How I Plan to Qualify for the Boston Marathon

I mentioned in an earlier post that my goal, for as long as I’ve been running marathons, has been to qualify for Boston.  For my age group, this requires a time of 3:10:59 or better in an approved marathon.  That’s 7:17 per mile, for 26.2 miles.  My personal best so far is 3:20:30, at the Disney Marathon this last January.  So the difference is roughly 22 seconds per mile.

Photo of Matt running 1]No question about it; that’s a huge amount of time to knock off.  But here’s why I think it can happen in my next marathon.  My five marathon times to date, from longest ago to most recent, are as follows:  4:53, 3:50, 3:36, 3:24, 3:20.  Big improvement each time.  Diminishing returns, to be sure, but returns nonetheless.

So what am I going to do that will give me a ten-minute improvement, when my last improvement was only four minutes?  First of all, I’ve chosen to run the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, New York, on October 4th of this year.  This is a really fast marathon.  I don’t really know what kind of difference a fast course makes, but I’m told that it’s significant.  The second, more important reason that I believe I’m going to do it this time is that I have almost six months to train.  And I’m starting with a decent mileage base, having trained for and run two marathons in the past six months.

So that’s why I have a lot of confidence that it’s going to happen this year.  Experienced runners, please don’t tell me that this goal is too big and I’ll end up being disappointed.  Boston has been my goal in every marathon I’ve run, and even though I haven’t come close yet, I feel proud every time I cross that finish line.  So don’t worry about my tender psyche.

Marathon Training Program

Here’s how I plan to do it.  I have a 16-week training program (called FIRST, from the book Run Less, Run Faster) that I was making huge improvements with before my knee started hurting about six weeks ago (it’s better now).  This leaves me nine weeks before the training program begins.  I’ll continue strength training during this time, doing front squats, deadlifts, leg curls, and some moderate upper body work, as I’ve been doing for the past few months.  In addition to getting stronger, I’ll build up mileage and make sure that my knee is completely healed.  I’ll do this with running and core workouts from the Core Performance Endurance program, essentially hill and interval workouts that last about 45 minutes.  This is the program I’ve used to train for my past two marathons.  And I’ll start my long runs next weekend at about eight miles, building up to 20 miles or so by the time the FIRST program begins.  At this point I should be doing 30-35 miles per week.

Photo of Matt running 2]The FIRST program entails three running workouts per week.  One track workout, one tempo run, and one long run.  The track workout involves fast quarter-mile to mile runs with some rest time between, to total five to seven miles.  The tempo run is about 45 minutes of “moderately uncomfortable” running, usually at a pace 10-25 seconds faster than my target marathon pace.  And the long runs are to be run at paces only 15-30 seconds slower than target marathon pace, very different from other programs I’ve done, where usually the instructions for long runs are to run one to two minutes slower per mile than marathon pace.

In between running workouts, the FIRST program recommends cross training rather than slow running.  The aim of this is to avoid injury by giving your joints and running muscles a rest.  So I’ll swim on some of these days, since triathlons are another goal of mine.  But I’m not going to completely avoid easy running.  I really feel that running lightly in between intense workouts allows my running muscles to recover in a way that swimming doesn’t achieve, and I think the lack of these runs is part of the reason I got hurt a few weeks ago.

So that’s the plan.  If it works out and I qualify for Boston in October, then having declared this goal to so many readers and sharing my progress with you will make it all the more rewarding.  And if it doesn’t happen, then you can write all kinds of disparaging comments and tell me that you knew all along that I couldn’t do it.  I would enjoy that.

Finally, I’d love to get input from the more experienced runners who read this blog.  Is my training plan sound?  Have you heard anything about the FIRST program?  What about cross training versus easy runs on off days?  Should I shave my already sparse body hair?  Thanks in advance for any help you can give me.

This post is part of 10-part series on qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  Check out the rest!



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  1. That’s a great progression in your marathons so far!

    I am a big fan of the easy run. The problem with easy runs is that most people run them too fast, which sort of defeats the purpose of running them.

    What does your post-workout nutrition look like? I think the best way to recover from your workouts is first to make sure you give your body the raw materials it needs to recover, and then to get the rest that it needs to actually do the recovering.

