REAL runners run for miles, kilometers, distance. Running by time is for the inexperienced, right?

Actually, no.  Just think about it; until fairly recently there were no GPS watches and everyone trained by time, from high school runners to Olympians.

Regardless of level, speed, ability, or experience, time-based running programs are something to consider. You can still ramp up your mileage.  Training by time will get you race ready, help you get fit, or any other reason you may run, with one HUGE bonus:

It removes a LOT of pressure and expectation. Pressure and expectation that can suck a lot of the fun out of our running.

It’s not wrong to run for distance rather than minutes, but sometimes a break from it is just what we need.

And yes, you can do marathon training by time, not distance, too!

Why beginners should run for time, not distance

If you’re a beginner, running for time rather than distance should be the only way that you increase your mileage.

You have zero running to compare to, and the minutes seem like a LOT, which is good! Thirty whole minutes of running, well done you! That sounds a lot more impressive to our psyche than 1.5 miles.  Running is a numbers game, and minutes allow you to get higher numbers, which helps you to feel more confident about what you are doing. It also limits how much you can compare yourself to other runners who have been doing it for a while.

While it may not eliminate comparison, it can help you stay in your own lane, especially if you’re doing a walk/run plan.  You’ll be able to build up to a higher number of minutes, and be out there for the same amount of time as a more experienced runner…as long as you stay away from comparing yourself to their long run days!

If you’ve just started running, this Beginner Running Audio series will pretty much give you everything you could ever need to know about entering the running world, and one of the guests, George Anderson, explains how new runners can ramp up mileage using minutes.

Why experienced runners should consider running for time, not distance

What if you aren’t a new runner and have been running for years?

Why would you bother running by minutes when running by miles has worked in the past, especially if you feel that running by miles was what motivated you?

Believe it or not, it can be refreshing and rewarding, and can be good for you both mentally and physically.

Of course, races are specific distances (except if you’re in the UK and are racing cross country), but really, those should be the only measured distances, the occasions when we DO want to know how fast a pace we were able to sustain. Those are the days that matter to show how far we have come.

The rest of your running though, really, is about getting in the work as best you can. Doing the best you can with the situation you’re presented with on that day, and allowing it to add up to create a fitness beyond what you have achieved before.

Your body doesn’t know these details that we focus on so intently. It doesn’t know what a pace is. It doesn’t know what a mile is. It doesn’t know anything except for where this falls on the level of difficulty that it can handle and the amount of time that you’re on your feet. The harder you run, the less you can do. The easier you run, the more running you can do.

It’s that simple.

If you’re someone who has a really big goal, maybe you think that running a certain number of miles or a certain pace will show you that you’re ready to go, will give you confidence on race day.  Even if you use time instead of distance, it’s not that you can’t look at your mileage afterwards. Go nuts on Strava.

But while you’re out there, if you find yourself struggling mentally, questioning why you’re doing this at all, wondering why you’re feeling so bad, and just generally feeling like your mind is in a negative space, it might be a good idea to look into running by time instead of distance.

That way you can get your head out of the way, and just focus on getting through the minutes you have assigned. You can successfully accomplish something, rather than feel like you’re a failure, unable to reach the standard you want to achieve.

Let’s say you would usually have a workout of 6 x 1 mile, and your goal marathon race pace would be 9 minutes per mile on average. If you run 6 x 9 minutes, you’re still getting about the same amount done for the day, but maybe you end up running 6 x 1.2 miles because you’re no longer obsessing over your watch. If it’s particularly humid that day, you’re running on rough terrain, or you’ve had a few really bad nights’ sleep, maybe you only make it 8 x 0.9 miles.  You still got the practice in for race day, without overdoing it by forcing yourself to do extra just because of some outside variables.

You also didn’t allow your mind to freak you out because you didn’t know how fast you were going. Fewer mental freakouts to deal with.

It can actually be enjoyable to get to the end of the week and find out what your total mileage was.  You just can’t let it ruin how you feel if it’s a little less than you expected.  Let it go, knowing that you did your best for that week.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t look at your mileage during the week.  You can still look over the paces from your workouts (after!!) and at what you averaged for your long run, but then it is on with the day.

You also have to let it go if you get back to your starting point and see that your watch says 7.9 miles. Rather than adding on the .1 for the sake of it, just come to a walk, satisfied that you’ve done what you needed to do.

