When you are training, it’s good to have a goal when you head out for a run.
Most commonly, runners will go out for a specific time (like 60 minutes) or a specific distance (like 5 miles). Some runners find that running for time is more suitable for them, while others prefer to run for distance.
But should you run for time or distance? Is one better than the other?
Let’s compare the two methods of tracking your runs. Ultimately, they both work but one or the other may be a better option for you.
What is Running for Time vs Running for Distance?
Running for Time
Running for time means you are setting a time goal for your run, like 30 minutes or 90 minutes.
When you add up your time runs throughout the week, you may find yourself running for a total 2, 3, 4 or 5 hours weekly, depending on how long you run for and how many days you run.
Running for time is useful if you have a busy schedule and are short on time. That way, you know exactly how many minutes you have for exercise, so you don’t have to worry about hitting a specific distance. It’s easy to fit timed runs into your daily schedule as you can cater for each day as it comes.
It can also be a better option for new runners who don’t yet have the stamina to run distances of 5k—3.1 miles—or more. When one can run for 30 minutes without stopping, then switching to distance training may be worthwhile.
To improve your performance when running for time, you can slowly increase the number of minutes per day that you run. You should increase by 5 to 10% per week to avoid overtraining.
Running for Distance
Running for distance means you set a distance goal for each run.
For example, you may aim for 5 miles or 10 miles. You can aim for a specific distance every day, or you can set a weekly goal and divide it between your daily runs depending on how you feel each day.
Running for distance is the better option if you are training for a longer event. Research has shown that running for distance could be better than time for weight loss. It can also help you to build up endurance for long races, but it is more common amongst experienced runners rather than new runners.
To improve your performance when running for distance, increase your distance by about half a mile or a mile every week. It’s best to build up slowly, by 5 to 10% per week to prevent overdoing it and putting yourself at risk for injury.
Running for distance can be motivating as it encourages one to maintain a good pace in order to achieve their goals or finish their run within a particular time frame.
Running For Time
When running for time, you’re more likely to run at an appropriate pace for how you’re feeling, rather than trying to keep a specific pace so you can hit a specific distance.
This makes running for time a better option for beginners, as one can pace themself and listen to their body and build stamina at a steady pace.
Running for time allows one to run at a pace that suits them. If the runner needs to stop or walk for some time to catch their breath, they can do so without feeling the pressure of needing to reach a specific distance goal. Pressure when running for distance can cause runners to feel demotivated and intimidated.
It’s also a good way to explore new routes and run for enjoyment rather than serious training. Time is easy to track, especially if you don’t own a smartwatch that has a GPS function to track distance while you’re running.
Running for time is a good way to do recovery runs or to stay fit in the off-season. There’s less pressure than running for distance, and you can take it at an easy pace without having a specific goal in mind.
Running for time may not suit more serious runners who are preparing for a specific race. Because races are categorized according to distance, training for time wouldn’t be an effective way to train.
Runners who have been running for some time and have not yet switched to running for distance might begin to find that they are no longer challenged when running for time.
This can lead to becoming discouraged and not pushing to the level that you could be. If running for time is becoming too easy or boring for you, it may be time to move over to running for distance.
It can also become easy to lose your running form when running for time because you aren’t pushing yourself to run faster or further. One may fall into the trap of developing bad posture and poor running form, which can lead to injuries.
Both steady-state runs and tempo runs are good options if you are measuring your runs by time.
Steady-state runs entail running at an easy to moderate pace for a certain length of time, for example, 20 or 30 minutes.
Tempo runs are an excellent way to vary your intensity while running for time. Although you do focus on your pace during tempo runs, it’s all about how long you can maintain a particular pace.
Running For Distance
Running for distance helps you to rack up the necessary miles to improve your fitness for long runs. It will also help you to calculate your pace per mile, which will be important for pacing yourself during longer races.
Monitoring your data by distance can give you an indication of your current fitness level. You will begin to understand what you need to do to run a successful race at any number of distances.
If you can run a 5k without stopping but a 10k is too far out of reach, then you should work your way up to running at least 20 to 30 km—12.4 to 18.6 miles—per week. This will help you to build up the endurance to run a full 10k much quicker than if you were training for time every week.
When you’re running for distance, you’re less likely to slow your pace than you are when running for time.
When time is your goal, pace isn’t as important. But when distance is your goal, the faster you run the quicker you get to your goal, so you’re more likely to maintain a good pace.
Running for distance can also have its disadvantages. It can be difficult to measure specific routes, or the route that you usually take may be too long or short, disrupting your usual routine. It can be difficult to lengthen your distance if you already have a particular 5k or 10k route that you’re used to running.
If you’re running with a distance goal instead of a time goal, it can be tempting to push your pace up before your body has adjusted. You should be increasing your distance by 5 to 10% each week, but it can be easy to increase it too much without realizing it. This can lead to injury if your body isn’t ready for the extra exertion.
It can also be easy to fall into the trap of consistently pushing for a further distance, instead of varying your distances and the intensity of your workouts. This can lead to overtraining and boredom.
If you’re focused on distance as your marker, you may begin to lose the enjoyment of running or forget to pay attention to your form because you’re only concentrating on how far you’ve run and how far you have left to run.
If distance running is becoming too easy or you’re getting bored with it, try to add intervals.
For example, run for 3 miles at your regular, comfortable pace. Then try to run the next mile 10 or 15 seconds faster. Then go back to your normal pace for a mile or two. Then go all out and see how far you can get.
In the end, you should still aim for your distance goal, but adding intervals can make it more interesting as well as improve your cardiovascular health.
Which One Should I Do?
Both running for time and running for distance have many benefits. Beginners should stick to running for time until they can confidently run a 5k without needing to stop. From there, you can work your way to running for distance as you aim for the next goal, a 10k.
Experienced runners who are training for races should be spending most of their training running for distance.
But running for time shouldn’t be discarded completely—it should be kept for recovery runs, maintaining fitness in the off-season and for moments when you need to vary your workouts or take it easy to avoid aggravating an injury or simply to enjoy being out in the fresh air running.