    As for specific advice, I think that 20 miles is too far of a run for 30-35 miles per week at the beginning of a marathon program. Other than when I am racing, I try to keep my long runs shorter than 50% of my weekly mileage at the very most; normally, my long run is usually about 1/3 of my weekly mileage or a little less.

    I have done some marathons at an average weekly mileage of about 40-45 miles (peaking around 50 miles) but the long run still rarely exceeded 50% of the weekly mileage (and barely did in the couple of occasions it did.)

    For some of (but not all of) my marathons and for my 50 miler, the race itself sometimes exceeded 50% of my weekly mileage (for the 50 it was 79% of my weekly mileage!) but those are special circumstances.

    • Thanks for the advice Blaine. I hadn’t really thought about the length of the long run as a percentage of weekly mileage. The long run distances are fixed in the training program, so I guess the only way to lower the percentage would be more mileage. And probably the only safe way to do this is to add it with easy runs, and gradually.
      As for post-workout nutrition, I drink a big glass of chocolate milk (though usually soy milk now) immediately following. Sometimes some quick-digesting carbs like white bread, rice, fruits, etc., especially after long runs. Then within an hour or two I try to eat a fairly large meal with protein and more complex carbs.
      For really long runs, I do an ice bath afterward and get lots of water and gatorade later, plus stretching and foam rolling.
      How does all this sound to you?

      • Well, that’s just my general philosophy when I design training programs. If you are going to follow a specific program, I generally recommend to follow it or else you won’t know whether that program works for you or not.

        Your post-run eating habits sound pretty good. Chocolate milk is one of the best things that you can have; I never drink it because (1) I am not a huge fan of chocolate and avoid caffeine like the plague and (2) I never drink milk anymore since developing a lactose intolerance. I’d say that 90% of the time my immediate snack after my run is something like a banana or granola bar.

        The ice bath/stretching/foam rolling sounds like a great way to finish a long run. Spreading out your fluid intake is also good because your body can only absorb so much at once. I’ll usually opt for gatorade earlier and drinking water later just because it gets me that much extra sodium and nutritional elements; apple juice is pretty good for that too.

  2. David Ploskonka says:


    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you; life has been super-busy for me lately.

    Anyway, regarding the earlier comment about your long runs being such a large percentage of your training early on: In my experience, being comfortable with the race distance is critical to success, so I think that increasing your long run distance early, and holding it at a consistent 20-23 miles weekly would be hugely beneficial. Repeatedly running that kind of distance has long-term, cumulative positive effects on your endurance. That said, however, the risk that you run in making your long run such a big “event” is that you may not be building the endurance base to handle that kind of long-run schedule without simply getting more and more fatigued. So I would keep an eye on how you feel from long run to long run as you increase distance. If the increases in distance seem more and more difficult each week, then at some point, you need to keep the long run at the same distance and add mileage to your daily runs. This is a guessing game, and it really varies from person to person where the breaking point might be. A good starting point would be whatever the longest distance is that you’ve done regularly. For example, if, on average, the longest run you’ve done every week for the past three years is about 10 miles, once you start exceeding that point in your long-run build, you should consider adding a few miles over the course of your daily runs before you increase the long run distance.

    Otherwise, I think your basic plan is sound. The biggest thing that you need to worry about with a progran like FIRST is that you really need to hit the paces that the program specifies for each workout to assure success in the race. This means running with a watch, over measured courses, so that you can accurately assess your progress. When you’re not running the quantity of miles, you have to make sure that the miles that you do run are worthwhile. You also need to make sure that you don’t cross-train so hard on the “off” days that you can’t hit the tempo pace or the quarter splits that you’re supposed to be hitting in your training runs. And of course, you have to be really careful about not missing running days, because each workout is critical to your success on race day.

    There’s more I could say, but this is getting long, so I’ll leave it at that for now, and perhaps come back to it later. Keep me posted on how your training goes!

  3. Training plan looks sound. It is just my personal opinion but I would rather rest my legs than cross train. Also I think strength training on upper body and core work helps as well. Good luck!

