Why the FIRST ‘Run Less, Run Faster’ Method Doesn’t Work

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know that I don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to training.

I believe each runner is an experiment of one and proper training needs to take each individual’s strengths, weaknesses and limitations into account to be effective.

That said, I do believe there are a few universal physiological truths of training that can’t be ignored and are critical to the development of any runner, regardless of their background, goals or speed.

I am pretty open to all methods or philosophies of training as long as they don’t ignore these physiological truths.

If you’re training for a marathon, for example, Hansons, Pfitzinger, Hudson, McMillan all have different approaches, but in the end the training all boils down to the same basic physiological components.

However, there are some “systems” of training that I feel completely ignore some of these basic beliefs of exercises physiology.

In this article, I want to discuss one of these methods – the FIRST: Run Less Run Faster approach – and why I think it’s highly unlikely the appropriate training plan for you.

What is the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach

The FIRST method is a “system” of training developed by researches by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss that centers around a few main principles:

  1. You run a maximum of 3 times per week with all runs being either hard workouts or long runs
  2. You supplement these runs with at least 2 days of hard cross training each week
  3. The running workouts are designed to be intense – usually as hard as you can go
  4. The long run makes up 60-70% of your weekly mileage.

The idea behind this system is you can maximize your time spent running by eliminating easy miles and only running hard workouts.

Why it’s appealing to most runners

1. Seems like a good fit for busy people and those that don’t like running

Obviously, this approach is very appealing to who have yet to fall in love with running. The promise of only having to run three times per week is attractive to those that don’t want to be running and are maybe only running the race as a charity or as a one-time event.

It’s also a tempting approach for busy professionals or parents, since it would seem that you only have to workout three days per week.

But, there’s a false logic in this belief because the cross training is an important part of the program. Using the FIRST method you’ll still be working out 5 days per week.

2. Plays on the misconception that mileage equals injury

Most importantly, there is a common misconception among runners that increased mileage has a direct correlation to an increase injuries. Beginner runners have an irrational fear that running more will automatically get them injured.

This simply isn’t true. Mileage alone does not cause injuries.

Intensity, mechanics, strength and unintelligent training (as we’ll outline below) are far more likely to cause an injury than running easy mileage.

But, the FIRST plan plays off the fear of mileage well enough that many runners see it as a way to avoid injury. Unfortunately, the FIRST method is more likely the best way to guarantee an injury!

The flaws of the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach

Now, to the real meat of this article – why I don’t recommend the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach.

Lack of long-term development

The most critical flaw in the FIRST approach is the blatant lack of focus on aerobic development. But, why is the aerobic system so important and why doesn’t the FIRST system improve it?

In any event longer than 5k, the aerobic system contributes more than 84% of the energy required to run the race. In the marathon, that number is 99%. Here’s the data if you don’t believe me.

That means to run your best at longer distances from 5k to the marathon you need to fully develop your aerobic system.

So, how do you develop the aerobic system? With slow, easy runs. If you’re curious, I outlined in great depth what the aerobic system is and exactly how easy runs develop it here. I highly recommend reading that article if you haven’t already.

The problem with the FIRST method is that it completely avoids easy running. Even the cross training you do is supposed to be hard.

That means you’ll spend 0% of your training time working on the energy system that contributes 99% of the energy required to run a fast marathon.

Hmmm – does that make sense?

Methods based on incomplete data

“But my friend used FIRST and ran well?” You might say.

Hard workouts, any hard training really, will make you generally fitter. This is especially true if you weren’t doing any running prior to the start of the program (as was the case with the FIRST method’s research subjects).

But, you’ll be limiting perhaps the single greatest factor in long-term improvement – aerobic development. So, you may improve a bit in the short-term, but I don’t think it’s a program designed for long-term success.

“Also, didn’t the researchers show that runners who used their program increased their VO2max by 4.2%?”

They sure did.

But, what did the control group, who ran nothing but easy mileage, increase their VO2max by?…Trick question. There was no control group, so who knows how much they could have improved.

Furthermore, the tricky element of aerobic development is that it’s difficult to measure. To gather data on aerobic development, you’d need to measure a runner’s myoglobin content, capillary number, and mitochondria size to name a few. That takes a lot of funding and participants usually aren’t too keen on being poked and prodded.

However, researchers love to measure VO2max since it’s pretty easy (just run on a treadmill) and painless to gather. Thus, researchers point to increases in VO2max as a sign of increasing fitness and a training system’s effectiveness. But, VO2max has little bearing on your ability to run a marathon.

