Should I Try to Improve My Distance or Speed?

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New runners are often confused about how to set goals for speed and distance. If you are a beginning runner, you may wonder if you should improve your distance first or if you should train to get faster.

The short answer is to train for distance first.

It's better for you to start by building an endurance base. That means that you increase your aerobic capacity first. You increase your mileage so that longer runs are more comfortable. As you build up your endurance, your speed will also improve.

Once you have established some strength and stamina for going the distance, there is no reason why you cannot train for distance and speed at the same time. Varying your routine by mixing distance runs with shorter, faster workouts can actually help ensure that you are getting the most out of your training and minimizing your chances of injury.

Distance vs. Speed for New Runners

As a new runner, you may be tempted to get faster first. Certainly, better race times are satisfying. But if you participate in speed training before you build a strong endurance base, you put yourself at risk for injury.

Gradually building your distance as you begin your training is a good way to ensure that you are building the strength and aerobic capacity you will need to starting training harder and faster. And if you want to prepare for a race such as your first 5K, it makes sense to go for distance before you start to build speed. After all, it doesn't matter much if you are fast but lack the stamina to finish the race.

When you are ready to add speed, you will want to begin with some basic speed training. Speed training involves doing high-intensity intervals. You might do 200-meter, 400-meter or longer repeats that require you to run at paces faster than your current pace.

It's important that when you do these drills your form is good and that you have the aerobic capacity to avoid injury. If you have spent time building an endurance base, then these speed drills will be more effective.

Distance Training Tips for New Runners

To build your endurance base, follow these guidelines to make the most of your training time.

Use a Run/Walk Strategy

Don't put pressure on yourself to run the entire length of your desired distance. By doing a run/walk combination, you'll be able to cover more distance and you'll still get a great workout. And, don't worry, you'll slowly build the fitness —and confidence—you need to run longer without walking.

Run at a Conversational Pace

One of the most common reasons why beginner runners stop running before they reach their goal distance is because they're running too fast. When you're first getting started with running, you really should be running at a conversational pace. That means that you can very easily talk in complete sentences while running. If you're gasping for air, you're definitely going too fast.

Some beginner runners are actually physically fit enough to run a certain distance, but they don't have the confidence or mental strength to push themselves farther. In many cases, it's simply "mind over matter." Try to distract yourself by playing mind games, choosing new running routes, or running with other people.

Increase Distance Slowly

The general rule of thumb is that you should add no more than 10 percent of your current distance per week. So if you are currently running five miles per week, you might add about a half-mile to your weekly run until you feel comfortable running that distance. Then add slightly more.

When to Pick up the Pace

Once you have established a solid endurance base, you can start incorporating more speedwork into your training routine.

As you begin to train harder, it is important to ease your body into it gradually. Running is a high-impact sport, so adding distance or speed to your routine puts a lot of strain on your muscles, joints, and bones as well as your heart and lungs. If you start tackling too much too soon, you run the risk of getting hurt, fatigued, or even burned out.

How do you know when you are ready to start speeding things up? If you are a new runner, you should train consistently for four to six weeks before you start building up your speed.

Speed Training Tips for New Runners

So when should you start speed training? There's no need to rush into it. Doing too much running at too high an intensity is an easy way to get injured and/or burned out.

After you've been running for four to six weeks and have a nice base, you can start by adding strides into one of your weekly runs. You can also try picking up the pace towards the end of one of your runs.

When you've been running for three to four weeks, you can start to add tempo runs, fartlek runs, or interval workouts.

Once you have reached this point where you have a strong base for running distances, adding fartleks to your normal runs can be one of the best ways to start increasing your speed. Fartleks involve running slightly faster for about two minutes before easing back to your normal pace to recover for about four minutes. You can repeat these intervals several times throughout your run.

More Speed Training Ideas

Some different types of speed runs that you will want to eventually incorporate into your training include:

  • Tempo runs: This type of run involves starting at an easy pace to warm up and then moving into a speed that is about 10 seconds slower than your race pace for the next 20 to 25 minutes of your run. The goal of this pace is to increase your anaerobic threshold, a critical component for boosting your speed.
  • Interval runs: In this type of speedwork, you add short bursts of faster running with recovery intervals at an easier pace.
  • Mile repeats: These are a standard for improving your run time and are easy to do. Start by running a mile at a fast pace, then slow down for a recovery period. After about a half-mile at a recovery pace, pick back up for another faster-paced mile. Always be sure to include a warm-up and cool-down before and after your run.

A Word From Verywell

Adding speed work to your runs is a great way to improve your fitness, strength, and aerobic capacity. If you are new to running, it is essential to start by building a solid endurance base before you start working on your speed. Eventually, you can incorporate both speed and distance training, which can be a great way to make your runs more fun and rewarding.

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