Time vs. Distance

11 Apr

When I first started running, it was solely on a treadmill. Going outside seemed really intimidating – where do I go? What if I can’t get home? Hit by a car? Lost in the woods? Forget how to put one foot in front of the other?

Ok, so maybe I could’ve used a Xanax or 20. That aside, I really liked the feedback I got from the ‘mill. The ability to dial in a pace, to stay at that pace, see how far I had gone. The numeric feedback was huge for me.

Eventually I decided I should put on my big girl pants and actually get outdoors – upstate New York gets so few nice days during the year, so it seemed like a total shame to be running inside during the summer. Also, quite a few co-workers ragged on me (good-naturedly, of course) and I started to feel like a wimp. I bought myself a Nike+ sportkit and headed out. Again, the numeric feedback was key – I still remember the first time I ran 5 miles and how I felt like a total boss. I think it’s pretty common for runners to humblebrag about the number of miles they’ve run – haven’t we all posted the obligatory pic of our Garmin at some point in time?

My first 20-miler ever.  If I didn't take a picture of it, it didn't really happen?

My first 20-miler ever. If I didn’t take a picture of it, it didn’t really happen?


I had never really considered that there could be another way (run without some fancy piece of technology?! NOT EVEN POSSIBLE GUYZ, NOBODY RAN PRIOR TO THE INVENTION OF THE SPORTSWATCH), until last summer when I decided to train with a local running group for my fall marathon.

The group is led by an amazing runner – he holds a 2:15 marathon PR, and is currently running world class age-graded master’s times – who has a “strange” take on training: running for time, not distance.

I say strange because it was just a totally foreign concept to me. Our training was laid out in terms of a time range for base runs (I was 30-45mins), a time-based long run, and time-based intervals. Instead of a 10x800m or a 400m-800m-1200m-1600m ladder workout, we’d run 6x4mins, or 3 sets of 5mins-7mins-3mins.

It was hard for me. I’m big on benchmarking myself, and tracking progress (yes, I possibly am still in need of that Xanax). The time-based structure made it hard for me to do that, at least for the speedwork portion of the plan. Also, I had previously approached long runs with a philosophy of “let’s roll and get it over with as fast as possible.” That doesn’t really work when you’re going to be out there for 3 hours, regardless of whether you’re running 6min/miles or 10min/miles.

I thought I hated it, that it didn’t work well for me, and that I wanted to switch back to a distance based plan. This is what I did in preparation for the Shamrock Marathon. But as I sat there earlier this week trying to loosely plan a base-building phase, I found myself thinking in terms of “I’d like to build to 45-60mins a day, and get my long run around 1:45-2hours before starting marathon training.”

— Timeout to address planning a base-building phase. I am seriously OCD.  I like structure. You’re just going to have to learn to love this about me. —

This made me take pause … as a person who has always been motivated by numbers, why was I subconsciously planning my training like this? I spent the past week thinking about it. I realized that time-based training does a really nice job of taking the pressure off of pace. If I’m going to be out there for 45 minutes, it’s 45 minutes – doesn’t matter how fast or slow each mile is. I think that really helps me relax on easy runs and keep them, well, easy. It also helps during speedwork – if you’re having an off day but you still push as hard as you can, you’ll still reap training rewards for that effort. It’s harder to compare yourself to past performances but maybe that’s a good thing – all other factors do not remain equal from one workout to another.

I also realized that I ran my fastest race to-date off of a summer of training this way. Coincidence? Possibly. I’m sure there are other factors like, oh, doing consistent speedwork in any way, shape, or form. But it certainly didn’t hurt anything, either.

I’m still not sure what fall races I want to commit to, so I certainly am not ready to commit to a training plan.  I had originally wanted to try Pfitz 18/55 but now I’m starting to reconsider.

Anyone else out there use a time-based approach to training?  Had success with it?  Tell me stories.


2 Responses to “Time vs. Distance”

  1. Elisa April 12, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    I started running with the couch to 5k prgoram which has options for either distance or time but it was much easier to think about it in terms of time. So it’s kind of funny because it is the exact opposite for me. Running for time feels much more natural!

  2. Anna April 12, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    I run based on distance. It works better for me for planning routes and making sure I am prepared for the full distance of whatever I am training for. But when I ran cross country in high school our team stuck strictly to time-based workouts. It worked wonders and our varsity group (which did not include me by any stretch of the imagination) was ranked nationally every year. I think it definitely has its benefits.

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