Should I Run for Time or Distance?

It’s the age-old debate in running, and I’m not sure that I’m going to give you a definitive answer today. But I will give you plenty to consider when you’re trying to figure out Should I run for time or should I run for distance?

It’s the age-old debate in running, and I’m not sure that I’m going to give you a definitive answer today. But I will give you plenty to consider when you’re trying to figure out Should I run for time or should I run for distance?

First things first, if you haven’t spent time with me here on the channel before, hit that subscribe button, stick around with me for future videos of this show that I called Runner’s High. As I haven’t mentioned yet, I’m Jesse Funk, the host of this show, and we talked about everything running here. So, if you like running, you like learning about running, this is the place for you.

Now, when we’re talking about time versus distance, we’re really trying to think about which is better for us, which is better for our particular schedule, our program, our goals? What are we going to do that gets us where we want to go? And first, you have to define what exactly you’re after before we can figure out should I run for time or should I run for distance. Now, I’ll admit my partisanship up front, I’ve been a distance guy for a very, very long time.

Now, I guess if I really think about it, I’ve actually spent half of my 20 years going distance, which is the first half basically, and then the latter half going time because I switched to multi-sport where I was doing triathlon trying to earn my pro license, which you’ll have heard about, if you’ve seen any of my episodes of the Smart Athlete Podcast where I talk about my story.

Now, that is a big consideration when you’re thinking about time versus distance. If you’re only running, then distance is fine. But if you’re cross training, you’re doing multi-sport, you’re doing other things, the common denominator is time.

You have to compensate for effort as well because a half-hour going easy and a half-hour going as hard as you possibly can, are not the same thing. But when you’re trying to figure out okay, how do I mix an hour of running with an hour of biking and then an hour of swimming? How do they all relate to each other? In particular, I like to think about it in terms of calorie burn. It’s not a perfect way to think about that. But calorie burn and time is a good way to think about what I’m doing my personal load for my workout week if you’re doing multiple things.

So, just straight off the bat, if you’re a multi-sport athlete, time is the way to go. But there’s still the temptation to think about distance and knowing that, oh, I want to go a certain distance, or maybe I need to cover a certain distance. So, there are things to consider if you want to go that direction. The biggest pro for going distance and saying I want to go for this particular distance is If you’re training for a particular event. Well, then you know, hey, I’m doing a half marathon.

I’ve got to go 13.1 miles. So, I know I need to train my distance up so that I can cover that distance in a particular time. In that case, doing distance makes a lot of sense. Because there’s a very definitive distance you have to go so you can cover it. Other than that, it gets a little more squiggy or squishy, it depends on who you ask, which one you should say. But the point is, it becomes unclear which should be the best for you. So, here’s a few more things to consider.

If you come from a background where distance is king like I do, then you might consider going time if you find yourself on your long runs going too fast. You have to be honest with yourself. That’s the key here, you have to be honest, am I going too fast? Am I going too hard? Am I not recovering as well as I’d like to? Some of it is just this internal pressure to always go fast, to always be performing, when really, you need to chill out on those long runs.

And one way to do that is by trying to convert your time of what you should be running and just saying, this is what I’m going to run for, regardless of the distance. Then relying on your RPE, your rate of perceived exertion to say, I’m going easy, and there’s no way to cheat. You simply can’t do it.

So, if you think about, hey, I need to go out for a long run, say you’re going to go out for seven or eight miles. And you think well, if I run a little faster, it can be done a little sooner. But that may not be what you need in your program, you may need to be recovering.

And if you need to be recovering, then going for time is a good antidote to that urgency to go faster on those long runs. Because if you say hey, I’m going to go run seven miles, but you convert that and say, maybe you run eight minute miles. I’m going to run for 56 minutes and seven miles or eight minute miles is your target pace. Maybe it’s 10 minute miles, whatever it is, convert it over and you say this is the time I’m going to run for.

Well, no amount of speeding up is going to change that time. That time is the time. You may find yourself going a little bit slower than you would, which is probably good because you need to slow down to recover. You’re also still going to get the benefits of being out for that duration of time, which is an aerobic capacity thing.I mentioned that eight minute target.

Say you had eight minutes, and you went eight and a half, that’s going to be perfectly fine. It’s not going to negatively affect you to drop that extra time. And really, if you are dropping that extra time by going easy, it’s likely that you needed to do it anyway. So, if you’re stuck on distance, and you know you’re going too fast in your long runs, then a good antidote to that is thinking about going for time. But there is another way around if you’re thinking about time all the time of a reason you might go distance.

And that reason is this, if you need to let go of the pressure of the watch. If you find yourself clock watching all of the time, then going for distance may be the key. And when I say going for distance, I mean, taking out a route, saying I’m going to run this route and leaving your watch at home, not knowing that this was the time that you ran.

Because it’s a similar psychological problem as to the reason you might run for time, you’re rushing. And it’s when you need to focus internally and think about the rate of perceived exertion, the effort you’re putting in, not the time. Not the speed, not the pace that you’re putting in, but the effort that you may focus on distance. Leave the watch at home, know your route, forget about the time and focus on that effort.

When you allow yourself to forget about either time or distance and simply focus on your effort, you do this consistently, you’re going to get the best results out of yourself, because you’re going to show up each day and perform to the level your body can and to the best expectations that can be had from you. Because if you’re too tired, your body can’t perform, you feel that.

If you’re able to push more, you also feel that. So, going internally, and thinking about rate of perceived exertion is really the key to both of these things. So, those are the two sides of that coin of if you feel like you’re rushing, or if you feel like your clock-watching, you might go time, you might go distance, it depends.

However, because you want to focus on rate of perceived exertion, there’s actually a way to combine both time and distance into a single workout. And that workout is the ever popular fartlek. When we pick a distance, really, it can’t be just a time-based thing. So, okay, but go with me here. We pick a distance, again, let’s go with that seven mile run.

And then we say within the run, we’re going to do three rounds of three on three off, two on two off, one on three off, something like that. It doesn’t have to be that workout, it can be any mix. But when you do fartlek, which is Swedish for speed play, it’s the ability to change your pace within a run. Then you can go out for a distance and have these intervals that are based on effort. I find they are really, really good. Again, if you’re honest with yourself, about teaching your abilities in that internal compass.

I particularly like the three, two, one intervals, or something like 90, 60, 30. We did that a lot in college, 90 seconds on 90 seconds off, 60 seconds or 60 seconds off, 30 seconds on and then I think it was three minutes off. The ending interval would vary, but you want to recover. And it’d give you the chance to go say 5K pace mile pace and then like sprint. But if you’re doing it multiple rounds, you have to stay honest with yourself, otherwise, you’re going to slow down. And you want each of those to be similar throughout the run. So, all your 90s should be similar, all your 60s should be similar, and all the 30 should be similar. You don’t want to die off.

Doing this, combining the two, and focusing internally gives you the ability to become a better pacer and a better runner while getting good fitness in, and it’s just fun. It’s good to get out, mix it up, not be so stuck on being at the track or having to run a mile or these set distances. It’s all based internally. I find that it frees me up to do exactly what my body can do that day, nothing more, nothing less. And that frees me up mentally to know that I’m doing the right thing, and know that I got all the work I can get in for the day, which is a huge boon when you’re trying to be the best runner you can be, basically.

Picking either distance or time is going to be a personal preference. Whichever way you go, know that I want you to focus on that internal sense of clock, that internal sense of being in pacing and effort, because no matter whether you pick distance or time, that’s what’s going to serve you to be the best runner you can possibly be. Do you have any questions for me? Leave them down in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you, do a video just for you. As always, I’ll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.


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