Minutes or Miles – Should You Train Using Time or Distance?

By Rick Morris

There are two primary ways you can use to judge your training duration – by time or distance.  Which method is best? Should you train using time or distance? Does it really matter?

The most commonly used method is training by distance. You may be doing a 15 mile long run, a 3 mile tempo run or 400 meter repeats on the track. All of those types of workouts use distance to determine your training duration.

While using distance is the most common practice there are a number of coaches and runners that believe what really counts is time on your feet. Instead of training by distance they will do a 2 hour long run, a 30 minute tempo run or 2 minute repeats on the track.

Is one of these methods better than the other? In my opinion they are exactly the same, if you are training at the proper pace, but certain situations make one method more efficient than the other. Your weekly long run during marathon training is a good example. Let’s say that your training program calls for a 20 mile long run. The distance based workout is very straight forward. How about that same workout using duration. If you are planning to run a 4 hour marathon you would hit the 20 mile point in about 3 hours. So a 3 hour run would be the same as a 20 mile run – right? Maybe or maybe not; it depends upon your pace. When you perform a long run there is a tendency to slow down as you fatigue. If your pace is too slow during your 3 hour run you may be covering considerably less than 20 miles and you will be under training. If your pace is too fast you will be over training. In this case I think that training by distance wins the debate.

How about other types of workouts? The exact distance of tempo runs are usually not critical. The purpose of a tempo workout is to run at close to your lactate threshold for an extended period of time. Tempo runs train your body to maintain a strong pace for long periods of time; it improves your stamina. In this case it is the amount of time you are running at tempo pace that is important not the exact distance, making tempo runs a good candidate for time training.

Your running goal also plays a role in which method you should use. If you are competitive runner that is training for a specific goal race, distance training usually works best. If you are running for fitness or recreation, at time based methods is typically a more holistic and enjoyable approach.

There’s no hard science here. Both methods are basically the same and will give you satisfactory results. Try both techniques and see which works best for you and your running goal. Here are my recommendations for training by time or distance.


Fitness/RecreationEndurance/Long RunsTime or Distance
Fitness/RecreationTempo RunsTime
Fitness/RecreationIntervals/Compound SetsTime or Distance
Fitness/RecreationHill TrainingTime or Distance
CompetitionEndurance/Long RunsDistance
CompetitionTempo RunsTime
CompetitionIntervals/Compound SetsDistance
CompetitionHill TrainingDistance