The Pros and Cons of Running for Time or Distance

Running for time or distance is a common and often disagreed-upon topic amongst runners. A lot of new runners, or those who have not run with a track club, etc., will often follow a generic internet training plan that shows how many miles per day or week one should run. Many times, these miles are to build week after week, toward some goal—perhaps a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, and so forth.

Many of these programs have the same general idea—build mileage week after week, and finish the program with the desired mileage goal. Running for time, on the other hand, and building up gradually each week with completing a certain amount of time has its place in training as well. There are pros and cons to each type of training.

To begin, let’s discuss the pros for training for time.

First, when on a tight schedule, knowing that you need to run for an hour, and then running for that hour, creates a sense of satisfaction because you completed a desired task.

Next, only you know what pace feels comfortable to you. So, heart rate zones and rate of perceived exertion scales are highly valuable tools when training for time.

For example, if you do a long run on Sunday, you probably don’t want to have your heart rate go above 70% effort, or Zone 3 for your rate of perceived exertion.

Then, on Tuesday, when you do a fartlek workout consisting of 10 x 1 minute hard followed by 1 minute easy, you want your heart rate to exceed 80% of your effort, or Zone 4-5 for your rate of perceived exertion. Using heart rates coupled with training for time can help you get into the shape you desire, without the added pressure of knowing exactly how fast you are running per mile (or kilometer).

As a coach, I encourage athletes to use this method during building season. Pace per mile is not important early in the season, as we’re gaining strength, getting used to anaerobic workouts again, and having the body adjust to higher mileage. However, a time trial early in the season, and at half the distance you plan on racing, is a great way to gauge what kind of shape you are in. This highlights one of the cons of this method—sometimes people don’t want to know how fast they are actually going! My suggestion: don’t be afraid, and just go for it!

Now, let’s discuss training for distance.

In other words, “How fast am I running per mile?” Great question, and it’s good to know, as you gear up towards racing season.

Generally, interval training (distance-based intervals) and time trials are great distance training methods.

For example, let’s say you are training for a 5k and it is in June.

First, you would spend January – March using the training-for-time method, and then from April to race day, you would incorporate the training-for-distance (distance-based intervals) method once or twice a week.

Here, you would focus on training for a specific time for a specific distance. So, again, taking our 5k example—if you wanted to run 18:45 for 5K (6 minutes per mile), you would do some of the following workouts:

  • 12 x 400 meters (once around the track) in 90 seconds (or less), with about 1-2 minutes recovery between each; or
  • 3 x 1 mile in 6 minutes or less with about 1-2 minutes recovery between each; and so forth.

The goal of these workouts is to train your body to run a certain pace. However, this is specifically why this method of training should not be used every day. Your body and mind need to recover from hard days of training. Training for distance can be hard on the mind and soul. If one does not reach their goal, from week to week, feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration can cause one to give up, and decrease participation.

So, which should it be? Training for distance or training for time?

In my opinion, both methods complement one another nicely.

Training for distance increases intensity, goal-setting, and motivation.
Training for time allows for recovery, fitness maintenance, and feelings of satisfaction.

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Christine Wallace, MS, CPT

Christine Wallace (MS, CPT), from Toronto Canada, was on the Canadian 2012 and 2013 Long Distance Triathlon Teams. She is a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Pro Performance in Morgantown, WV, and a swim coach for the Rec Aquatic Club at West Virginia University. She is also the 5K Director for Girls on the Run of North Central West Virginia. Her passion is in helping people reach their health and wellness goals, primarily through plant-based nutrition and physical activity.

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