Furman re-visited

In March I had set myself the goal of running a half marathon in 99 min in the autumn.  In my blog postings around that time, I looked into the potential advantages and disadvantages of the Furman training program: a relatively low volume, high intensity program that consists of three running sessions per week – a long run a tempo run and an interval session, all to be run at predetermined paces based on target race pace, together with several cross training sessions.

At that stage I still had time for some additional base-building before embarking on a program focused on the half-marathon.  With my intended race now little over three months away, it is time to make a definite decision.  I continue to be tempted by two aspects of the Furman program: the fact that it requires only three running sessions per week augmented by cross-training, and the fact that I enjoy the sensation of running at moderately fast paces.  So to help me decide, I have looked into the evidence from two sources: information gleaned from the experiences of other bloggers who have followed the Furman program; and a review of the progress I have made during the past three month of base-building.

The experiences of other bloggers

I sporadically follow the blogs of a number of runners whom I would describe as dedicated amateurs: amateurs in the sense that they appear to run mainly for the love of running; dedicated in the sense that train regularly while meeting the demands of a regular job and/or family.  In recent months, I have kept an eye out for dedicated amateurs who have committed themselves to the Furman program.  In fact I have come across only two such bloggers.  Maybe this is itself tells us something, as there appear to be substantially more blogs describing programs that might be described as Lydiard-style programs.  Nonetheless, the two individuals have interesting stories to tell.  It would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from only two accounts, but the advantage of the stories of individuals is that one can assemble a richer picture of the background fitness and other individual factors that get lost in the reports of scientific studies.

I am not sure about the etiquette of quoting from other people’s blogs about themselves, but assume that if they have put the material in the public domain that they are happy for others to try to learn from their experiences. You can read their own accounts to get the facts; any conclusions I draw say more about me than about than about them.  Nonetheless, I will let both individuals know that I have mentioned them so they can correct any misperceptions if they wish. I would also be delighted to hear from anyone else who has tried the Furman program.


http://runningnowherefast.blogspot.com/2007/08/furman-first-to-finish-program.html Charlie adopted the Furman program to prepare for the Marine Corp Marathon (in Washington DC) in October 2007. At time he was a 52 year old who had been running off and on since high school, but had begun to take running more seriously recently.  In April 2007 he had run a half marathon in 1:32:26, and a 10K in 41:58:55.  His usual training program included a large amount of cross training, including use of elliptical, stair-stepper and swimming.  He set his Furman training paces according to a planned marathon pace of 7:20 min per mile which corresponds to 3:12:00 for the marathon.  He started at the 4th week of the 16 week Furman marathon program but at that stage had already been training hard for 5 weeks. Here is a description of the final stages of his first Furman session, a 5x1Km interval session at 5:53 min per mile  pace (3:40 /Km), following a rest day:

‘I could barely finish the fourth one…leaving me gasping for air and taking a minute more for my RI. For the fifth one I dropped the speed down to 10 mph [6 min/mile] and barely finished that one…thankful the series was over.

However he found the 20 mile long run that week easy and couldn’t restrain himself from increasing the pace from the planned 8 min/mile to an average of 7:15 min/mile for last 2 miles.  At the end of the week he concluded

‘My first week of the Furman program is under my belt. I found the speed intervals was my hardest day and the other two days were fairly easy.’

As he progressed through the program he continued to find the speed interval sessions hard but coped well with the other sessions.  On race day, he covered the first half of the marathon in 1:37:38, but a few miles later he developed muscle cramps and struggled to finish in 3:47:28, a very respectable performance but well short of his target.  Only two weeks later, on 11 November he entered the Richmond Marathon. He started more slowly and did the first half in 1:41:10.  This time he did not suffer cramps during the second half, and finished in the creditable time of 3:23:26, in fact a really impressive performance only two weeks after his travails in the MCM.

So in his marathon campaign in 2007 Charlie did very well, but fell a little short of the potential indicated by his half marathon and 10K times recorded in April.  I would anticipate that a runner with a half marathon time of 1:32:26 and with legs optimally prepared for the rigors of the longer race, would be capable of a marathon in the range 3:12:00 to 3:15:00. It plausible that a larger number of long training sessions run at a less punishing pace might have resulted in better conditioning of his leg muscles, though whether or not that conditioning could be achieved in a single season by any training regimen is doubtful.