  4. im excited to see how FIRST works for you, especially since im not running my next marathon until february… and i’ll probably want to follow the FIRST marathon plan pretty closely. although i havent followed a specific FIRST training plan yet, i’ve been doing the 3plus2 training weeks(or usually 3plus3) for almost 6 months now… all the while progressively increasing my tempo,track and long run mileage. as a result, ive been shattering my shorter distance pr’s lately, so im sure you’ll have great results’s last blog post..Long Runs – Best Way to Carry Fluids

    • Yeah I’m looking forward to it. I got injured last time on it, maybe it was just too much for me at the time. The nice thing is that now that I’m back from this 2 month break due to injury, I’m running so much faster. I really think it’s the diet. So I’m looking forward to doing the runs now that they aren’t quite so tough for me.

  5. batmomm says:

    hey nomeat!

    I’m also running Wineglass in hopes to BQ and am also using the FIRST plan. I used it back for the National in March and shaved 17 min off my best. I still need to shave another 30 min off LOL. I’m down to 4:15, need 3:45. Basically I need to see how close I can get with Wineglass and then the following year I’ll be 39 and actually get an extra 5 min leeway.

    I think with the FIRST plan, the most important thing is to do the XTing. The irst year i tried it, I skipped a lot of the XT and got injured. The last time I followed it pretty closely and always felt fresh. I do get a little sick of never getting to do the junk miles but some of the cross training workouts include easy running.

    The speed workouts nearly kill me and most often I end up lowering the speeds but little by little it will come. Hopefully I’ll bump into you there and be able to give you a huge congrats high five 😀

    • Wow 17 minutes is great. It seems a lot of people get really good results from FIRST. Thanks for the advice about the cross training. I’ll probably still do 1 easy run day per week in addition to some cross training. Good luck on your BQ!

  6. Michael Brown says:

    I agree 100 % about the cutting back on the long runs early in your program. I think your goal is sound. Youll need to dig deep. I just cut my time by 10 minutes (from last marathon) to qualify for Boston. I just turned forty, and needed almost every one of those last 59 seconds to pull of a 3:20:33.

    It was the first time I had nothing left for my kick. I needed pure will those last two very painfull miles. I also followed the FIRST program, and I cant say enough good things about it. Just watch pushing those early long miles, those kind of runs tend to side line you with some kind of nagging injury. Mine was a calf pull that just wouldnt quit. (even with plenty of rest). Almost too much. Anyway, good luck. You can do this!

  7. I just declared this same goal on my blog earlier in the week. I look forward to hearing about your training plan. I wish you the best of luck in your training and on your race day. My race is the week after yours so I’ll be cheering you on!
    .-= Jess in NYC´s last blog ..I am =-.

    • Jess, that’s fantastic! I just checked out your blog and I love it. It’s so great that it’s all about challenges and commitments. Just like you say on yours, the Boston thing has been something I’ve thought about since my first marathon too. Good luck with the rest of your training!

  8. Carl Bakker says:

    Hey Matt-

    I know it’s kind of random, but I stumbled across your blog and I want to say GOOD LUCK!! From what I just read above you’ve totally got it in you! I’m running in Chicago on Oct. 11 and also trying to qualify for Boston-hope to see you there this spring!! 😎 Runners, Unite!!

  9. I have to say ditto to those who discussed the FIRST program. I just finished Chicago and cut off 10 minutes. I ran Disney in 2008 in 4:20. I ran Chicago in 4:10 and had enough left in me at the end to run another five miles. Novice errors in terms of reading my body, but I’m learning:) The FIRST program helped me train injury free for six months. I’ve never had a program work like that before!

    I’m in the 3:40 age group for Boston and would love to qualify. I figure I need another 2-3 marathons under my belt to reach this goal. I do wonder, after reading your awesome ability to drop time, if the FIRST program will allow me to shave off 30 minutes. From your experience, do you think it’s possible (assuming I stick to the FIRST program 100%?)

  10. Christine says:

    I know it has been a long time since people have been commenting but all of this really hit home for me. I am going to start training for my 7th Marathon on Father’s Day. I would love to qualify for Boston but I know that I am a little too far away from that. My PR is 4:23 and my qualifying time is 3:40. My goal right now is to run the DC Marathon in 4 hours.

    I have always trained (ran) 5-6 days a week and want to start the FIRST training but I am so nervous about only running three days a week. After reading all these comments I am getting bumped and feel that the FIRST training may be right for me. I still have a little time to decide so if anyone has any comments, please share.

    One more thing… my goal is to run in all 50 states plus DC. I never reallt thought about qualifying for Boston till the last year and now that is all I want!!!

