Should Runners Train By Time or Distance?

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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Should Runners Train By Time or Distance?

As runners, you know there are many ways to train for a race. That’s the beauty of the sport — each of us has to figure what works for us as individuals and customize that training toward honing the type of athlete we aim to be.

Depending on the training plan you’re using, you may see instructions to run for a certain number of minutes — or to hit a certain mileage for the day. Neither of these methods is wrong, but it can be confusing to know which one will be more effective for you. How do you choose when you’ve seen both?

“You can use either effectively to train for your goal, whether you’re a beginner runner or a runner looking to run a personal best for a certain distance,” explains Chris McClung, coach, co-owner of Rogue Running and co-host of its Running Rogue podcast. “Each approach, however, offers some subtle differences; some physical and some psychological.”

Either can be used effectively, but there are differences between the two approaches. Here’s what you need to know when choosing which method to use:

RUNNING FOR TIME

This idea simply means running for an allotted number of minutes — or hours — during your training. For example, runners using a new training plan may simply see instructions to run or walk for 15 minutes on Day 1. This also includes the idea of run/walk intervals, such as running for 1 minute followed by walking for 1 minute, and so on.


READ MORE > HOW A RUN/WALK PROGRAM CAN MAKE YOU FASTER


“When you are running for time, I think it’s easier to focus on your effort within the training run, dialing into the purpose of the run versus racing yourself to try to cover a certain distance in a certain time,” says McClung. “You can let go of the ‘outcome’ of the run a little more easily and find the right zone to optimize your training.”

This way of training isn’t just used by beginners. Many runners who train by heart rate use this method to hit the zones McClung references, running a specific amount of time at one intensity and then either increasing or decreasing that intensity as the run goes on based on their specific workout for the day.

RUNNING FOR DISTANCE

Most training plans, however, go simply by the number of miles you should run daily. This is especially true when training for longer distances — such as a marathon — where many runners work to have at least one long run that is 20 miles or more.

“With distance-based training, you have more concrete measuring sticks, especially as it relates to preparing for a specific race distance,” adds McClung. “In order to run a half marathon or marathon, you need to build to certain mileage levels in order to race effectively, as well as give yourself the confidence that you can cover the distance required of you.”

Many runners choose to run by distance as this is what they see on training plans, and Brian Rosetti, founder of the Run SMART Project surmises this is because, with these plans, there is little customization for a specific athlete’s needs.

McClung jokes, “In addition, when you say, ‘I just ran 5 miles,’ it sounds way better on a Facebook post than saying, ‘I just ran 50 minutes!’”


READ MORE > DO VIRTUAL RUNNING PARTNERS MAKE YOU FASTER?


HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU

When choosing to run by time or distance, first consider where you are in your training. Beginners and those coming back from injury often choose to run by time, and those more experienced or working toward a specific race goal may want to train by distance.

“To achieve a certain physiological benefit, you need to train at a specific intensity,” notes Rosetti. “If the objective is to run easy, should a beginner run twice as long as an elite runner when covering the same distance?”

Rosetti gives an example of an interval workout, where beginners may take 2 minutes longer than a more experienced runner to cover the same distance. In that case, it will be more effective to train by time so you can hit your individual training paces and reduce the chance of injury.

As noted above, experienced runners may choose to train by distance simply to pace yourself for a specific race goal (for example, this includes knowing you need to be at Mile 18 of a marathon at a specific pace to hit a new PR). McClung says, this can also help build confidence knowing that come race day you can finish the mileage because you’ve already run that far before.

If you just can’t choose, a mixture of both methods can be effective.

“Occasionally I will recommend a hybrid approach, especially for athletes that struggle running the right effort-level on easy or recovery days,” shares McClung. “In those cases, I might have the athlete run by distance on long run or workout days and then by time on a recovery day.”

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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