Hanson's Marathon Method (second edition)

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The Hanson's Marathon Method has gained attention because it limits the longest Long Run to 16 miles for most of their plans. While I disagree with the Hanson approach to Long Runs, they do include marathon paced midweek running, and many runners have had success with Hanson. However, the results of the Marathon Survey suggest that relatively few uses of the Hanson plan actually limit their long run to the recommended 16 miles. The book includes three fully documented plans ("Just Finish", "Beginner", and "Advanced") plus an example list of workouts from an Elite runner. (This article should be read in conjunction with my Comparison of Marathon Training Plans.)

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1 Marathon Survey

The Marathon Survey shows that users of the Hanson plan rate it about four out of five, which is about average (most runners like their plan). Runners improved their time over their previous run by an average of about 11 minutes, which is a little less than many other plans. About a quarter of the runners Hit The Wall, which is also about average for the survey. Respondents also indicated they felt that the long runs were too short, but the speed work was about right. The average Long Run distance was 18.65 miles, which is the lowest of any of the plans, but still significantly longer than the recommended 16 miles. Only about a third of the runners using the Hanson plan actually limited the distance to the 16 miles.

2 The Long Run Controversy

The Hanson's limit of 16 miles for a Long Run is based around a number of concerns, which I've listed below, along with my thoughts on their concerns.

  • A 20 mile run can be physically injurious.
    • While it's reasonable that running further than your endurance will support, I've seen no evidence that any particular distance is associated with an increased injury rate. It seems far more reasonable that the issue is the lack of gradual build up than any specific distance that increases risk.
  • A 20 mile run can be demoralizing.
    • Any run that takes you beyond your capabilities can be demoralizing, be it a long run or speedwork. If a long run is accomplished without undue fatigue, it can be a moral boost.
  • There is plenty of academic evidence against 20 mile training runs.
    • I have been unable to locate any such evidence, despite many hours of searching. The book provides no references to any research.
  • The Hanson Long Run approach is like the last 16 miles of a marathon, not the first.
    • This is an odd statement; if it is true, then the Hanson Long Run is going to be as damaging as the race itself. If we take this as hyperbole, and assume their idea of cumulative fatigue makes the 16 mile long run as hard as other plans 20+ mile runs, then the arguments still don't make sense to me.
  • A Long Run should not be more than 25-30% of total weekly mileage.
    • I've seen no research or valid rationale for why this idea has taken root in the running community. The idea that increased fatigue from shorter runs allows for a longer Long Run does not seem reasonable. Compare this with other forms of fatigue: would working more hours in the week allow you to work an even longer day at the weekend?
  • 20 miles is an arbitrary distance.
    • This is perfectly valid, but I've not seen other plans use 20 miles as a specific distance. Of all the plans I've evaluated, only a tiny number have their longest Long Run as 20 miles.
  • A 2 hour easy-to-moderate length run will deplete Glycogen so much it may take 72 hours to recover, which impairs other training.
    • I would agree that running longer than your endurance will support can impair further training that week, which is why I believe it's critical to build up the long run gradually. However, I've run 26+ mile Long Runs four times a week for months without having any issues with glycogen replenishment.
  • The Marathon does physical damage, and therefore so will a 20 mile run.
    • An all-out marathon race tends to cause significant damage, especially in those that have not trained sufficiently to build up their endurance. However, a slower paced long run can be achieved without minimal recovery effort.
  • Research says 2-3 hours is the optimal time for a Long Run.
    • I have been unable to locate any such research despite extensive searching.

