Lots of runners who want to run a marathon are put off by the commitment required to the training needed to be ready for a marathon. While intermediate and advanced marathon runners might run five or six days per week in training, first time marathon runners often want to know if they can train for a marathon on 3 runs per week.
Yes, you can successfully train for a marathon with 3 runs per week. Marathon training plans with 3 runs per week usually require some sort of additional cross training to develop your endurance, and reduce your risk of injury.
One of the reasons why runners find training for a marathon on 3 runs a week such an attractive proposition is the simple fact that there is less of a time commitment required, compared to a more intensive marathon training plan.
However, it is important to appreciate that one of the biggest factors that will affect your marathon finish time is your weekly mileage in training. This type of low-commitment training plan isn’t going to allow you to achieve high weekly mileage, but if your goal is to finish your first marathon (rather than set a world record!) then you might find this option really helps to make marathon training achievable.
Let’s take a look at what a 3 run per week marathon training plan looks like.
How to Train for a Marathon on 3 Runs Per Week
Okay, so I’ll level with you. When runners ask me for a 3 runs per week marathon training plan, what I actually give them is a copy of my 16-week beginners marathon training plan which stipulates 4 runs per week.
I then tell them to drop either the Tuesday or Saturday running session, and replace it with a cross training workout such as cycling or swimming.
That leaves 3 specific running sessions in the week; the essentials of any good marathon training plan!
As with all marathon programmes, a 3 run per week marathon training plan is built around the weekly long run, so let’s start there!
Long Marathon Training Runs
No apologies for stating the obvious: At the end of your marathon training plan, you’re going to need to run 26.2 miles, so if we don’t gradually increase your capacity to run long your body is going to be in for a big shock!
But, at no point in your training will you need to actually run the full marathon distance. Not even close, in fact.
Most of the time, I only ask first time marathon runners to build up to 18-20 miles as their longest runs in training. For “back of the pack” runners I set a cap of 3:30 hours on their longest runs, getting them to stop at that time, even if they haven’t reached the prescribed 18 miles.
The reality is that after 3:30 hours, there’s a point of diminishing return for most runners, especially those who aren’t conditioned to that type of time on their feet. All you’re doing by pushing past that point is making yourself more tired for the following week, and increasing injury risk.
Remember the point I made earlier: Your marathon success is more about consistent weekly mileage than the duration of any single long run!
These long runs are about three things:
1. Improving your aerobic endurance and stamina
2. Developing your resilience as a runner and capacity to withstand time on your feet
3. Building your confidence in your body’s ability to cover the distance
4. Practicing your pacing, race nutrition and hydration strategies for marathon day
Don’t get me wrong; those long marathon training runs can be a very daunting prospect. The key however is to keep the pace really easy. Slower than you think!
There’s a section in the marathon training programme I linked to above which will help you to accurately calculate your training paces.
Check out this article for more tips to help you conquer your long marathon training runs: How to Train for Your First Marathon
Tempo Running Workouts
These are best described as runs at a sustainably uncomfortable level or effort; an intensity that you can maintain for 60 minutes. They’re not overly pleasant, but are fantastic when it comes to improving your pace.
Here’s a great video on tempo workouts from Nate at The Run Experience:
For runners following a 3 run per week marathon training plan, I typically advise that these sessions should be done on a hilly route, so as to get a double-whammy of benefits.
You get the physiological benefit of running at your lactate threshold, which over time once your body adapts will allow you to maintain a faster pace before your anaerobic energy system needs to kick-in and your legs begin feel heave and burn with lactic acid. You also benefit from the additional leg strength that only running hills can give you!
Word of warning though: If you’re doing your tempo runs on a hilly route, be sure to completely disregard your running pace and instead focus on the level of effort you’re running at. Maintain a level effort around 10K race pace, and the terrain will dictate your pace.
You can learn more about Tempo workouts here: Three Running Workouts to Increase Your Lactate Threshold
Easy Paced Midweek Runs
The third weekly run in your marathon training plan is to be run at an easy pace, just like your long run, but is nice and short in comparison!
The main function of this mid-week easy paced run is to increase the weekly mileage that you’re achieving week-by-week. Please resist the temptation to run too fast during this session.
Remember the old adage saying that you should “keep your easy runs easy, and your hard runs hard, with nothing in between”!
Your goal during this run should be to maintain a conversational pace throughout, where you could chat with a running buddy without getting out of breath.
Cross Training for Marathon Runners
To me, cross training is as critical as the runs themselves if you’re following a 3 run per week marathon training plan.
I mentioned earlier that ultimately your marathon performance will be dictated by your weekly running mileage, and that’s true… but when you think about the physiology and consider why that’s case, it is largely due to the increased aerobic development that takes place at a faster rate as you increase your weekly mileage.
However, it’s not the running itself that’s improving your aerobic endurance, it’s the time spent exercising in your aerobic training zone (zone 2).
You can train in your aerobic training zone in so may different ways, from walking, to cycling, swimming, using the elliptical trainer or cross country skiing if that’s your thing!
All of these low impact forms of exercise will allow you to spend more time in your aerobic training zone each week, without adding the stress and strain on your muscles and joints that a fourth run would introduce.
If, in a given week, the 3 runs on your training plan have you exercising in your aerobic training zone for 4 hours, adding an extra 60 minute session on the bike (slow and steady, not a spinning session!) will allow you to squeeze an extra 25% of aerobic training into your weekly programme, without adding 25% more stress on your joints.
That way you’re training smarter not pushing your body harder.
Add some regular strength training exercises into the routine (as I have already done for you in the programme linked below) and you’re well on your way to becoming a stronger, more injury-proof runner!