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Should you train by time or distance?

What's the difference between running one kilometre repeats in five minutes and running five minute repeats and covering one kilometre?

Male runner sitting on a guardrail on country road looking away on sunny day. Young man taking a break after morning run outdoors with bright sunlight.

Does it make a difference if a workout is approached by the time spent on a runner’s feet versus the distance of road they cover? That’s a topic which many runners have varying opinions on.


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. For example, they will run something like 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. They will also lead to the same adaptations and improvements. Both will make you fitter and faster.


Psychologically however, one type may seem 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 end point until you reach it. As a result, you may find yourself constantly checking your watch to see when the time is up. On the other hand, if you’re running one kilometre, it’s easy to figure out exactly where the finish is. That is to say, one kilometre or any pre-determined distance is an easy concept to grasp. Therefore it 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 the preferred way to train. And why not? Most races are 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 distance.

So what should you do?

Simply put: training by distance often “feels” easier and is usually run faster. This makes it ideal for harder, quality sessions where you want to put in a hard effort. However, covering a set 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. Running for a set time will allow you to relax, go slower and not worry about distance.

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In summary, you should probably 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 mentally easier and is good for quality sessions whereas going by time is probably better for building mental toughness and running relaxed. That means that it has an important place in training as well.