Hanson’s Marathon Method: The 16 Miler

A couple of months ago, Runner’s World magazine published an article entitled, “Less is More.” The essence of the article was about a guy who followed the basic Hanson’s marathon schedule and achieved success with it. I read the article, which we really had nothing to do with, and was left feeling a little frustrated. The dozens of emails that we received afterwards, furthered my frustration. Not with the readers of the article, but with the author of that article. I feel like it is misleading. From the title alone, it suggests that you can run a marathon on less training, particularly the long run. For the purpose of simplicity, let’s begin with the long run and where the 16 mile long run came to be.

I want to begin this discussion by pointing out that the 16 mile length is not a magic bullet, not is the 20 mile distance. Somewhere along the last 40-50 years, the 20 miler was deemed a necessity for marathon success. It probably comes from the idea that most people tend to “bonk” at 20 miles. That still leads to the question, “Why do we use 16 mile long runs in our training programs?” To that question, there are several answers. Let’s examine them.

  • The Time Factor: By this I am talking about time on your feet. Research has shown that there are two critical time thresholds for enhancing aerobic fitness at the cellular level. The first is 30 minutes and the second is 90 minutes. Since we are talking about long runs, 90 minutes seems to be a good introductory time frame. Research also shows that after 3 hours of running, you have crossed the point of diminishing returns. What I mean by that, is the structural damage to your muscles, along with fuel depletion, that you are going to have to take several days to recover from a singular run. Take a look at this chart:
Per Mile16 miles20 miles
7:00 min/mile1 hr 52 mins2 hrs 20 mins
8:00 min/mile2 hrs 8 mins2 hrs 40 mins
9:00 min/mile2 hrs 24 mins 3 hrs 00 mins
10:00 min/mile2 hrs 40 mins 3 hrs 20 mins
11:00 min/mile2 hrs 56 mins 3 hrs 40 mins
12:00 min/mile3 hrs 12 mins 4 hrs 00 mins

Table 1: Total time a 16 and 20 mile long run would take for common long run paces.

The point here is that there has to be a delicate balance between optimal aerobic development and avoiding significant structural damage. Too little of a long run and you don’t stimulate the proper adaptations. Too long of a run and you have to take too much time to recover from one singular training run. This takes away from other valuable training before and after the long run.

  • The Percentage Factor: When you look through popular coaching books, you will see that a long run will constitute 25-30% of one’s weekly long run. However, when they get to the marathon sections of their books, they seem to abandon those basic training principles. In some programs you will see long runs constitute 50%, or more, of the weekly mileage total.

There are a couple problems I see with this. The first is that it means a person is probably only running 3-4 days a week, counting the long run. This means that the mileage over the other days is very small- probably 3-5 miles over the other days. That is ok if a person wants to simply complete the act of finishing a marathon, but to me, it seems like the runner would want the best experience possible for such a grueling event.

Some people may argue that a longer long run will better prepare them. I will disagree. That completely goes against another basic training principle, which is balance in training. When you are focusing on one run a week, that’s not training. That is preparing every week for a single run that breaks you down so much that you need 3-5 days to recover from. There’s no continual adaptation occurring.

25% 33%
50 miles/week 12-13 miles 16-17 miles
60 miles/week 15 miles 19-20 miles
70 miles/week 17-18 miles 23 miles
80 miles/week 20 miles NA
90 miles/week 22-23 miles NA

Table 2: Long run distance for marathon weekly mileage.

As you can see from the chart that when you look at basic long run principles, for the average person training for a marathon, a 20 mile long run falls outside from the basic principles. Now remember the time factor as well. You may be running 60 miles a week, but a 20 miler may take you 3:20, while a 16 miler may take you 2:40 minutes. The 16 miler is a much better fit because it fits into the time frame sweet zone, as well as meets the percentage criteria.

  • Cumulative fatigue: The idea of cumulative fatigue centers around the long run. When you look at a lot of other training programs, there is also a primary focus on the long run. However, the idea of cumulative fatigue means that the runner is going into the long run slightly fatigued from the training during the previous days. It also means that training will resume as normal the days following the long run. There isn’t a single day that is overly difficult for the runner, but every day is tough enough that there isn’t a full recovery between all runs of major importance. In other words, the long run is literally in the middle of the training cycle, not the end of the training cycle (weekly).

