What’s Better: Training By Time Or By Distance?

It can be tough to know which is better: mileage or minutes. Here's how to decide the best metric for measuring your runs.

Photo: Getty Images

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Many runners have a keen sense of distance.  We know exactly how long our favorite loop trail is and might run laps to and from the driveway to finish out our mileage at an even number. Tracking your training in distance is one way to measure training load. Another way to measure volume is in time. What are the benefits and drawbacks to training in minutes versus training in miles?


To mitigate environmental factors in your run. 

At altitude, it takes longer to run a mile than at lower elevations. Mentally, it’s tough to muscle through a run that should feel faster. Jason Fitzgerald, a coach and host of The Strength Running Podcast, suggests focusing on effort rather than pace for 45 minutes (or however long your 5-mile run might usually last) when the terrain is more challenging or you’re training at altitude.

Switching from tracking distance to time places the focus on effort, rather than how far you go. That’s consistent with our understanding that the body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. Capping time on feet for technical terrain or winter conditions is a good way to maintain a training load that’s productive without over-stressing since uneven surfaces slow you down and add to effort. For altitude or challenging terrain, training by time can more effectively manage load, mentally and physically.

should you run by time or distance
(Photo: Getty Images)

It’s ideal for recovery runs.

Tracking recovery runs by time can help you slow down and home in on a relaxed effort. Some people will rush through a recovery run just to get the miles in, instead of focusing on exertion.  Turning around when you’ve hit a certain time instead of a mile marker allows you to run at a pace that’s well below aerobic threshold, rather than hitting a certain speed goal. Running for time can feel easier, like running out the clock rather than trying to score a basket at the buzzer, making it an ideal metric for recovery days. It allows you to focus on maintaining a true recovery effort , rather than how far you’ve gone. For recovery runs, you’re aiming for 50-75 percent of your maximum heart rate, regardless of distance.

It can be less daunting. 

For those that are new to running or getting back into it, running a specific distance can feel daunting. If you haven’t established a predictable training pace (though this too will vary when you’re training by effort), it’s difficult to anticipate how long your run will take. Plus, a slower pace means your time on feet will be longer than someone with a faster pace, which adds up to greater training load.

For that reason, measuring how long you are putting in aerobic intensity matters more than how far you went. Corrine Malcolm, a running coach whose background is in nordic skiing, says, “Time is a natural metric to make training even across modalities.” So if you’re new to running, but also spend time doing other sports, like biking or skiing, you’ll have a better idea of how your effort compares. Newer runners especially might be less tempted to compare miles if time is prioritized over distance.

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Build confidence for your race. 

While upping how long you run can help you increase your feet-on-ground endurance, it doesn’t necessarily help improve endurance associated with a hard effort. Having mileage runs on long days can be good for building confidence because on race day, you are going to be running for distance. If you’re training for a long race, experimenting with further runs that approach race-distance can help boost your confidence in running a certain distance.

You’re less likely to slow down.

If you are given a timed run, it’s easy to slow down, way down. Malcolm says some athletes might think, “Why rush it?” That mentality could make athletes subconsciously decrease their effort, leading them to run less far, and falling short of their ideal training load. Having a specific distance goal is an objective way of ensuring you’re getting in enough mileage to reach a certain goal. In order to improve, runners should run mostly easy, with a few runs at higher intensities. If timed runs lead you to only run slowly, it might not be your best approach. This applies specifically to runs with constant effort, not timed intervals, which conversely might help you run faster in short bursts.

should you run by time or distance
(Photo: Getty Images)

Practicing the art of the kick. 

When you have the finish line in sight, you’ll likely pick up the pace to finish your run. If you’re running for time, you might just jog it out. If a certain distance is your goal, once you’re done, you’re done. Having a set mileage can give you the freedom to practice your kick at the end of a run without losing nice, round numbers. If you want a good ending kick on race day, you’ll need to practice it in training. Plus, psychologically, it’s fun to push it when the end is nigh.

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All the information your watch gives you–pace, ground contact time, vertical oscillation–can be helpful, but only if you know how to use the information. Sometimes you may just want to stop looking at your watch and just run.

“I think a lot of people have lost the ability to run by feel,” Fitzgerald says. If you become obsessive about the numbers and allow that to affect your mindset, you’ll suffer. Running is about having fun while challenging yourself, and when it comes down to it, whatever training load is most sustainable for you is the one you should use.

“The most important thing,” Malcolm says, “is to put in quality consistent training over hitting mega numbers or hitting huge volumes.” So no matter how you track your run, as long as you set regular goals, you’ll be building a solid running base.

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