The other ‘dedicated amateur’ blogger who used the Furman program is Paul.  I discovered his blog as a result of a comment he left on my blog, reporting the outcome of his recent run in the Sri Chinmoy half-marathon in Williamstown (Melbourne).  Paul is a forty year old triathlete who had run a half-marathon in 97 minutes about 15 years ago, and in February 2009, initiated his campaign to prepare for the Melbourne marathon in October.  In the first week of his campaign he completed a 500m-20km-5km. triathlon in 1:15.43, running the final 5Km in 23.:29.  Thus, at that stage he appeared to have the speed and endurance to run a half-marathon in around 98-99 minutes.  He confirmed this potential with a 10K in mid-March in 44:54, which according to the Daniels VDOT tables, corresponds to a half-marathon time of 98:30.

At the end of March he commenced the Furman half-marathon program, starting 10 weeks out from his interim target of a half-marathon at the end May.  This is what he wrote after his first session:

‘This is hard!!! I had to complete 2x 1.5km easy (5.28min/km) and 3.5km tempo (4.38min/km) with a cool-down so a total session of 11km. I found pacing pretty hard to set and ended up running a little faster on the easy bits (7.47 and 7.56) and a little slower on the tempo sets (16.21 and 16.48).’

He didn’t find the first long run of the program any easier.  A few days later he wrote:

‘Crikey, that was a hard run today! I knew this program wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t realise I’d find it so hard from the start.   Somewhere along the course today I realised that this program says Run #3 each week is a long run. It does not say it is an EASY long run. In any case today was a 13km run at HMP (Half Marathon Pace) +12 sec/km…But, managed to run 63.54min against a target of 63.42min so essentially right there. But it was no gentle Sunday morning stroll.’ 

However, as the weeks went by Paul started to find the long runs easier, and by the end of the program was comfortably completing the long runs at a pace around 4: 53 per Km.  He went on to record 1:33 in the Sri Chinmoy half-marathon on May 31st.  He will soon be starting the Furman marathon program.  So, my interim conclusion from Paul’s experience is that for a runner with a sound base, the Furman half-marathon program is tough, but can produce a spectacular improvement

A review of my own situation

In my younger days I used to enjoy the sensation of running at a moderately fast pace.  During my brief return to regular running during my fifties I had been a little frustrated by the fact that I was no longer able to run fast, but nonetheless had started to get the sense that it might again be possible, as my pace for tempo runs decreased to around 4:30 min/Km.  Then an exacerbation of my long standing asthma and also the demands of work led me to stop running for about 18 months.  On realizing how unfit I was becoming I restarted running again in 2007, but progress has been slow.

For two years I trained mainly at fairly low intensity, rarely covering more than 50Km in a week, and averaging around 35 Km per week.  In September of both 2007 and 2008 I had run a half-marathon, on each occasion recording a time of 101:xx minutes.  I decided that this year I would make a more determined effort to increase training intensity and have set myself the goal of a half-marathon in 99 minutes in the coming September.

When I reviewed the options for a training plan in March, I had weighed up the merits of either a Lydiard-style relatively high volume program or a Furman high intensity program.  I realized that I did not have an adequate fitness base to enable me to tackle the Furman recommended training paces, especially the recommended pace for the majority of the long runs (half-marathon pace + 12 sec /Km) .  For a target half-marathon time of 99 min the recommended long run pace is 4:54 min/Km.  I therefore decided to defer the decision until after I had spent a further 10-12 weeks building up my fitness base.  As stated above, now is the time to make the decision.

In the past three months, my asthma has continued to be an intermittent problem, leading to mild wheeziness and a 35-45 % fall in expiratory flow rate after a vigorous training session.  Furthermore, the fact that I often arrive home from work after 8pm in the evening, tired and hungry, has curtailed my plans to do really solid base building.  The mainstay of my training has been back-to back moderately long runs in the lower aerobic zone on the week ends, with several short evening sessions during the week.  Typically I have done one session of uphill strides; a fartlek run of 6-8 km; an easy run with some alactic sprints and an elliptical cross-training session most weeks.  I have averaged a little over 50 Km per week.  During this time my aerobic fitness has continued to improve slowly.

As I have mentioned previously on my blog, I find that heart beats per Km for runs in the aerobic zone over easy terrain when not stressed is a fairly consistent indicator of my aerobic fitness.  When I recommenced training in 2007, my score on this measure was over 800 beats/km, by February 2009 it was around 700 beats/km and now it is typically 650-660 beats/Km.  I estimate that a value of 645 beats/Km would represent adequate aerobic fitness for a 99 min half marathon.   On my current training schedule, I would anticipate achieving this level by September, so there is little reason to change my current schedule for the purpose of increasing aerobic fitness.