3 The Beginner & Advanced Plans

  • Key Characteristics
    • The Long Runs are limited to 16 miles, but it has more Marathon Paced shorter runs. (Most runners using this plan actually run longer than this.)
    • Three key workouts; interval, tempo and Long Run. While called tempo runs, these are actually done at marathon pace. The beginners plan has 5 to 10 miles at marathon pace runs during the week and the advanced has 6 to 10 miles.
    • For the first half of the plan the interval training is at around 5K pace, and for the second half is at 10 seconds faster than marathon pace.
    • All training paces are defined based on goal pace.
    • No speed work or marathon paced running during the Long Runs.
    • Running 6 days per week.
    • Psychologically people's experience with the Hansen plan varies. Some people find that because the shorter Long Runs are easier, they are more confident going into the race, where other people worry about being underprepared.
    • Note that there are other plans available for purchase on their web site, but these are not included in this evaluation. I've seen some references to the purchased plans having longer Long Runs, but I can't confirm this.
  • Modifications
    • Dropping one of the midweek short easy runs to improve rest and recovery might improve the fitness gains, but it also might undermine the accumulated fatigue that the authors believe are necessary to make sure that distance Long Runs sufficient.
  • Overtraining risk
    • The plan explicitly builds up cumulative fatigue a key contributor to Overtraining Syndrome.
    • This plan seems to have the good success with runners that have previously burned out on other plans.
    • The reduced distance of the Long Run clearly reduces the training stress, but having a Long Run, two days of speed work and only one day completely off may cause problems.
  • Pros
    • The midweek marathon paced runs provide good specificity, and get the athlete used to running at marathon pace. This is my favorite aspect of the Hanson plan and something I think is a huge benefit.
    • For much of the training program the second speed work is performed at 10 sec faster than marathon pace. Like the marathon paced tempo runs, this helps focus the runners' training on race pace. (Note that this is a fixed 10 second offset, rather than scaling based on race pace. 10 seconds faster than 6:00 min/mile is twice the percentage change in speed compared with 12:00 min/mile. While they fixed offset is easier to calculate, this would be better as a percentage.)
    • The shorter length Long Runs may suit some runners, especially those with a history of burning out or struggling on other plans.
    • All training paces are clearly defined, even down to the recovery pace for intervals.
  • Cons
    • The plan suggests that there 16 mile Long Run simulates the last 16 miles of the marathon not the first. However the plan has two short easy runs on the preceding days allowing for relatively good recovery. Of course, if the Hanson Long Runs did simulate the last part of the race, then this would result in excessive fatigue.
    • The Hanson plan claims to have a scientific basis, but only quotes anecdotal advice from coaches. I have been able to find remarkably little scientific evidence concerning the Long Run, and none of it supports the Hanson's ideas.
    • While the Hanson plan states that 16 miles is the longest Long Run, they use longer long runs for their elite runners. These elite runners are covering the distance faster, but everyone racing the marathon has to cover the same distance.
    • The training paces vary with the marathon goal, which is a significant difference from the Jack Daniel's or FIRST approaches, where your training pace is based on your previous result. An athlete's goal might be a 2:30 finish, but if their prior finish is 4:00 hours, then the Hanson approach will have them training way too fast. That's obviously an extreme example, but it is quite common for runners to set aggressive goals.
    • The long runs are between 30-45 seconds/mile slower than race pace. Personally, I don't believe that a 16 mile Long Run at 45 seconds per mile slower than race pace prepares an athlete adequately. That distance and pace represents only about half the effort required for the race itself (using Glycogen depletion equations as a proxy for effort).
  • Good For::
    • Beginner: 0. This plan probably has too much speed work for a beginner, and the Long Runs probably are not sufficient. In addition, the ramp up from the start to 16 miles starts off slowly, but then builds up rather rapidly. Look at Galloway or Higdon instead.
    • Novice: 1. This plans Long Runs probably don't give sufficient adaptation for new marathon runner, but is worth considering, especially if finding the time for longer Long Runs is problematic.
    • Ringger: 2. This plan has plenty of speed work which you should be used to as a ringer, but the short of Long Runs make this a risky plan . If you can't find the time to do the longer distance Long Runs, then this plan is worth considering.
    • Maintenance: 2. For a runner just trying to maintain their marathon skills this is a tough call. The Hanson approach requires far less time commitment to the Long Run, and you may have an existing level of endurance that allows you to do well on the shorter Long Runs. However, the plans also require quite a bit of speedwork and six days/week of running, which may be more than someone looking to maintain wants to do.
    • Improver: 3. The effectiveness of the plan is likely to depend on your running history. If you have built up a good level of endurance, then these plans may work for you by focusing on lots of marathon paced running. However, I would recommend the Jack Daniels Plan A on three days a week.
    • Enthusiast: 2. The different characteristics of these plans might be appropriate, but I'd suggest trying Jack Daniels Plan A on three days a week or FIRST.
    • Elite: 1. I don't believe the plan as it is good for elite runners due to the shorter Long Runs, and because it seems like the Hanson's use a different approach with their elite runners. If you look at their example elite plan in the appendix you'll see long runs in the 18-21 mile range. The Hanson's have remarkable success with elite runners; it's just not with this plan. (I've not looked at the Hanson web plans to know if they provide different approaches there.)
    • Limited Training Time: 2. While not as demanding as some plans, this does require you to find time for a 10 mile midweek run, and moderately Long Runs at the weekend. However, if your time limit is the longest single block, then the shorter Long Runs might be an advantage to you.
    • Traditionalist: 0. This is far from a traditional plan.
    • Triathlete/Multisport: 0. These plans require 6 days/week, so there is little time left in this plan for alternative sport training.
    • Prior Overtraining: 4. Many of the recommendations for this plan have come from people who've previously burned out or struggled with training levels of other plans, so this has more of a proven track record for this category of athlete. However, the Hanson method seems to rely on starting the Long Runs in a fatigued state. I believe that Jack Daniels Plan A on three days a week is more appropriate.
    • Sub 3:00: 2. This plan could work for faster runners.
    • 3:00-4:30: 3. The success stories I've come across with this plan seemed to be with mid-pack runners.
    • 4:30-5:30: 2. This plan could work for runners as slow as 5:00 (the slowest covered in the book), but you're probably better off with Galloway.
    • 5:30+: 0. Use Galloway.
    • Speedwork. You have to be prepared to do speed work with this plan