Putting it all together: So, with the information presented, it becomes clear that it’s not the 16 miles that is the magic number and it’s not 20 miles. It’s what works based on the numbers. A long run needs to be in the sweet zone of time on your feet, but also within a reasonable percentage of training volume for the week. The reason we use the 16 mile run in the clinics and free schedules is that it fits with the mileage that our runners are hitting and the paces that they are running. The long run provides the training stimulus needed for marathon training, but also provides enough freedom to engage in runs that are just as important for marathon training during the rest of the week.

I know that the next question will be, “Well how fast do I run my long runs?” That is a topic for another blog and I will try to address it.

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  • Rob Becerra

    I actually followed the training chart in the article “Less is More”. I must admit I was sold on the idea while quickly reading through the article. So for the next few weeks/months I followed the the miles set for each day. Mind you I experience a bad cold, flu, and a hurt ankle throughout the training schedule, so I did miss days of training. But overall I would feel good after each run as I would mark off each day and miles I ran. The training was all in preparation for my first marathon, the LA marathon. I planned the training weeks to end exactly on race day. I am happy to say that I crossed the finish line at 04:12:56. So I was happy with the training chart in the Runner’s World magazine! Thanks. Rob B

  • Rush

    I followed the Hanson regimen to prepare for my first marathon (Charlotte, 2011). I can say without a doubt that I was in the best shape of my life and felt fully prepared going into my first 26.2 miler.

    • That’s great! We can talk and write about how good the method is, but in the end, it’s results that matter! Thanks for sharing with us!

  • Marcy Sacks

    Just finished my 13th marathon, the first with the Hanson’s plan. I absolutely shattered my previous PR, beating it by over 10 minutes (result yesterday: 3:18:16). I also ran the entire 26.2 with no walking, a feat I had never achieved before. I felt strong and confident. I am completely sold on this program and will use it as I prepare for my 6th consecutive Boston in April 2013. Thank you so much!

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  • SJ

    I recently bought and read the book. Learned a lot, especially new to me was much of the information on nutrition and hydration. One thing I remain unclear about is how to maintain fitness after a marathon. The book mentions to rest entirely for two weeks afterward. Is it recommended to maintain cardiovascular fitness through other methods other than running during this time? Also new to me was the suggestion of working on speedwork and shorter races (5Ks) before using the HMM for a race months or years later. Is there a 5k preparation course recommended by the Hanson Coaching Service? Thank you!

  • The main thing isn’t about maintaining fitness after a marathon, but making sure you rare fully recovered from it. People really have a hard time understanding how fragile the body is after a race like that.

    As for shorter races, I don’t think we specifically say the 5k, but I do think that if you haven’t run a marathon, you need to buold to that distance. MAny people just decide to run a marathon without doing any other races. As for veteran marathoners, many times they just do marathon after marathon and don’t work on anyhting else ending up stagnent!

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  • Jim

    I really enjoyed your training plan. At 59 and a veteran of 10 marathons it still is a leap of faith not having a 20 miler under my belt. But the plans I have used in the past ( 3 day a week etc) have really been giving a downward slide for a 4:15 to a 4:50 finisher . I ‘m 25 years from that 4:15 so I would happy just get back to my 4:30’s again. I’m 2 weeks away from the Austin Marathon and other than a set back last week missing 3 days with some kind cold/flu I stuck with the plan. I found myself tired but not really worn out . Yesterday 10 miler was bit of a struggle coming off my illness. But I just cut my pace and shuffled along. I really like your approach to tapering I think it will keep me much mentally prepared kind of like a review before the big exam. That being said I’m not 100% confident. How much did my sickness hurt me? What will I be like at at the half? 16 , 18 and will I have the sometime death march from 23- 26.2? No matter the results I must say I feel like I’m in the best shape going into a marathon in years.

  • Brett

    I am interested in the comments about the time factor. In particular the 30 and 90 minute thresholds. Do you have any references? I have heard and read similar time frames before but I have not been able to find many references.

  • Jeff Scudder

    I bought the book by Luke Humphreys in November and followed the advanced plan in the lead up to the North Shore (HI) Marathon held 14 April. Enjoyed the training regimen, but my marathon was rough. I came in under 3hrs in my last two marathons in ’11 and ’12 (at Carlsbad, CA in January). This time I finished a hair over 3:30 and couldn’t maintain my pace after mile 20 when I had to start walking periodically. I think it was the humidity (overcast kept it from getting hot) which I do not do well in. I’ve read the info on the 16 mile long run, but I think for me I really need to do a couple of 20+ milers to build my stamina.