Running by minutes is a way to feel success, rather than frustration and disappointment with yourself for not doing enough. Have you ever had a to-do list that you keep adding to day after day, but never manage to get it complete? It leaves you feeling like a failure, like you are always behind.

That’s what running for distance instead of time can do to you. Make you feel like you need more, more, more.

Running by minutes, you know exactly how long it will take.  Going faster doesn’t help you in any way, which means you’re less likely to go faster than your body is ready for.  You just go at whatever pace feels right for that specific run. If it’s a hard run, you run as fast as you can for 30 minutes or whatever the time is supposed to be. If it’s an easy run, you run for an hour at whatever speed feels like it’s allowing you to recover as you should be.

You get the same work in, with a more relaxed and confident mindset.

Want to learn more about how running affects your mind? Get our free PDF, Four Key Ways That Running Helps Your Brain!

So why would running for time instead of distance work for you?

  • If you run too fast on your easy days, running by time (especially if you have the restraint to not even wear a GPS, or even if you do wear one, run #nowatchme, not looking at your pace) will mean that it doesn’t matter how fast you go.  You don’t get finished any sooner, so what’s  the point of speeding up? You’ll run whatever pace actually feels easy.
  • If you’re trying so hard to reach a goal; you’ve been trying for years, but just can’t seem to get there. You try harder and harder, but it just seems to get further and further away.  Running by time doesn’t mean that you’re less committed; it just means that you’re trying a less stressful version of your training plan. Less pressure = more likely to succeed.
  • If you’re coming back from a long-term injury (in which case you may want to listen to the  Coming Back from Injury audio series), or are on your postpartum journey. Comparison can be very dangerous at these times, and running by time stops the ability to compare.
  • If you feel like you’re losing the love of running, that it’s becoming a chore and you’re struggling to maintain motivation, as you just don’t feel like you’re getting results. Could pressure be the cause? Changing it up might go a long way, and it means that you can run in all kinds of different places without feeling like you have to run a certain pace.

How to run by time instead of distance- what are my options?

If you’re prepared to give it a go, there are varying levels. Maybe you’ll start with just easy runs and end up at everything, or maybe, if you need a change, you’ll do total time training from the start.

Running for time for everything

If you go all in, that means running totally by effort, no paces involved in any of your runs (yes, you can still geek out AFTER, you just can’t look during the run).

Your easy runs, workouts, and long runs are all done by time.

Examples of some workouts:

  • 3×10 minutes, 2×2 minutes with 3 minutes recovery
  • 40 minutes of rolling hills (hard up, easy jog down)
  • 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 2×3 minutes, 2×2 minutes, with 2 minutes recovery
  • 10×1 minute hard with 1 minute easy

For your easy runs, take your average easy run pace and convert that to roughly how many miles you would like to do. For example, let’s say that you usually run 10 minute miles for your easy days, and you usually run about 7 miles. Sometimes you might run 10:30 miles on easy days after a workout, and other days, when you feel good, you might run closer to 9:30 per mile. Go in the middle, and just use that conversion every day for your easy runs. Once you’ve figured out what each distance run converts to – 6 miles=60 minutes, 7 miles=70 minutes, 8 miles=80 minutes etc., just do that every day. No need to calculate again.

When it comes to long runs, think about how long you’re out there. Take your previous long runs in other training segments, and just run for those durations of time during this training segment. If you previously did four 20-mile runs that ended up being around 3 hours, run for 3 hours four times during this segment. Forget about the miles, and instead think about reaching the hours.

This isn’t necessarily only for those of you who have changing goals and aren’t really sure where your running is going right now. You could easily take this approach to all of your training. Long runs go by hours and hard sections go by minutes; you really can do everything this way.

Running for time only on long runs and easy days

This is the Goldilocks of minutes running…if you are skeptical, that is.

Do all of your easy runs by minutes. Do your long runs by minutes. Do your workouts by miles and kilometers. Those are the days that matter more about the paces and the speed you’re running, so use them as your days to measure. Other days should be by feel.

Running for time on easy days

This should be for everyone.  Even for you with the Type A personality who feels you can’t possibly not hit your mileage. Give it a try. It may take a few days to get used to, but you’ll feel a sense of peace once you do. You’ll end up running the pace that your body needs for recovery.

Yes, maybe that’s a little slower than it used to be, but your body needs it, and this way, it will run FASTER when you need it to. Isn’t that the best way to have it?

With this option, you do all of your workouts as usual, measured by meters, miles, or kilometers. Only the easy runs are by minutes.

Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain.

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