Time versus Distance in the Court of Running

When it comes to training plans and coaching there is an age-old question: do you train by time or by distance?

Arguments in favor of time are often based around the idea that runners should minimize injury risk. This means making sure easy runs are done easy enough, and that there is a limit to the amount of time that one should spend on their longest runs.

The main argument for distance is that you are training to race a distance, not a time.

Meanwhile, some advocate for a combination.

Coach Doug Robinson of Phoenix Fitness and Training in Indianapolis says, “The max long run is 3 hours and if that is 13 miles, then your long run heading into a marathon is 13 miles. Aerobically, this will give the athlete plenty of fitness to go and run all day long if they wanted. Physically, I find that this will give the athlete as much stress as they can handle in their bones, muscles and ligaments to make them more durable, but not take them over the edge and exponentially increase their risk for injury.”

Coach Caolan MacMahon agrees with a hard limit around the 3-hour mark.

“For runners training for marathons/50ks, I will give distance and pace BUT based on their pace I will not give a distance that will result in a run longer than 3:00-3:30, since research shows that the recovery needed and damage done for longer duration runs, regardless of pace, is greater than the benefits gained. So in this case, distance and time matter. ” MacMahon, of The Long Run Coaching, LLC, adds “whether I use time or distance depends on the runner, their experience, their goals, and the nature of the training itself (roads and trails).”

On the other end of the spectrum, Coach Matt Ebersole of Carmel, IN says, “When training for fitness, training by time is great. You can couple time and intensity and get a great training benefit. However, when training to race a distance, training by distance makes much more sense. This helps us know what training adaption (including overcompensation) will occur and what is needed to be strong for the chosen race distance.”

Matt noted that if we have a 2:30- and a 5:00-hour marathoner both training by time, either the training effect will be significantly different or he would adjust based on the individual’s pace and really be addressing distance and not training time.

“I do like people to occasionally run for time with distance in mind and avoid the GPS stress of every long run,” he added. If you’re a runner averaging 12-13 minute miles, like me, that means Matt might send me to run 120-130 minutes if he wanted me to cover about 10 miles.

“That’s particularly handy on the trails when GPS does not work and distance is unknown,” Matt said.

For some coaches, there is a lot of middle ground. Triathlon coach Sean Edwards of Speed Factory Racing, based in Carmel, Ind., said it’s a tough question. “I switch back and forth based on the training blocks and what I am trying to achieve for the specific athlete.”

Similarly, Coach Jen Schomaker (Endurance Coach Jen) says “I use both methods depending on the runner. For my experienced runners and those training for specific distances I focus on distance for a few reasons 1) that’s how most are mentally focused since the goal is a specific distance 2) it is an easy measure and one all runners know 3) distance can give good comparisons to other workouts. I use time for newer runners and those doing run/walk methods. It also takes out the mental scare of needing to cover a certain distance. On the other hand I also use time for some speed intervals for faster runners.”

Coach Denny Krahe (Diz Runs) of Florida agreed.

“When it comes to training for time or distance, I really tend to ride the fence and work with my clients to figure out what works best for them,” he said. “For some clients, the thought of doing a 3+ hour long run is overwhelming, yet seeing 18-20 miles on their schedule isn’t any big deal. And, of course, I have other clients that are the exact opposite. So, in most cases, I just go with whatever each client prefers.”

Denny also says that time is a good way to make runners slow down for their easy runs, rather than “cheating” it by running faster to get the distance in and move on to the next thing.

Some coaches vary by runner’s experience or pace.

“For my absolute beginners aiming for a 5k, I train by time,” says Coach Ashley Thompson. “When the speed of runners is anywhere between a 16 minute mile and an 8 minute mile, there is no need for the slower runners to go twice as long as the faster runners. We will train on an out-and-back course, U-turning halfway so ideally everyone finishes at the exact same time, regardless of how far they went. Under this circumstance, you can control for appropriate speed based on rate of perceived exertion. ”

And, Coach Troy Frazer of Indianapolis said he also goes with a combination of time and distance. “First, I would say to helps keep your interest. Second, I would say it depends on the terrain you are training on.  Third, it could be easier to remember say, speed training is in minutes, and other runs are in distance.”

Personally, training plans that max out with 3-hour long runs have always seemed problematic for me. My first half was 3:19, my first full was 7:09. I’ve whittled those down to 2:21 and 5:42, and there are a lot of things that happen with nutrition, gear and mental focus after three hours that you won’t be able to control on race day if you don’t experience them in training. The chances of not finishing, or getting injured during the race, seem real. For most marathoners, the faith that it takes to know you can get to 26.2 on only 20 mile training runs is a big enough leap – convincing myself that I could run 26.2 on 13-15 miles is not something I would be comfortable with. But my lil sis successfully ran a sub-5:00 first marathon on no more than 15 miles in training. I guess it depends on the person.

In the interest of transparency and disclosure, my triathlon (run/bike) coach is Matt Ebersole (Personal Best Training). Doug Robinson (Phoenix Fitness and Training) has been my swim coach and Sean Edwards (Speed Factory Racing) is my current swim coach. I have been on Denny Krahe’s podcast (Diz Runs).

Do you train by distance or time? Why?

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  1. Next time I train for a marathon, I will run no more than an 18 mile long run which took me just under 3 hours to complete. Last March, I was training for my first marathon and I was able to complete the 18 mile runs with no major issues, but I noticed a huge difference in how my body felt after the 20 mile run, even though I completed it just fine. Exactly a week after my 20 mile run, I had a very sudden calf strain (grade 2). I had no injuries prior to this, no soreness in my calf, but I feel like the 20 mile run the week before stressed my body too much. Not only did I DNF in my very first marathon (I’m still bitter and disappointed in myself), but I can’t seem to build up my milage again without re-injurying the calf.

  2. Lots to think about! I followed the Hansons program for one of my marathons last year, never running over 27Km and felt just as strong on race day as I did when I ran 32-35km for my longest runs.

    What are your thoughts on the pros under Jerry Schumacher who run “Jerry Miles”, using an average time per mile as a marker for distance (good description here: http://www.letsrun.com/news/2017/02/chris-derrick-back-struggling-injuries-chris-derrick-hopes-win-usa-xc-title-4-weekend/)