What’s the difference between running 1K repeats in five minutes and running five minute repeats and covering 1K?
Nothing right? Well actually, it might just depend on who you ask.
For most of us, one option (training either by distance or time) will seem inherently easier than the other. Some runners prefer to train by distance, running 400m repeats, 1K intervals, a 5K tempo or a 30K long run. Others train by time, completing two-minute repeats, five-minute intervals, a 30-minute tempo or running long for two and a half hours. Physiologically, both types of training produce almost identical adaptations as they stress the same energy systems in the exact same way and lead to the same adaptations and improvements. Both will make you fitter and faster.
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Psychologically however, one type likely seems harder than the other. And there may be a reason for that.
If you think about it, how far is five minutes of running? You may have some idea but this can only be imagined. You can’t really see the finish until you reach it. As a result, you may find yourself constantly checking your watch to see if/when time is up. On the other hand, you kind of know exactly how far 1K is and depending on where you start, you know exactly when it will finish. That is to say, 1K or any pre-determined distance is an observable phenomenon and therefore requires less mental muscle to figure out when it’s over.
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For this reason, many runners feel that training by distance is easier and therefore, preferred. And why not? Pretty much every race is a set by distance, not time. It may also not surprise you to discover that you can probably cover a set distance (say 5K) in less time than if you simply ran that same amount of time (say 23 minutes) and tried to cover that set distance. Simply put: training by distance feels easier. But covering a distance in the fastest amount of time is not always the purpose of the run, which is why easy, recovery and some long runs should be done by time instead.
You should however aim to include a variety of both types of training into your routine and should experiment to see which type works best for you. Running by distance may seem easier but going by time is probably better for building mental toughness and therefore has an important place in training.