Moreover, having an absolute higher VO2max does not mean you’ll be a better or faster runner.

For example, consider the comparison between Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, two athletes whose VO2 Max values differed by 16%, yet whose best 3-mile times differed by even less (0.2 seconds).

Why is this?

Well, VO2max is only one component to how fast someone can run. Running efficiency and economy (believed to be the case between Prefontaine and Shorter), lactate clearance abilities, aerobic development, and a myriad of other factors.

Increased chance of injury from too much speed

As mentioned briefly above, most runners have an irrational fear that mileage is a primary cause of running injuries.

While I’m certain drastically increasing weekly mileage totals play a role in the likelihood of running injuries, my experience and research has shown that too much intensity is a far more likely reason you might get injured.

Intensity (or speed work) increases your chances of getting injured because it places a far greater stress on your structural system (muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) than easy running.

For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8 minutes per mile (or whatever your tempo pace is), but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the stress of the pace and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.

The FIRST training program prescribes speed work at much faster paces and much more often than most “normal” training programs. This is outlined in their literature and it’s their reasoning for why their system works – “you’ll run faster workouts than other programs so you’ll get fit with less running”.

Unfortunately, one of the selling points of the FIRST method is that running less will help you avoid injuries. In this case, I think running such intense workouts is more likely to get you injured.

Increased chance of injury from running too long

Another very common reason marathoners get hurt is trying to run far too long on their long runs. Not only does running 18-22 milers provide very little physiological advantage, but the chances of injury increase exponentially with each mile.

While there is no doubt that a 20-mile run (or longer) can be a great confidence booster, from a training and physiological standpoint, they don’t make too much sense. Here’s why:

Research has shown that your body doesn’t see a significant increase in aerobic development, specifically mitochondrial development, when running over 90 minutes. The majority of physiological stimulus of long runs occurs between the 60 and 90 minute mark. This means that after running for 3 hours, aerobic benefits (capillary building, mitochondrial development) aren’t markedly better than when you run for only 2 hours.

Therefore, a 16 mile long run for most beginners builds about as much aerobic fitness as a 20-22 miler.

We also have a lot of research that shows injury risk increase significantly during the latter stages of a long run. Specifically, we know that as you get tired your running form begins to breakdown due to muscle fatigue. This places additional stress on the hips and knees (two of the most common injury areas in runners) and forces the body to rely on smaller muscle groups, like the calves, to produce the forces necessary to maintain pace.

All of this leads directly to an increase risk of IT band, runner’s knee, shin splints, and achilles tendonitis.

For the full breakdown of exactly how this works, you can read our article on how running form changes during long runs here.

Despite all this research and the drastic increase in injury risk, the FIRST system places a huge emphasis on running 18 and 20 milers, which makes up 65-72% of a runner’s weekly mileage.

Of course, as a novice runner it makes all the sense in the world that to race a marathon you need to at least run 20 miles in training, right?

Completely false.

You can implement tactics like systematically utilizing accumulated fatigue, depleting glycogen stores, strength training, fatigue-resistant workouts and a myriad of other training strategies that train you for the race distance while reducing injury risk. Here are some great examples.

But what about those runners FIRST has worked for?

Of course, as with any training method, you’ll find countless runners who’ll say it worked for them. But, I’ll ask: was their success because of the FIRST method or in spite of the system?

  • Some runners will be able to finish, and run well, at a marathon regardless of their training method. That doesn’t mean they are reaching their potential. A 3:30 marathoner could very well be a 2:59 marathoner with better training.
  • Likewise, beginners often improve drastically from their first marathon to their second regardless of their training program (assuming they stay healthy).
  • For many, it’s the consistency – 10 months running is 3 times better than only 3 months training no matter how you do it.
  • You also learn a lot in your first marathon – pacing, fluids, fuel – that lead to direct performance improvements outside training factors.

My final thoughts

I’m usually not too hard on different approaches to training as I think there is value in exploring unique ways to train. As long as it keeps athletes healthy, it’s worth investigating. And, as I mentioned earlier, different methods will work for different people.

But, for programs like FIRST’s Run Less, Run Faster, the physiology just doesn’t make any sense. Worst, and most importantly, I believe it guides runners down a road that significantly increases their chance of injury.

Have you tried the FIRST method? I’m open to debate and would love to hear your take, experience, questions or thoughts.