Time Vs Distance


It’s a pretty common discussion in endurance sports. Should you train by time or by distance? The easy answer is yes. Whichever method fits your schedule or terrain best. But is there one method that works better than another? It depends.

In my seemingly long history in this sport, I’ve trained both using distance and just by time. Growing up in Texas, the land around where I live is pretty dang flat. Our hills tend to revolve around bridges and overpasses. With consistent terrain, distance to me is a no brainer. 20 miles is miles, whether it takes you 1:10 to get it done or 1:00. As you get faster the total time spent training can actually decrease. Swimming is a perfect example. The other day I was swimming next to a man that took 83 strokes to get across a 25 yard pool. No lie. 83 strokes. I counted. Anyway, we swam for about the same amount of time and I would get in almost 4 lengths to his one. Now lets assume that we are both training for the same race and we both swam 30 minutes. I swam 2,000 yards and he swam 600. Who is going to be more prepared even though our time in the water is the same? Same thing applies to the other sports. I love when coaches refer to some pro athlete’s schedule and tell me that so-and-so won’t run more than 2 hours for his long run for his Ironman training. Somehow they forget to do the math on that and realize that it’s a 20  mile run. Take that same time for a newbie and you get an 11 or 12 mile run. Is an 11 mile run going to prepare you for a full marathon off the bike?

There can be a flip side to this though, and that’s terrain. Years ago I lived in Colorado Springs which is pressed right up against the front range. If you head west, you are training up in the mountains, head east and you got some nice flat prairie. This is one of those times that training by time can make sense, as 80 miles of flat lands will be a much different day than 80 miles of mountain passes. But even having said that, you have to make sure your mindset is right. I’ll explain.

One of the very first rides I did when I moved to Colorado was with a bunch of pro triathletes and some members of the US Cycling team. It was roughly 60 miles through an area that had a nice mix of rollers and healthy climbs. And with that company, the ride was pretty brisk. When we finished though, one of the guys I was with told me he needed to ride 3 hours and so we needed 10 more minutes. So what did we do? rode a couple of loops in the Biltmore parking lot at a snails pace. I came away from that finding it sort of odd. Why would you waste even 10 minutes of riding at that pace just to meet some time goal? Turns out they’ve studied this..

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise took a group and timed them in a 750 meter run as fast as they could go. Then they split the group in half. One group repeated the run (750m for time) and the second group was to run as hard as they could for the exact same amount of time it took them to complete the first test. The first group basically performed as they did on the first test. They ran 750 meters in the same amount of time as the first go at it. The second group however completed dramatically less distance in the second test when they ran for time. They had an explanation as to the reason, which was that time cues (:30 sec left) are imagined, while distance cues (round this turn and I’m done) can be observed.  I couldn’t find a good link to the actual study, so here’s an article that summarizes (http://sweatscience.runnersworld.com/2012/09/time-versus-distance-for-pacing-and-training/). And yes, I know it’s bad form to reference a reference. (Cut me some slack, it’s a blog not a hospital.)

Beyond the study however, I’ve noticed time and time again (and as I related in my story) that it’s human nature to subconsciously take the easier path. We often don’t even know we do it, but we do. How many times have you “train by time” folks go out on a comfortable ride only to turnaround and have a bit more left in the tank, getting you home a little early? I know I have. Run with a group quietly knowing the pace will be a tad slower and get your workout complete even though you probably would have run a little farther had you given the proper effort? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just human nature. I know some of you out there right now are reading this and thinking, “no I don’t do that. I do exactly what I should do every time I get out there. I’m focused.” A lot of us, including myself think the same way. But the subconscious is hard to be objective about. The athlete in my story above, he’s an Olympian.

So is training by time wrong? No, but I wouldn’t be exclusive to it especially as you gear up for a specific race. Mixing in some race specific distance work will go a long way towards your success. Because they measure the race course with a ruler, not an egg timer.



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One comment

  • tammie manchester

    You know my feelings on this subject. When you’re a slow ass person like myself, you miss the mark when the day comes to dish out the distance. You don’t get to stop your race because, “Hey, my longest run ended up being 16.87 miles not 26.2.”
    I’m ready to try to cover the distance PLUS a little extra for insurance. It’s what my coach does but yet hasn’t prescribed it for me.

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