  • maria Warner

    I am curious why the Beginner Program (in your book) goes from 24 total weekly miles in week 5 to total weekly miles in week 6. That is a HUGE jump. I have always operated under assumption not to increase weekly mileage by more than 10 to 20%. If you explained this in book-I must have missed it or misunderstood. Can you please explain?

  • It works! What to do moving forward?

    I wanted to use this as an experiment since I don’t like the winer and didn’t want to run 3 20milers alone in the cold weather. So I signed up for Pittsburgh to see if the plan would work. Despite the intense Pittsburgh hills I PRd. The last 3.5 weeks of training something important came up and I was required to do alot of traveling causing my training to be disrupted. So I didn’t do everything exactly but I still performed well and felt just fine during the marathon. I went from 4:04 in marine corp to 3:59 in Pittsburgh (a hilly course). I will start training for Berlin in a couple weeks. I’m deciding if this will be a good plan for me to follow again. If I do use this again can I use the marathon time I WANT to do for my various paces during weekly runs. For instance on the charts where we find out what speed we should be doing, should I use my current marathon finishing time to predict what paces I should do for each workout or can I use the time I want to have for a predictor instead? I hope that makes sense. I must say I was skeptical of the plan but now I’m a believer. It does work! And I didn’t feel bad in training, during the race or after. Kudos. Thanks for offering us something different.

  • Liz

    I ran my 4th marathon a few days ago following the beginner plan. First off, I can say that if people are looking for a “less is more” plan – this isn’t for them! I ran more miles than I ever have a training cycle, and was rewarded with a 19 minute PR. I will never go back to conventional plans after this. Definitely worth the extra effort.

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  • Dave Wilson

    I read the book and am 9 weeks into the advanced program. For 26 marathons I have always used a plan or had a trainer. I was looking for something different when I decided to try Hansons Marathon Method. My question is; I am not clear on Table 3.5 regarding Aerobic A/Easy and Aerobic B/Easy. I don’t know which pace to use. Is A for Advanced and B for Beginner? That didn’t make sense to me based on B being faster. I am using the advanced plan and the B pace.

    • It’s a range.

      • Dave Wilson

        Thank you. One other thing that isn’t clear to me. For the Strength and Tempo Pace Charts you coorelate to the marathon goal time. Very simple. For the Speed Pace Charts you coorelate to 5K and 10K goal time. I am assuming that the reader is supposed to use Table 6.1 to determine the 5K and 10K equivalency for the marathon goal time and use that pace. Is this correct?

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  • Cory

    I am using the Hanson’s Method for training for my fourth marathon, and so far it is the best training cycle I’ve ever experienced! I have a question regarding the long run:

    I am currently in the 11th week of training. I’ve added mileage using the ways recommended in the book, on the off day and easy days, and my weekly mileage has been in the upper 60’s all month. I’ll be in the low 70’s this week, and have my long 16 miler tomorrow. My long run pace is 7:30, meaning a 16 mile run would just barely put me at 2 hours.

    My question is, should I consider adding at least 1.5 miles to the 16 miler to hit the “sweet zone” re: time on my feet, and to keep within the 25-30% rule?

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  • Blake Kinsman

    I used the Beginner program for my first marathon this October. I had my doubts throughout the entire process, but I stuck to the plan so that I could blame Hansons if I failed. My biggest doubt was that I wouldn’t be mentally tough enough to conquer miles 20-26 when the time came, because I had never reached those miles in training. The weekly mileage was exponentially more than other training programs, so I tried to convince myself that my body would be ready…trust the program. Well…I nailed my goal time that I used to base the entire program around. Thanks Hansons and sorry I doubted you!

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  • Rico

    Started week 14 of the beginners marathon plan and doing well. Need advice for next week as I have signed up to do the Gate River 15k in Jacsonville FL that coincides with the last 16 mile long run. Not entirely sure how to modify it.

  • Maggie Daly Wolgamot

    On the fourth try I switched tranining programs and with Hanson’s I had my first positive marathon experience (time wise!). Finally BQd and loved the training! Thanks you guys!

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