4 The Just Finish Plan

  • Key Characteristics
    • The "Just Finish" plan is the Hanson beginner plan without the midweek speedwork.
    • No speed work or marathon paced running during the Long Runs.
    • Running 5-6 days per week.
  • Modifications
    • It's unclear to me how this plan could be modified without creating something radically different.
  • Overtraining risk
    • While the Hanson plans plan explicitly use cumulative fatigue, it's hard to see this plan developing an meaningful fatigue without the athlete being rather unprepared by the end.
    • The plan has a high level of Training Monotony, which is likely to raise the risk of overtraining.
  • Pros
    • Compared with other plans, the training load is extremely light. The peak weekly mileage is only 47 miles.
    • The shorter length Long Runs is likely to appeal to some runners.
    • All training paces are clearly defined.
  • Cons
    • The training load of this plan is radically lower than other plans. Removing the speedwork from the beginner plan leaves very little. There are three 16 miles Long Runs and some easy running, nothing more.
  • Good For::
    • Beginner: 2. This is who the plan is intended for. My concern is that the plan won't prepare adequately for the stress of the marathon.
    • Novice: 1. Given your history of speedwork you'd be better off with an alternative.
    • Ringger: 0. You're experience at shorter distances means you don't need to avoid speedwork.
    • Maintenance: 2. For a runner just trying to maintain their marathon skills this plan requires little commitment, so your existing endurance may allow you to use this plan to keep things more or less topped up.
    • Improver: 0. This plan is for a beginner only.
    • Enthusiast: 0. This plan is for a beginner only.
    • Elite: 0. This plan is for a beginner only.
    • Limited Training Time: 3. This plan requires relatively little time, though the time is spent at an easy pace, so I'd recommend looking at FIRST.
    • Traditionalist: 0. This is far from a traditional plan.
    • Triathlete/Multisport: 0. These plans require 6 days/week, so there is little time left in this plan for alternative sport training.
    • Prior Overtraining: 1. The high levels of Training Monotony make this a poor choice.
    • Sub 3:00: 1. You need more than this as a fast runner.
    • 3:00-4:30: 2. A beginner mid-pack runner is probably best suited to this plan.
    • 4:30-5:30: 1. This plan could work for runners as slow as 5:00 (the slowest covered in the book), but you're probably better off with Galloway.
    • 5:30+: 0. Use Galloway.
    • Speedwork. There's no speed work with this plan.

5 The Elite Plan

The Elite plan is included in Appendix A of the book, and is not covered in great depth.

