habits of overstriding. Also, my hips and core were in no way prepared for what I was asking of them.
    This year, I used a program that is based on HR, not pace, with mostly aerobic work. At first, I was concerned that I wasn’t trying to RUN FASTER, but I stayed with it. I also devoted a lot of time to hip & core strengthening, and running form. Nearly every race of the year was a PR, and more important, no injuries.
    Although FIRST might work for some people, I agree with you completely and think it’s dangerous especially for novices.

    • Thanks for sharing Deb, that is the point we hoped to get across, and you are definitely proof of that. Glad you have found something that works for you, and you are mostly injury free. Did you read our post about how you actually are less prone to injuries as you age, so that should also help you 🙂 We have a podcast with Margaret Webb next week, which you will likely enjoy, very inspiring! Have a great Monday!

  29. Of the three training runs provided by FIRST, I find the most benefit from the two weekday speed drills, although I tend to not take them too religiously. As for their taking the long runs up to only 20-30 seconds slower than race pace, I find that to be ridiculously too fast. This only leads to burnout later in the training. Slow and steady does sometimes win the race.

    • Very true Christopher. It is all about listening to your body and finding what works for you. It is good you are not too rigid with your training, and do not mind changing it up if you need to. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’m 60 and definitely agree with you that the long run ought to be done at a fairly easy pace. I also usually skip the cross-training, excepting an easy bike ride or even a walk in the park. But I swear by the weekly intervals and tempo run. At this point, I focus on 5K races; last year, I ran 23:39, while a few years back I was closer to 27:00. Also, this sort of intense training has had remarkable side-benefits to my cognitive abilities – memory seems to be much better than 10 years ago!

  30. I just PR’ed at Big Sur under the FIRST Training Program. I found the training via challenging, as it is a solid mix of speed work, tempo runs, long runs, plus cross training (e.g., spinning, swimming, and rowing).

    I’ve tried a number of higher mileage marathon training programs over the years, and I have never had anything close to the success as with FIRST.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for sharing, if you have found that it works best for you over other training plans, then by all means do what works! Let us know if we can help with anything else!

  31. Must return to read this whole thing but will comment this now: I used RLRF in 2013 for marathons, in 2014 for half marathons & so far in 2015 for the Boston Marathon, with great success. However, I really began to miss: just going out for a run at no particular pace. On RLRF I ran three days a week and every single run I was very conscious of the particular pace I had to meet. Just about all my runs were done to meet those speedy paces. This year, at week 6 of Boston Marathon training I added a 4th day a week of running to prepare for a 50k I was doing (on 5/2). It was wonderful to just go out for a run and it not matter what the pace was. Following RLRF, you don’t get those runs. (I was able to fit the twice weekly cross training into lunch breaks in a way that I would not have been able to fit a run into lunch breaks, so that was one upside to RLRF)

    • Hi Carolyn, thanks for reaching out. That is a great point, and when you come back to read the rest of the post, you will see the other reasons we do not recommend it. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your training, make sure you keep those enjoyment runs in your training!

  32. I have been a runner for as long as I can remember! Sprinter in HS and college and short road races as I got older. When I turned 40, running Boston landing on the bucket list. I researched TONS of programs before embarking on the journey. Run Less, Run Faster worked great for me…I BQ’d at my 2nd marathon ( my 1st was Chicago in 89F weather) and proceeded to BQ 2 more times. I LOVE to run but I also love my family, job and joints. I highly recommend the FIRST program…was injury free all 5 times I used it.

  33. I guess it depends on how you actually feel about running. I suspect some people don’t actually like running that much but want to try a marathon so that they have something to post on facebook.

    Personally, I run 5-6 days a week because I LOVE it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t care for swimming or cycling. I did both in my youth competitively and have no desire to return to them. If I could only run two days a week, I still wouldn’t cross train. If your goal is simply getting a finisher medal, you may have a different opinion.

    I am puzzled sometimes by articles in running magazines that encourage you run LESS. They recommend cross training and/or weights instead of easy days….isn’t the whole point of a running magazine to encourage running?

    • Hi Lucinda, thanks for reaching out. Good point, it definitely does change depending on your perspective. We always love to hear that you run because you love it. We need more runners like you in the world!

  34. I run for 19years, I tried to run 4-5 even 6 times week but 3-4weeks and I feel myself broken. No matter if my runs are light or strong. Its just too much times. My other activity is weight lifting (i train 3 times a week two times a day, each training is 40min and each muscle is trained 1.5 time per week, and legs once per week) for the same 19years. if i run less than 3 times my runing fitness is drasticaly down. if i run more than 3 times i get overtrained . I love runing. I would run 7 times a week and two timeas a day if my body would accept it , but reality is diferent, so i very much beliver of 3 times runing, especialy with other intensive workouts.

    • Hi Rolandas, thanks for reaching out. It is great that you have found what works for you, and if 3 times per week is what works best, then by all means keep that up, especially if you are using the other activities like weight lifting as well. Thank you for sharing your experience! Is there anything we can help you with?

  35. I don’t thing FIRST is focus on Marathon.
    It works for marathon 3h24m07s for me, and “other group” of friend runners with other training method made 3h35m and high. At the starting point we were all at similar fit and time. I agree that I have more potential. From the very beginning I made better time than them in the testing races. Anyway, it is an interesting point and difficult to clear. The method is good enough for me. I would not say that it doesn’t work. What is obvious is that it not work for every runner!.
    IMO FIRST works better for half marathon and 10k runs. It is a good training method, easy to follow and well structured.
    By the way, I didn’t follow all the method (poor constraining routines). And I don’t think it is a good idea to start focus on the marathon. I’ve been training with FIRST method 3 years and increased my resistance and speed. After some half marathon (7) I prepared the marathon with a good base. FIRST has some incredible advantages for a 42 family father as me. Running “only” 3 times a week lets me time for my family and other hobbies.
    I wouldn’t recommend it for EVERY runner, but it is obvious that works for lot of people like me.
    By the way, have you found any good alternative?.

    • Hi Aki, thanks for reaching out! Our good alternative is our training program, which head coach Jeff Gaudette has created through hours of researching runners. You can learn more about it through the free ebook we offer on this page, we would love to send you a copy!

  36. Hello, I have been using the FIRST method for 2 years and had really great results from it lowering Half and Full pb’s significantly (1:34/ 3:21, down by 10 & 30mins). Although at the same time I have changed my diet and drink less alcohol, more than one component. Also I have not followed religiously as I have been terrible at keeping up the cross training.
    I am now trying work on how to get the Marathon pace lower and reduce late stage cramps, which is why I have started to read more on issues with running form in your site. So I can understand your comments, to date it has worked for me but keen to see how I evolve my training to improve and I might need to add back in an easier run for more form focus…….

  37. I tried to train for a half marathon and full on three separate occasions and ended up with stress fractures and various other injuries following the typical “more is better” mentality. I used the FIRST program, and finished my first marathon, and PRd on my half and have been running injury-free for almost two years! It’s not for everyone, but I can tell you that it is the only way I can realistically train for a marathon. (More fun, more time for family, no injury, PR)

  38. What do you think of the FIRST programs for 5k and 10k? (More specifically for someone wanting to improve from a 5k PR of 25 minutes?) Thanks.

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