Should I Gauge My Run by Time or Distance?

Runner looking at her watch

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There are two basic ways to keep track of your running—by time or by distance. It’s long been a hotly debated issue in the running world, particularly now that there are so many tech tools designed to track your mileage with considerable accuracy.

The reality is that there are advantages and disadvantages to each method, so the one that you choose often depends on your needs and preferences. Running by time often works better if you are on a tight schedule, while running by distance can push you to stay motivated. If you typically run at a consistent pace, your mileage and speed will likely be the same no matter which approach you choose.

Time

  • Helpful for maintaining your fitness level

  • Increases your running enjoyment

  • Good for days when you need to focus on recovery

Distance

  • Good for building your motivation

  • Adds intensity

  • Helpful for reaching specific mile goals

Running for Time

One reason to run for time is that it is easy to fit a run into your daily routine. When you only have a certain amount of time available, a timed run ensures that you can get in a workout without having to worry about hitting a certain distance.

Pros

When you run for time, you're not focused on pace, so you're more likely to run based on how you feel. So, on days when you're not feeling great, you won't force yourself to go for your miles or feel guilty if you don't cover the distance. Instead, you'll run for your goal time at the right pace.

For beginners, this is especially important, which is why some beginner 5K plans will include intervals of running and walking (run 5 minutes/walk 1 minute, repeat 3 times), rather than giving specific distances to run.

Another perk of running by time is that you won't force mileage when the conditions are not ideal. If you're trying to do a specific pace or distance on a hot, humid day, you might overexert yourself and put yourself at risk for heat-related illnesses. If you run by overall time, you're more likely to run at a pace that takes extreme conditions into account.

Running for time can also be a great way to you prevent boredom and explore new routes more easily because you're not worried about the mileage.

Running by time can also help with motivation if you're struggling to stick to a running schedule. Since you know that you’ll only need to devote so many minutes to your run, you might find it easier to make the commitment each day.

Finally, although some sports watches and running apps can make it easy to measure running routes, there are certain circumstances (like running on trails in the woods) when the GPS doesn't work properly, meaning you can't track your run. In this regard, running by time tends to be more reliable.

Researchers have found that running for as little as 5 minutes a day can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Cons

Tracking by time often discourages runners from pushing themselves as hard as they need to in order to improve speed, strength, and endurance. Because you know that you will be stopping at a certain time, you might find yourself just putting one foot in front of the other instead of trying to maintain a decent pace.

Running for Time Tips

When you decide to track your run by time, there are some things that you can do to get the most out of your workout:

  • Try a steady-state run: Like a tempo run, a steady state run involves maintaining a certain pace for a period of time. In this case, you will run at an easy or medium pace for around 20 to 25 minutes. Always be sure to include a good warm-up before and cool-down after your run. This type of run can also be great for building your endurance.
  • Try a tempo run: Tempo runs involve holding a fairly hard pace for a set period of time. Aim for around 20 to 30 seconds slower per mile than your current race pace and hold steady at this rate for 10 to 20 minutes. By keeping your body just below a fatigued level, you can build endurance and train yourself to keep up the pace even when energy levels begin to sag.

Running for Distance

If your goal is to train for a longer event, running by distance can be an important part of your training. Covering a set number of miles each run can be motivating at times, and it encourages you to stick to a pace so that you can achieve your daily goal.

Pros

Tracking your run by distance can tell you a lot about your current fitness level. If you're training for a specific distance race, it's important that you how far you’re running each day so you know a specific race distance is achievable.

Running by distance can help you better understand your pace per mile. It's definitely helpful to have an idea of what kind of pace you run, so you stay motivated, keep pushing yourself, measure your progress, and pick realistic race goals.

Cons

If you always run by distance, you might be tempted to push the pace and always hit a certain pace per mile during each run, rather than varying the intensity of your workouts. Not varying your workouts is a common mistake that can lead to injury. To avoid overtraining and injury, it's important that a majority of your runs are at a conversational pace.

Running by distance can be challenging if you are traveling or are on vacation. Planning and measuring unfamiliar routes can be difficult, which means you might be more likely to just skip your training.

Running for distance can be hard on your body. Always using this method can lead to feelings of both physical and mental fatigue, making it more difficult to stick to your training schedule.

Running for Distance Tips

To get the most out of your distance runs:

  • Add intervals: Varying your running intensity during when you are running for distance is a good way to improve your cardio capacity. Bursts of speed mixed with periods of recovery can boost your VO2 max, or the maximum oxygen you can utilize during your workout.
  • Choose this for long runs: During your weekly distance run, focus on going a specific distance rather than running for a set period of time. You’ll probably find that as you train, you are able to gradually add more miles to your run each week. This can be motivating and give you a good idea of how you're doing and what you might need to do to improve.

A Word From Verywell

The reality is that while both of these methods have pros and cons, they complement each other nicely. There are times you might want to run for time and other cases when going by distance may be best. In many cases, you might want to stagger how to track your running to help stave off boredom and ensure that your training schedule is pushing you to reach your potential.

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