  11. Hey Matt, just reading your blog now, I found it while searching online for a BQ program. I haven’t run my first marathon yet, however I’v done over 10 half-marathons already with a PR of 1:35 hr a month ago.

    I signed up for my first marathon in February, 2013 and hope to do it in 3:30 hr. I also started to doing my long runs at near marathon-goal-pace, I agree this is a key ingredient to build confidence and train your mind and body for that pace at a long distance. I do all my long runs with the same gels / water and electrolytes caps I use for the race to get me used to it, I consider that part of the training. I take gels every 30 minutes and S-Caps (electrolytes caps) every 50 min and just water as needed, so far my longest run its been 18 miles at race pace and hope to build up to 22.

    I also do 3 key workouts a week (speed / tempo / long-run) and currently I’m doing 2-3 additional easy runs, however I was doing swimming as cross-training for most this past year.

    My goal is also to qualify for Boston one day, I have the same qualifying time as yours, so if everything goes well in February, I’ll have to work hard to cut down ~20 min. I’m planning to read the FAST program you mentioned as well as incorporating strength training in my plan, haven’t done much so I’ll also read the book you suggested.

    Reading your story definitely encourage me to keep working on this goal I have and I send you a BIG congratulations for putting down the miles and believing in it, great job man, keep it up!

  12. Michael Brown says:

    I qualified for Boston by 32 seconds and after 2010 they cut the bq times by 5 min and 59 seconds. I can attest to the importance of those 59 seconds (not to mention the five min). My point is that you have to be well trained but you have to keep your focus in those late miles! Its so important to “stay on task” telling your legs “u got this” “your ok” “your strong” “your tough” any of these mantras help to keep me “on task” always keep your head in the race. This Marathon is not 4 the weak. You have to not only want it, you gotta go get it! You can do it! I did by 32 seconds and kept talking until I crossed the line and smiled. God bless. Mb.

  13. simone magri says:

    Hey I just stumbled upon this blog whilst looking for reviews on the FIRST program. Love what I am reading. So much positiveness and determination. I have been running for almost 10 years but for 2 years somewhere in between I didn’t race. My PBs are 1’36 for half marathon way back when I was 40 ( I am 47 now) my last half marathon time was 1’43 last year. This year I have not ran any halves yet but I paced my daughter last month to a 1’55 finish. We were aiming for 1’48 but it was her first and she ran in lots of wind and rain. I ran my first full last year in Berlin and finished in 3’58”
    I was really aiming for a 3hr 50 nin but after 32k fatigue hit me. Now I know for next full I will run the distance a few times . Last year my longest run was 30k. I have trained with a few coaches. Some I liked for some reasons and some I disliked for other reasons. I do have a fav coach but due to the fact I changed job last year and now work as self- employed property letting consultant, my work hours are erratic, I work long hours and some days I am really mentally drained. Hence I prefer to train in the morning before my work day starts and for this reason it is hard to train with a coach as they all do track meets in the evening. I started looking into FIRST training and so so happy I found your blog. Thanks for taking the time to write it and give everyone so much insight into your training. I currently run 5/6 times a week . Last year i used to run 7 days a week. I also try to do strength training once or twice a week but don t always manage 🙁
    With my last coach we would do track training twice a week, hill training once a fortnight or so. Easy 50 min runs in between and one long run every Sunday usually easy but occasionally tempo.
    I think the FIRST program would work for me. I would do the three runs as advised by the book and instead of cross training I would run 50 min very easy and do lots of core ( I am obsessed with abs ) plus i tend to suffer from back pain so core really helps. This year I suffered from periformis and then from a huge pain along the inner side of my quad. Not sure what it was but icing and resting helped. For the Periformis I went for painful massage and foam rolled too.
    I am going to buy the FIRST book and start the programme. I want to bring my time down to 3 hr 45 min for my next full marathon. My target and my goal is to one day run a 3 hr 36 min marathon and I wish to get there in few years. In Malta ( where I live ) there is only one full marathon-a-year. So I ll register for a few marathons abroad and train my ass off and hopefully my dream will come true. PS I am a non meat eater too but I do eat fish. Love fish too much especially Salmon..I will not give it up cos my body feels so good after I eat it. Otherwise I would say my diet is 90% vegetarian. I drink only almond and rice milk but I love cheese! Now I will keep on reading your blog 🙂

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