Time Vs. Distance – What’s the difference???

I am often asked, why do you prefer to run by time and or coach your athletes to train based on time vs. distance? What is the difference?

First, I’ll give you a little background as to WHY I prefer time. Long before the almighty Garmin GPS watch came about, runners and distance athletes had something prehistoric, called a WATCH!! What could this watch do?? Well, it could tell time and that was about it! If you had a fancy one, like a Timex Ironman, it would also record laps (which was sooooo cool!!).

Now days, we have the Garmins (among other brands) that will record distance, heart rate, calories burned, pace, elevation, etc, etc. These things are amazing training tools and can be awesome components to a good training plan…however, they can also be your own worst enemy. They suck you in with that exact distance, exact pace! Heaven forbid you only run 7.93 instead of an exact 8 miles…just imagine how horrible your next race would be if you didn’t have exact distances for each of your training runs (I am being sarcastic, of course!).

So, WHY do I prefer to use time more so than distance?

PROGRESSION TRACKING – Too often with runners, we want to pile on more mileage than our bodies are currently ready to handle, only to wind up injured, over fatigued, or both. So, how can time vs. distance make a difference? Lets take a “cookie cutter” training plan for the marathon. In this plan, lets say that you are to run 6 miles per day, everyday for 7 days (totaling 42 weekly miles).

Now, aside from the amount of miles you have to run, you also have to account for the amount of time it will take. So, lets say two runners of the sport, both running the same plan, but both of varying abilities. So we have Runner A and Runner B.

Runner A is able to cover her 42 miles per week at an average of 8 minutes per mile pace, which gives a grand total of 5 hours and 36 minutes running time for the week.

Runner B is able to cover his 42 miles per week at an average of 10 minutes per mile pace, which gives a grand total of 7 hours running time for the week.

As you can see, Runner B is on their feet for 1 hour and 24 minutes longer per week than Runner A. That is a substantial amount of time more to be out there on your feet running.

Running by time also allows the body to adapt and progress at the rate in which it is absorbing the training workload. For instance, a typical training plan might call for a 5 mile tempo every Thursday, adding 1 mile to your tempo every few weeks. But, how do you know your body is ready to make a complete mile jump in distance?

If you run by time, you can start your Thursday tempo at 40 minutes. Lets say your run an 8 minute pace. You will be covering 5 miles during this amount of time running. As the weeks go by and as your body adapts and progresses, now that 40 minute run may produce 5.25 miles, a few weeks later 5.6 miles and so on and so on. As you start maximizing the distance that you can obtain in that 40 minute window, then, instead of adding another mile, you just add another 5 minutes or so, with training paces remaining constant and only progressing or getting faster as your fitness improves.

This is particularly important for the longer runs that you need if you are training for a marathon. Somewhere, years ago, Americans became obsessed with the magical 20 miler, with many training plans calling for 22, 24 and even up to 28 miles for marathon training.

The argument is always “Just need to get time on your feet”. Which, is partially true. But, again this all comes back to skill level and current fitness and training levels. It is pretty well observed and researched that the “long run” shouldn’t be anymore than 25-30% of your weekly mileage total. However, most runners are doing 40%, 50% and sometimes even more than that in just one single long run. Here is another example of two different runners with two different marathon goals.

Runner A – Goal marathon = 3:10, Weekly mileage = 60. For this runner, the weekly long run would be in the 15-18 mile range, based on the 25-30% rule. If this runner were to do an 18 mile long run at 7:45 pace, they would finish in 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Runner B – Goal marathon = 5:00, Weekly mileage = 36. For this runner, the weekly long run would be in the 8-12 mile range, based on the 25-30% rule. If this runner were to do an 18 miler, as most training plans might call for, at 10:00 pace, not only would it account for 50% of their weekly mileage, it would also take them 3 hours to complete.

So, why do two different runners, with two completely different weekly mileage and different time goals, often run the exact same distance for their long runs? I blame peer pressure and these “cookie cutter” training plans. In my own training group, I will see the same distances being covered weekly by nearly all the various skill levels of runners that are out there. One runner may be a 2:50 marathoner running 80 miles per week and one may be a 4:50 marathoner running 40 miles per week, yet, they are both doing a 20 mile long run…Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

From a physiological standpoint, the body doesn’t understand or know distance. However, the body does understand frequency, duration and intensity.

