White male athlete using wearable run tracking technology while jogging on the street.
(Photo: Getty Images)

Miles vs. Minutes: Which Training Method Is Better?

The pros and cons of training by time or training by distance

White male athlete using wearable run tracking technology while jogging on the street.
Getty Images
Jeff Gaudette

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Is it better to train by monitoring minutes or by tracking miles? Like almost everything in running, there isn’t a definitive answer. For some runners, training by time provides a more flexible and adaptable plan. For others, training by mileage offers is a quantitative element necessary to quench their thirst for data.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of each method in the context of important training components and suggest which method might be best for you based on your experience level and training needs.

Run by time

Adhere to the appropriate training effort
Perhaps the greatest benefit to training by minutes rather than by miles is that it’s easier to adhere to the proper training effort of a given run. If all you’re tracking is time, 60 minutes is 60 minutes, so running faster only makes it harder. On the other hand, when you train by distance, you still monitor the minutes, so there is always the temptation to run faster, either to finish sooner or to pad your ego.

This is important because, for many runners, one of the primary causes of injury is progressing at a rate too fast for the structural system to adapt. From a physiological perspective, your aerobic system improves at a faster rate than your tendons, ligaments and muscles. As such, you’re able to run faster without breathing harder, but your body isn’t yet ready to handle that increase in pace. Training by time, rather than miles, can often help you slow down by not having the internal motivation to speed up needlessly.

Further, running faster on easy days is not a sign that you’re getting fitter and it’s not inherently better than running slow. Not only does running faster on an easy day negatively impact your ability to recover between hard workouts, but research shows there is a “grey zone” in training (usually between 15 to 60 seconds slower than marathon pace) that does not provide additional aerobic benefit.

Training by minutes is ideal for those runners that can’t seem to slow down on their easy days and who always want to push the pace. Since the ego is removed from the equation, you’ll naturally begin to run by feel and the appropriate effort.

Ignore the pace
Sometimes, knowing your exact pace can be demoralizing. For experienced runners returning from downtime or building back up after an injury, the ability to compare previous workouts to current fitness can be a tough pill to swallow. This feeling is often the reason runners avoid downtime after a race or why they push too fast coming back from an injury.

Likewise, many beginner runners are ashamed of their pace. They’re always comparing their speed to that of their peers or some imaginary conception of how fast they think “real runners” run. Not only is this counter-productive, but it can be demoralizing enough to cause beginners to quit.

Running easy days by time and implementing fartlek workouts rather than track intervals will help eliminate these two potential issues and help keep you motivated without pushing beyond your current fitness capabilities.

Run by distance

Learn the art of pacing
Pacing is a critical skill for a runner to learn. Running just a few seconds too fast or too slow at any point during a race could change your primary energy system and spell disaster for a personal record attempt. Unfortunately, learning to pace is also hard. It takes lots of practice and there are no shortcuts.

Training by miles gives you visual and quantitative feedback that makes it easier to hone in on specific paces, whereas time cues, which can only be imagined, are cognitively more challenging and are not directly observable. Admittedly, with the pace tracking devices available today, you could run for time and still control the pace. However, if you’re tracking both pace and time run, you’re simply shooting for an arbitrary distance. Running five minutes at a 10-minute per mile pace is going to be 800 meters. At this point, you might as well just set out to run 800-meter repeats.

Use the pace feedback a track or a well-measured course to improve your pacing abilities. If you consistently find you’re one of those runners who start a race too fast, only to fade at the end, training by miles might be the right choice for you.

Know the race distance
Another critical skill to racing is teaching yourself how to push, especially in the final portions of the race. As many experienced runners know, racing hard requires taking your pain threshold to another level. You can’t expect yourself to perform such a difficult task during a race if you never get close to it in training.

As discussed in the previous section, when training by minutes, it’s difficult to cognitively process how much time is remaining during a repeat. Research on the brain has shown that when there is a cognitive disconnect about how much longer you have to run, the brain protects itself by convincing the body it can’t or shouldn’t speed up.

However, training by distance provides concrete visual cues about how much longer you have to run. When the brain can process this information, you’re able to kick into another gear and finish harder.

This knowledge is useful if you’re a runner who struggles with the mental aspect of racing. Perhaps you have trouble pushing yourself or digging deep when a race starts to hurt. If so, training by time, and implementing some specific workouts, will help you overcome this weakness.

There isn’t a clear winner in the debate between minutes versus miles. Depending on the type of runner you are and your particular strengths and weakness, one method may work better for you. Even further, the best method may change given your fitness and the specific aspects of your running you need to improve during the year. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and add a little of both to maximize your training this spring.

From PodiumRunner
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