Marathon training plans think I can do what??

After I wrote about registering for my first marathon, I went for a run. And on my run, I started daydreaming about heading out for my first 20-miler of training, and started wondering about the details of what marathon training would be like. When I came home I did what anyone with a well-developed competitive streak would do: I started researching marathon plans.

There is so much information out there. When I first thought about training I imagined I would use Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning book, for no reason other than it has a lot of stars on Amazon. But my Achilles injury took me down a few notches and I realize that I need a lower mileage plan for n00bs. I'm a little worried about how injury-prone I seem to be, but I do want to set some challenging goals for myself in addition to just finishing.

So, in this early stage of research I have run across some of the most popular plans, which, curiously, each predict wildly different finish times. Ready?

These are all based on my recent 47:59 10k time (7:43 pace) from the Chi-Town 10k.

  • McMillian's Pace Calculator predicts I'll finish in 3:45:11 (8:36 pace).
  • The FIRST plan predicts I'll finish in 3:41:59 (8:28 pace).
  • Runner's World's SmartCoach predicts I'll finish in 3:29:38 (8:00 pace).
  • Pfitzinger predicts I'll finish between 3:20:30 (7:38 pace) and 3:22:30 (7:43).

Okay, so first, these times all seem super fast. I am shaking my head at these times. These all just strike me as way too fast. Second, this is a wide range of expected finish times -- all based the same 10k pace. And not one of these plans cites any references or shares an algorithm, so I can't even see what kinds of assumptions they're making.

Common sense tells me that Pfitzinger must be the strongest plan because it is saying it can drop my marathon pace to below my 10k pace. Ohhhhkay? In real life, is this actually something people do?

This raises about twenty questions about the science of marathon plans and training philosophies. I know the FIRST plan is anti-"junk miles," and says you should sacrifice high mileage to allow 2-3 targeted workouts every week. That makes some common sense to me. But the keys to the Pfitzinger plan -- periodization, long runs at marathon goal pace, and high miles -- also sound pretty good, too. So, how do regular laypeople like myself decide what plan to use?

I mean, I think most people would agree that there are lots of plans that can prepare a person for a marathon. It seems obvious, too, that some plans prepare people better than others -- and that some plans are riskier for newer and injury-prone runners. I just really wish I knew how to figure out what I should be looking for in a plan, and how to tell whether a plan is "too much" for me.

I know it's early to think about this kind of thing, but this is a useful distraction from how unprepared I feel for Wisconsin on Saturday. So if you have advice for a first-time marathoner on selecting a training plan, I'd love to hear it!