  • Key Characteristics
    • The plan uses a 9-day cycle rather than the more usual 7-day cycle of other plans. This can work well for elites who often don't have the restriction of only running long on the weekends.
    • The Long Runs are generally 18-21 miles, but the plan has many other days of running doubles, with 12-14 in the morning and 4-6 in the evening.
    • Expect to run 16+ miles most days of the plan.
    • Weekly mileage is in the 120-140 mile range.
    • There are various speed workouts, including a 20 miler that picks up pace from 6:34 to 5:10 pace.
    • The plan only shows one rest day in the 15-week plan.
  • Modifications
    • The taper is extremely short, and I suspect even elites would benefit from a little more.
  • Overtraining risk
    • The plan has a high training load and a high Training Monotony, though it's also fairly short, having only about 10 weeks of intense training.
  • Pros
    • The Hanson program has produced successful results, though as always, it's hard to know how optimal a plan is from its success stories. The harder a plan, the more beneficial it's likely to be for a smaller subset of runners who can survive it. Also, there's no way of knowing how the successful runners would do with alternative plans.
  • Cons
    • My main concern with the Elite plan is probably the lack of details provided. This doesn't quite feel like a plan that the authors are intending the reader to use, which makes it's inclusion in the book a little odd.
  • Good For::
    • Beginner: 0. No, this is a true elite plan.
    • Novice: 0. No, this is a true elite plan.
    • Ringger: 2. If you are an elite runner at shorter distances, then this is worth considering. However, check out Lydiard and Jack Daniels Elite plans as well.
    • Maintenance: 0. No, this is not only for elite runners, but to allow them to improve.
    • Improver: 0. This is going to be too tough for most improvers given your lack of prior hard training.
    • Enthusiast: 1. I'd recommend studying this plan even if you don't use it directly. You should also read up on Lydiard and Jack Daniels Elite.
    • Elite: 3. The Hanson's success with elite runners means you should seriously consider their plan, along with others.
    • Limited Training Time: 0. No, as you'd need time for 120+ mile weeks.
    • Traditionalist: 2. The 9 day cycle is not traditional, but the other aspects are close to Lydiard and other traditional elite plan.
    • Triathlete/Multisport: 0. You need to be focused on just running.
    • Prior Overtraining: 1. The high load and Training Monotony make this risky.
    • Sub 3:00: 3. This plan is for faster runners.
    • 3:00-4:30: 0. This is for elites only.
    • 4:30-5:30: 0. This is for elites only.
    • 5:30+: 0. Use Galloway.
    • Speedwork. You have to be prepared to do speed work with this plan.

6 Long Run Analysis

Plan name # Runs
16+
# Runs
20+
Total Miles
Over 16
Starting
Mileage
Weeks
To 16
Weeks 16
To Max
16 To
Race
Max To
Race
Initial Ramp
(First To 16)
Core Ramp
(16 To Max)
Overall Ramp
(first to max)
Hanson's Marathon Method Just Finish 3 0 0 4 10 0 7 7 1.16 0.00 1.16
Hanson's Marathon Method Beginner 3 0 0 4 10 0 7 7 1.16 0.00 1.16
Hanson's Marathon Method Advanced 3 0 0 8 10 0 7 7 0.63 0.00 0.63
Hanson's Marathon Method Elite 10 6 29 10 3 5 12 7 2.20 0.89 1.50