If two runners are running at the same relative intensity for the same duration, it can be assumed that they got the exact same benefits and the same type of workout, regardless of the respective distances that they each covered.

Most training schedules and plans are often based off of a plan that was designed for an elite runner, then was modified a bit and or diluted a bit to accommodate the “Average Joe Marathoner”.

The body tends to expend its glycogen stores around the 2 hour to 2 1/2 range and nearly any and all physiological benefits of the long run are absorbed during this time. No evidence has been shown to suggest that running longer is anymore beneficial.

So, if the body is using up all of its glycogen stores (or at least most of it) during a 2-2:30 long run, what does that mean? On average, it takes 48-72 hours to replenish drained glycogen stores (provided you are refueling with the right foods, fluids). So, if you go out and your 3 hour long run and severely deplete your glycogen stores, you likely won’t have them replenished again until the following Tuesday and that is only assuming you did no other running or excercise to deplete them further. This is why the body and legs are often rather tired and fatigued after hard training runs, rides, swims, etc. If you deplete your glycogen and then only replenish 70% of it to the muscles, then go hard again, you are already working with a deficit.

An elite level marathoner could do a typical 18 mile run at 6:00 pace, giving him/her a total run time of 1 hour 48 minutes, thus, never having gotten to the point of glycogen depletion. So, as you can see, an 18 mile run for one runner becomes a totally different workout than what it would be for another runner.

As always, every individual is different and can handle different stresses and different workloads. But, if you seek the best out of your training and your body, you should probably consider taking care of it.

There is a very important adaptation process that the body has to go through in order to improve and progress. The idea is to stress the body, just enough to signal a adaptation response, but not so much as to over stress it to extreme fatigue or injury.

The body needs time to recover and regenerate in order to improve and be able to respond to the next bout of high intensity training. Each training activity should have a specific purpose and each run should focus on a specific area.

If you want to become a good marathoner, you need to start getting the body adapted and ready to handle the paces and the stresses of the marathon….essentially, you want to maximize gains with the least amount of expenditure.

Often times, during a marathon, a runner will become dehydrated. It is something that you should try to avoid, but it is a likely scenario…so, with that said, why doesn’t marathon coaches recommend during all their long runs from a dehydrated level?

Because it would be absolutely absurd and would be putting the runner at extreme risks! The same level of caution should be taken for other faucets of training. Just because you CAN run a certain distance or intensity every day, it doesn’t mean that it is wise, nor does it mean that you will see any improvement..in fact, you will likely break down over time and will see diminishing returns from your efforts.

GROUP RUNNING – Another reason running by time works well is that it is the same, no matter who is using it. If you run with a group, like I do, you run with runners of varying skill level. So, if you all meet up for a Tuesday night 8 mile run, then there will be time ranges of less than an hour, to maybe an 1 hour and 30 minutes. However, if you all start out with the intent to run 1 hour, no matter what the pace or distance covered, everyone gets the same workout, relative to their abilities. One runner may cover 7 miles in an hour, while one runner covers only 5 miles in the hour, yet, the level of effort and the benefits of the run will be the same for each runner (provided they are working at similar intensities).

PSYCHOLOGICAL- Lets say set you set out to run 1 hour. So, you head out and run for 30 minutes, then turn around and run back to your starting point, only to find that your total run time was 59:28. What does that mean? That means you “negative split” your run and that you ran your second half faster than your first. Just this slight pickup in pace, might be all you need to see progression and improvement. As you continue seeing greater distances ran, within the same time window, it will likely be a great boost of confidence. Remember, little goals piled high, will help you climb to your big goal!

So, maybe you aren’t ready to give up your sacred “exact distance” mindset..but, just try doing a “timed” run once a week and see how you like it. Find new ways to change up that 30, 45, 60 minute run. Perhaps use that one timed run each week to do a fartlek, mix and match, pickups, etc.

Keep your training fun and keep the body guessing and welcoming to change. Have fun and enjoy what you are doing…training should be fun, not stressful and work like.


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