However, the other main requirement for achieving my half-marathon target is conditioning my leg muscles to cope with a pace of 4:42 min/Km for 21Km without substantial muscle damage.  How near am I to achieving that goal?  My back-to back longish runs on the week-ends have demonstrated that I can fairly easily maintain a pace around 6 min/Km for 20Km.  Yesterday (Saturday) I decided that I would test my ability to increase the pace during a 16Km run.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, I had had a busy week at work and I felt very lethargic as I warmed up.  Even after a few stride-outs over distances of 50-150 metres I still felt very sluggish.  So I decided that the most practical thing was to start at a pace of around 5:10 min/Km, which I anticipated would be in the lower aerobic zone, and increase pace steadily with the hope of reaching and maintaining the my intended half-marathon pace over the final few Km.

I covered the first 4Km in around 20:30, with a heart rate in the lower aerobic zone as expected.  I continued to feel sluggish but nonetheless enjoyed the sensation of gradually increasing my pace.  With 4 Km to go my legs still felt heavy but I was by now near to my intended race pace and really enjoying feeling of running faster.  I covered the final 4Km in 18:48 min (4:42 min/Km), which was exactly my target pace.  My time for the 16Km was 80 minutes and mean heart rate 130 beats/min, corresponding to 650 beats/Km.  Although my average pace was modest, this run clearly extracted a price from my muscles. I awoke with appreciable stiffness in my leg muscles, and during an easy 8Km recovery run, my heart rate was 696 beats/Km.  Experience has taught me that an increase of this magnitude indicates a moderate degree of over-reaching.  If I take it easy tomorrow I expect that I will have recovered completely by Tuesday.

So what conclusions should I draw?  I am fairly confident that irrespective of the specific training strategy I adopt, provided I continue to train regularly for the next three months, my aerobic fitness (i.e capacity to deliver oxygen to my muscles at the required rate) will be adequate to allow me to achieve my target half-marathon pace while remaining within the aerobic zone.  However my leg muscles are still far from adequately conditioned for the task of maintaining this pace for the required distance.  The two ingredients missing from my recent program are tempo runs in the upper aerobic zone, and longish runs (around 16 Km) at a pace not far below race pace.

The tempo sessions and fast longish runs might be provided by the Furman program.  However, I do not anticipate the demands my job becoming any less in the next few months, and I do not relish the prospect of fitting two very demanding midweek sessions into my current work schedule.  Furthermore, I do not want to abandon my current back-to-back longish runs on weekends entirely, as I think these runs have served me well so far.   Therefore, I think it is probably more practical to continue with a weekly program that includes 5 or 6 running sessions, including at least one tempo run and a hill session each week, and longer runs on the weekend that alternate from week to week.  One week I will do a fairly fast run of around 16Km (aiming for the Furman recommended long run pace of 4:54 min/Km)  and the following weekend I will do back-to-back  longer runs in the lower aerobic zone.

Maybe this medium intensity/medium volume plan is neither fish nor fowl, but I think it will more enjoyable than a rigid Furman schedule and I suspect it will be adequate to allow me to achieve my goal this year.


9 Responses to “Furman re-visited”

  1. Paul Says:

    Hi Canute

    No trouble at all for you to paraphrase bits of my blog. In fact, it is interesting for me to read a subjective commentary on what I have done. Sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees!

    A few things that remain important for me:

    1. The target pace for my runs during the program was far below what I ran – mostly because I was coming from a moderate base and so my fitness was increasing week to week. So, in retrospect, you’d say my long runs were, on average, around 30sec/km slower than race pace. (Important point I think?)

    2. The target pace for my marathon training runs basedon this Half Marathon time are SCARY! 1km repeats in 3.45; tempo runs at 4.22 pace, etc. I am somewhat nervous about tackling these sessions and may yet “cop out” and run them at paces closer to the ranges McMillan suggests (www.mcmillanrunning.com)

    3. Regardless of what program you follow, you have to enjoy what you do!

    I look forward to reading about your progress.

