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Running For Distance VS Running For Time: Which Is More Beneficial?

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A Google search will net you many different kinds of race training plans. Whether you are training for a 10K, half marathon or the full 26.2, you will find many plans out there. The one thing that most training plans have in common is this: most plans measure the amount you should be running for distance.

For example, it might read, “you should run 25-30 miles each week.” You may see”, run three shorter (3-5 miles) runs during the week and a long (8-10 miles) run each weekend.

Although this has been the standard, there is a new school of thought in regards to training. This method is one that many athletes are finding liberating. With this type of training, the runner focuses on how long they run instead of how far. Some runners and coaches refer to this as time on feet (TOF) training.

Benefits Of Running For Distance

As a runner, you do need to get some idea of pacing. When you train by distance, you can work to hone in on a particular pace. For example, if I am training to race a 10K and it is going to be the first time I race that distance, I will want to know I can accomplish that distance. Sure, if you have run 5 miles you can run 6. However, if your goal is more than completion, you want to know what you can expect to do on the racecourse!

As you train, you don’t want to be slowing down from the first mile to the fifth or sixth mile. Every runner knows that negative or even splits are the goal for a strong showing on the course! Running by time, paying no attention to speed/pace or distance does not put you in the best position to be sure you are not slowing down considerably.

If you track your running one mile at a time, you get a better idea of what your mile splits are, which can help you to keep a more consistent pace as you train. You can also work toward speeding up in the ending miles to finish strong!

How Do I Run For Distance?

If you have a fancy smartwatch, running for distance is very easy. You just press “start” or “go” and head out the door. Whatever distance is on your training calendar you head out to achieve that task. But what if you lack a smartwatch like an AppleWatch, TomTom or Garmin?

running for distance

There are many apps out there for your smartphone that can help measure the distance you have traveled. Whether you are using RunKeeper or MapMyRun, you get updates on your distance and pace. You can silence these features if you wish to. Runners can also tailor their updates to suit their needs. I always set mine to update each mile.

A friend of mine prefers her updates each half mile. She said that it helps her to calibrate her pace if she is running either too fast or too slow to reach her goal.

As a coach, I had preset loops I would send the athletes on. They always knew the three specific loops we most frequently ran: 2, 2.5 and 3 miles each. As time went on, the kids knew where the mile and two mile marks were located. This allowed them to stay on target as they trained.

Running For Time

Many distance athletes run for time instead of distance and there are many reasons why they prefer it. Back before fancy watches and smartphones, that is actually what most distance athletes did. Your coach would send you out with instructions to run out for 30 minutes then turn around and come back.

The benefit of running for time instead of distance is that it helps you to relax and take some pressure off. Statistically, runners report it is easier for them to complete an easy, longer run at a laid-back pace when tasked with head out for a set amount of time rather than distance. The mindset simply registers things differently based on how you phrase things.

running for time

Many coaches who work with beginner runners are especially supportive of new runners starting out by training using time instead of distance. When you train by the distance you are more likely to compare yourself to other athletes. When you are training by time, on the other hand, you are not thinking about how far others have gone.

“Run for 30 minutes”, is a straightforward training plan for the day that does not give any expectation of how far or how fast you should go.

Ultramarathoners who are setting themselves up to be on their feet anywhere from 30 to 100 miles often train based on time. If you think about it, the time you will be on your feet is much more important than how far you are going.

Obviously, you can’t just put along for 5 hours, moving only a short distance, and expect to grow as an athlete. However, if you are committed to completing an endurance event you likely would not even consider that.

Is It Better To Run For Distance Or Time?

This coach and avid runner believes that there is a time and place for both. Did you know that most runners do not run their easy runs slowly enough? If you are heading out to run 10 miles, you are likely going to run them faster than an easy run pace. However, if you tell yourself that you are going to go out and run for an hour and 45 minutes at a super easy pace, you may actually find yourself slowing down.

no watch me

If you are doing a tempo run, you probably want to measure that in distance. If you are training for a 5K, for example, you might do 5 total miles. MIle one will be a warm-up, miles 2, 3 & 4 will be the tempo run where you run within :20 seconds of your race pace, and mile 5 is a cool down. See how that is important to run measuring by distance?

Some athletes feel strongly that your hard effort pieces to your training plan should be by distance and any other days by time. That would mean tempo, speed work and fartlek runs by distance. Anything else should be more laid back than that.

No Watch Me!

Don’t assume that running by time means everything is slow, by the way. You may find that it is just liberating.  Sometimes the worse enemy you have exists in the boundaries within your own head. My fastest 10-mile race ever was done on a cold and rainy day in Pennsylvania. I could not see my watch face, so I had no idea what pace I was traveling. When the race finished and I had done it at the fastest pace I had ever held for that long, I was shocked.

Known as No Watch Me in the running community, the idea is not to focus on the pace or time you are running. Some athletes cover their watch face with painter’s tape so they cannot sneak a peek!

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