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Trail runners: focus on time instead of distance to manage training volume

Time spent on your feet, rather than number of kilometres run, is a better way to track your training load

The time versus distance debate is nothing new, and for every runner who prefers to run 5 x 1km repeats, there’s another who’d rather do 5 x 5 min. Like with anything, there are pros and cons to both, but according to ultramarathon coach Jason Koop, when it comes to trail runners, time is a better metric than distance for managing your training volume.

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In an article written for CTS Ultrarunning, Coop explains that for road and track runners, pace distribution is narrow, which is why tracking your volume by distance can work. He uses the example of an elite runner, whose pace distribution from fastest to slowest might range from 4:00/mile (2:30/km) during intervals to 8:00/mile (5min/km) during easy runs. While that seems like a significant range, it is nothing compared to a trail runner, whose pace might range from 7:00/mile (4:21/km) on the flats to 30:00-40:00 min/mile (18:30-24:50/km) when hiking up a steep hill.

Coop goes on to explain that the main driver of adaptation is the amount of time you are exposed to a particular intensity, not by the amount of mileage you’ve run. For example, to experience adaptations related to your VO2 max, he says you need to run for more than 10 minutes at greater than 90 per cent of your VO2 max in order to elicit any meaningful adaptation. Whether you run 2 kilometres or 5 kilometres at that intensity is less important than the time you spent running that speed.

Finally, he adds that switching your focus from distance to time allows you to track your training load better, because it gives you a consistent basis to evaluate whether your training load is increasing, decreasing or remaining the same. Additionally, if you’re doing intervals, Coop says you can do them on flats or hills and still get physiologically comparable workouts when you run them by time as opposed to distance. This makes more sense for trail runners, who are likely doing their workouts on more undulating terrain.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to doing kilometre repeats or 800s, but if your primary focus is trail running, timed runs and intervals seem to be your better option. This will help you get more consistency in your training, and to focus on effort, rather than pace, when you’re running on technical and challenging routes.

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