There are two general ways in which you can structure a running training plan and perform your running workouts: running by time or running by distance.
Some runners may have a total weekly mileage to achieve, and others, instead, a total weekly time.
In this guide to running for time vs. running for distance, we will present the benefits of each to help you determine whether it is better for you to train by distance or train by time in your running workouts based on your own goals and needs as a runner.
We will look at:
- Should I Run By Distance or Time?
- What Are the Benefits of Running for Distance?
- What Are the Benefits of Running for Time?
Let’s get started!
Should I Run By Distance or Time?
Keeping track of your running workouts or structuring a running training plan can either be done by running for a certain amount of time, typically running by minutes, or running a certain distance, meaning that you are running by miles or running by kilometers.
But this leaves runners with questions like: Is it better to run by minutes or miles? Should I run for time or mileage?
Ultimately, there isn’t a single answer to whether it is better to run for distance vs. time or run by minutes vs. miles or kilometers that necessarily applies to every runner.
There are advantages of running by mileage and keeping track of your miles and kilometers, and there are disadvantages of running for distance.
Similarly, there are benefits of running by minutes and drawbacks of running for time in a training program.
In order to help you decide if you should keep track of your running minutes or running mileage, let’s look at the pros and cons of running for distance and the pros and cons of running for time or by minutes.
What Are the Benefits of Running for Distance?
Here are some of the advantages of running for distance when tracking and planning your training program:
Helps You Learn Pacing
One of the benefits of using mileage instead of time in a running training program is that it can help you work on pacing and understand what pace you are running.
This can make it easier to project race performance and schedule fueling for longer events because you will have a framework for approximately how long it will take you to run the distance of the race.
For example, if you need to run 5 miles, you will learn how long it takes you to run 5 miles in training, particularly after accruing numerous 5 mile runs.
Then you will have an idea of your average training pace for this distance, which can help you make realistic race goals for a 10k, 5k, etc.
Easier to Track Progress
One major advantage of running for distance vs time is that it is a lot easier to notice progress.
As you get faster, you will be able to cover the same distance in a shorter amount of time.
In contrast, if you are running by minutes and not keeping track of your distance, you may not have an appreciation for how much further you are running each workout or each week.
This can compromise motivation and can increase the risk of injuries because you may be running a lot further as your fitness improves and making significant jumps in training volume without being aware of it when you are running for time vs. distance.
Helps Prepare for Longer Races
Many marathon runners and those training for longer races, like the half marathon, prefer to run by mileage versus minutes because races are almost always determined by a specific distance.
This is unless you are doing ultramarathons that are time-based, like a 12-hour ultra or 24-hour ultra.
Because the race is a specific distance, training by distance will help you build confidence and have a more accurate understanding of your fitness level and ability to finish the race based on your training mileage.
For example, if you are running a marathon, you will typically want to hit at least 20 miles as your longest long run in preparation for the marathon.
If you are only running by minutes and you do not have a good grasp on how far you are running, you may be very under-trained come race day.
Alternatively, you may be running a lot faster than you think and setting yourself up for overtraining because you are doing too much volume.
Helpful for Speed Workouts
For track interval speed workouts, in particular, running by distance is much easier since the track is a set 400m distance.
Quantifiable With Running Tech
If you want to use a GPS running watch, it is better to run by miles or kilometers vs. minutes since the watch can give you an accurate representation of your distance, pace, average speed, etc.
Helpful for Nutrition
For fueling and understanding how many calories you burn running, it is typically easier to use mileage vs. minutes running training programs.
This is because most running calorie calculators use distance rather than time because the number of calories you burn running is primarily based on how far you run in conjunction with your body size and running speed/intensity.
What Are the Benefits of Running For Time?
Here are some of the advantages of running for time when tracking and planning your training program:
Better for Beginners
Running for time is an especially ideal approach for beginners who may be doing a walk/run approach or progressing to running without stopping from a run-walk program.
Running for minutes instead of miles also helps you focus on increasing your endurance and listening to your body rather than pushing the pace or needing to hit a certain mileage before you can stop your workout.
This may help prevent overuse injuries and decrease some of the stress and pressure of starting running as a beginner.
Helps You Listen to Your Body
The biggest advantage of running by minutes vs. miles is that time-based running training programs really teach you to listen to your body and run by feel rather than be dictated by pace or slave to your running watch.
On days when you aren’t feeling great, you are more likely to listen to your body and slow things down.
Alternatively, on days when the wind seems to be giving you jet-pack running speed, you are more inclined to go with the energy that you have and not be constrained by your usual running pace and expectations.
Better for Trail Running, Inclement Weather, and Altitude
If you like to run on trails, running for time is better than distance because you may lose the GPS signal in the trails, and the difficulty of the trail itself adds a training intensity that will be overlooked if you are running by miles vs. minutes.
Similarly, when running at altitude, in the heat, during winter storms, or in very hilly terrain, it is usually ideal to run for time over distance because of the added challenges of the altitude, terrain, or weather conditions.
Helpful When Traveling
If you are traveling or running on vacation where you are unfamiliar with training routes, running for time instead of distance is much easier because you do not have to map out a specific running route; you can add loops and just run in a more relaxed manner.
Particularly if you are a slower runner, you may prefer running plans with minutes instead of miles or distances because it can feel less overwhelming to have a time-based running plan when your running pace is very slow.
Or you may feel unmotivated and overwhelmed by having to hit a specific mileage if you are training alone or trying to build endurance.
Easier to Schedule
From a logistical standpoint, it is usually easier to run for time vs. distance, especially if you are busy.
If you have a 40-minute run on your training plan, you know that it will take 40 minutes plus whatever time you add for warming up and cooling down, stretching, etc.
In contrast, distance-based training plans are more open-ended because a run may take you longer or shorter depending on how you end up feeling once you get out there.
A 6-mile run is more of a nebulous time commitment than a 40-minute run.
Ultimately, deciding whether you want to train by minutes or miles is a matter of weighing the pros and cons of each method and deciding which factors matter most to you based on your personal running goals, preferences, personality, and the type of running training program you feel most motivated to follow.
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