    Cheers, PB

  2. canute1 Says:

    I suspect that you are right to point out that the fact you were coming from a low base relative to your potential was important. As you became fitter the Furman paces became noticeably more manageable for you. Nonetheless, the program got you fit enough to run a really good half marathon at Williamstown. So maybe one lesson is that the Furman paces are likely to prove continually demanding for someone who is already near their limit when they start the program. However it is good news that a program of three moderately hard sessions per week together with cross training produced such a major improvement, at least in the half marathon. For the marathon, there is the additional challenge of conditioning your legs to cope with a demanding pace for the full 26.2 miles.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Medium intensity/medium volume does sound much more palatable than the tough pace demands of the Furman schedule.

    I think your 16k in 80 minutes was an excellent run. Is the 130/min in your mid aerobic zone? This is interesting for me, as I have a similar HM goal – around 99 minutes, either at Gold Coast, or Melbourne. My 7k runs are around 700 beats/km (on an undulating dirt course) and that’s mid to upper aerobic for me. I think I’d be maybe 720 beats/km if I were to run 16k in 80, which would be upper aerobic. Still, there’s time for improvement!

  4. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, Yes, 130 bpm is mid aerobic for me. Because you have a greater maximum heart rate than me, and probaly a higher heart rate at lacate threshold, you can afford to run at a higher number of beats/Km than I can, while remaining in the aerobic zone. At a pace of 4:40/ min/km, an RS score of 700 corresponds to a heart rate would be 150 bpm, which was the heart rate you maintained in the Sydney HM. As far as I am aware, for most people RS score is higher in a race than when training, so you probably need to increase your aerobic capacity a little from its current level, but not by much

  5. MB Says:

    I was wondering how you reconciled the very large difference between the VO2 max paces suggested by Daniel, and the v02 max paces suggested by Furman? E.G. Furman suggests 1000 repeats at 3:43 for a 20:00 5K, and Daniel suggests 3:55.

  6. canute1 Says:

    I cannot reconcile the difference between Daniels’ recommended 1K speeds and the Furman recommendations. In accord with your statement, Daniels states that a 5K time of 19:57 corresponds to VDOT =50 and the recommended 1K repetition pace corresponding to VDOT=50 is 3:55 per Km. Furthermore the target marathon time corresponding to VDOT 50 is 3:10:49.
    In contrast, according to the 2006 Furman marathon training pace worksheet, the pace for 1000m intervals is 5Km pace /mile – 27 sec.
    20 min/5Km = 6.45 min/mile = 6:27.1 /mile. Hence Furman 1000m interval pace is 6 min/mile, which is 3:45 min/Km. Even more puzzling, the Furman planned marathon pace is 5K pace (min/mile) + 1 min) which is 7:27.1 min/mile and corresponds to a marathon time of 3:15:22.
    Thus Furman recommends a faster 1Km interval pace for a slower planned marathon time, in comparison with Daniels.
    Daniels’ recommendations probaly assume a more typical training schedule including more sessions of running per week -perhaps six sessions, whereas Fruman is designed to be a fairly intense program with only three running sessions per week. Therefore it is not surpising that the interval paces recommended by Furman are more demanding than those recommeded by Daniels. The question of whether or not Furman paces are too fast for optimum benefit is less easy to answer.

  7. KevinL Says:

    I’ve decided to embark on the FIRST training method for an upcoming marathon but I’m somewhat confused about setting a target marathon time. By taking a somewhat recent 5K time, Furman suggests that my marathon time would be around 3:30. Thus, I’m suppossed to set my workout times based on this number.

    What I’m curious about is how does this predicted time take into account improvements that I’ll likely make over the next 16-18 weeks? Do I need to set a target time faster than my “predicted” time?

    • canute1 Says:

      I am afraid I have only just seen your comment and by this stage my response is far too late to be of any value to you. However it is an interesting question, so I am responding for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts on the topic. The short answer is that the safest plan is to set paces based on current 5K performance. Prior to a period of specific marathon training, most people find it very difficult to achieve the marathon performance indicated by current 5Km pace. One of the main goals of marathon training is to achieve the endurance necessary to sustain one’s potential marathon pace for the full distance. For a person who has recently done training appropriate for 5Km racing, one should definitely not make the Furman paces any faster than those indicated by current 5K.
      If on the other hand, a person has recently done a lot of long, slow running, current 5K pace is probably an under-estimate of 5K and marathon potential whereas endurance capacity is likely to be fairly good already. In such circumstances it might be reasonable to set paces on the assumption that a realistic 5Km pace is faster than any recent 5K – especially if 5K performance during recent years was substantially faster than current performance.

  8. Elliptical Machine Says:

    Elliptical Machine Review…

    […]Furman re-visited « Canute’s Efficient Running Site[…]…

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