Notes on the columns

  • # Runs 16+. I consider that the 16 mile mark defines the beginning of "the long run". While this is somewhat arbitrary on my part, I believe that counting the number of long runs that are 16 miles or more is a useful metric. The first run the diesel 16 miles or more is highlighted in green in the weekly section.
  • # Runs 20+. There is some limited evidence that suggests that runs over 20 miles provide important adaptations for marathon running, and help prevent "hitting the wall". This column gives account of the number of runs that of 20 miles or more.
  • Total Miles Over 16. Another way of evaluating a training plan is to look at the number of miles run in excess of 16 miles. For example an 18 mile long run would count as 2 miles in excess of the 16 mile Mark. This metric reveals some dramatic differences between some of the advanced plans.
  • Starting Mileage. This column shows the mileage of the first long run, and may be useful in selecting a plan based on your current fitness.
  • Weeks To 16. This is the number of weeks from the start of the plan to the first 16 mile long run. This section of the training plan I've called the "initial ramp up" that brings a runner from their initial level of fitness to what I consider the threshold of performing long runs.
  • Weeks 16 To Max. This is the number of weeks from the first run of 16 miles or more to the longest run in the plan. If the longest run is repeated more than once, I use the first instance, which is highlighted in red in the weekly section.
  • 16 To Race. The number of weeks from the first run of 16 miles or more to the race itself.
  • Max To Race. The number of weeks from the longest long run to the race itself.
  • Ramps. One key aspect of any marathon training plan is how quickly it increases the mileage. It seems likely that one of the biggest factors behind excessive fatigue and injury from the long run is at this rate of mileage increase. Therefore I have attempted to quantify this rate of increase as a "ramp", which is approximately the number of miles per week the long run is increased by. (For those interested in the details I use the least squares approach to calculate an approximate slope between the two points on the training plan. This approach has some obvious limitations when the training plans have cut back weeks.)
    • Initial Ramp (First To 16). This is the ramp from the first run to the first 16 mile or longer run.
    • Core Ramp (16 To Max).This is the ramp from the first 16 mile or longer run to the longest run.
    • Overall Ramp (first to max). The ramp from the first run to the longest run.
Plan name W:18 W:17 W:16 W:15 W:14 W:13 W:12 W:11 W:10 W:9 W:8 W:7 W:6 W:5 W:4 W:3 W:2 W:1
Hanson's Marathon Method Just Finish 4 4 5 5 6 8 10 10 15 10 16 10 16 10 16 10 8 race
Hanson's Marathon Method Beginner 4 4 5 5 6 8 10 10 15 10 16 10 16 10 16 10 8 race
Hanson's Marathon Method Advanced 8 8 10 8 12 8 14 10 15 10 16 10 16 10 16 10 8 race
Hanson's Marathon Method Elite 10 10 14 16 18 20 20 20 21 14 15 18 20 20 16 race

7 Comparison With Other Plans

Main article: A Comparison of Marathon Training Plans

  FIRST
Marathon
FIRST

Novice

Jeff Galloway's
You Can Do It!
Hanson's
Marathon Method
Just Finish
Hanson's
Marathon Method
Beginner/Advanced
Hanson's
Marathon Method
Elite
Jack Daniels
4Week
Jack Daniels
2Q
Jack Daniels
Plan A
Jack Daniels
Elite (AKA 12 Week)
Pfitzinger's
Advanced Marathoning
Hal Higdon's
Ultimate Training Guide
Waitz's Run
your first marathon
Running With Lydiard
Beginner 0 2 5 2 0 0 1 1 1 0 0 3 2 0
Novice 1 3 4 1 1 0 3 1 2 0 0 3 1 0
Ringger 2 4 2 0 2 2 3 3 4 1 1 2 0 2
Maintenance 2 2 3 2 2 0 3 2 2 0 0 4 0 0
Improver 4 3 3 0 3 0 3 4 4 3 3 2 0 1
Enthusiast 4 2 3 0 2 1 3 5 5 4 3 2 0 2
Elite 3 0 1 0 1 3 1 3 3 4 3 0 0 3
Limited Training Time 4 4 0 3 2 0 5 5 5 4 0 2 2 0
Traditionalist 2 2 2 0 0 2 3 3 3 3 4 4 4 1
Triathlete/Multisport 5 5 4 0 0 0 5 5 5 3 0 2 3 0
Prior Overtraining 3 3 4 1 4 1 5 4 4 0 0 0 0 0
Sub 3:00 5 5 2 1 2 3 4 5 5 5 4 2 0 3
3:00-4:30 5 5 4 2 3 0 5 4 5 3 3 3 2 1
4:30-5:30 3 3 5 1 2 0 2 2 3 0 0 2 2 0
5:30+ 0 0 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Like Speedwork 5 5 0 0 3 3 5 5 5 5 3 1 0 5
Hate Speedwork 0 0 5 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 4 5 0