It seems we can't go two months without one of the mainstream running magazines running some sort of article about training for time vs training for distance. My take? For mortals, it's all bunk.
Marathon training is my favorite example of why the debate doesn't make sense, especially for first timers. The normal workouts and training runs for a marathon can easily be based on time for the duration training cycle. At this point the runner might be headed out of the office at lunch time, or getting in miles before work. The week day schedule might be summarized as the easy shakedown run, the speed run, the mid-distance run, and the tune up. Depending on the plan, there may be another run in there. Notably missing from the list is the long run. We'll get there.
Looking at these in terms of time/distance I will use examples from my last full marathon training plan, and my particular times.
The shakedown run (Monday) is 3-7 miles and should take me 30-60 minutes. My shortest run is 30 minutes, regardless of distance.
The speed run (Tuesday) is 3-6 miles. Again, my shortest run will be 30 minutes. Due to rest intervals, this may also take up to an hour. I must note that this workout, by definition, is based as much on the clock as distance.
The mid-distance run (Wednesday) goes 6-15 miles. This run is intimately related to the long run. I concede this one may be easily translated to a time based run, but the formula will probably need to take both the time and distance of the long run into consideration. Frankly, the math involved there hurts my head.
Thursday will likely be a rest day. If it isn't, it will be a shorter outing.
Friday is the tune up run. This will be fairly short, but a fairly important run in the 3-6 mile range.
Then comes the anchor of the marathon training - the long run. In my (not so humble) opinion this run must always be based on distance, especially for first time marathoners. The reason is quite simple. It is very difficult to pace for the long run - especially if you are expecting to finish the marathon in a time over about four hours. The big week will be 18-22 miles. To ensure you are properly set for the test of 26.2, the experts all agree that this longest week is crucial for steeling yourself. Shorting yourself the mileage just because you are running on the clock, not the distance, could very well lead to disaster on the day of the race.
And that's it in a nutshell. The long run is the anchor of the program. The long run must be done on distance. The other runs are all related to and based on the long run. And while one could take the time to figure out a clock based workout factoring in expected distance, demonstrated time, phases of the moon and the tides... Well frankly, it's just easier to lace up and run.
Now, all of this may seem as if I train only on distance. That is not exactly true. Even when I'm simply trying to maintain, I usually have weekly mileage goals. But I work full time, and my training slots are limited to a well defined period in the morning, or whatever I can manage to take for a lunch break. These workouts are always restricted by time. If I need to hit a certain distance for the mileage goal, I may need to reschedule meetings, arrange daycare, or any number of life-hack style gymnastics to open up an appropriate time slot in my schedule. And that isn't always possible. So, sometimes, I simply run the time I have permitted.
Every now and then I'm asked where I find my inspiration. The answer to that is both very simple, and very complicated.
The simple part? Inspiration is everywhere. As an example, driving my daughter to early morning figure skating practice I see the same two women running. I don't know them, but I've come to notice when they aren't there. I first noticed them back in January. I remember them because they were running in the pre-dawn light with headlamps and it was cold and icy. And I was impressed. Then I saw them a few more times that week. And I was more impressed. Looking back, I think we've missed more skating practices than they've missed runs. On more than one occasion I have wanted to bail on a run for one stupid reason or another, and the thought of these two women out there crushing it has been enough to get me to put the shoes on and take that seemingly impossible first step out the door.
See? The simple part is simple. If they can get a run in, so can I. Examples of that nature are all over the place if you look.
But there's a complicated side as well. Let me see if I can do this justice. I have met my biggest enemy. He knows me better than I know myself. He's that voice in the back of my head. The one that really determines if I will or if I won't. Watching an army of people running won't mean a thing if that little voice has determined there will be no run today.
I'm the first to admit my weakness. Sometimes I give in. Sometimes I even give in gladly. Sometimes I give in, and then I sulk about losing to the voice for hours, or days, or weeks.
But there's another voice. This one is usually much quieter. This voice rarely says much, but when he does it's often powerful enough to echo. This is the voice that tells Mr. Negative over there exactly where he can stick those negative thoughts. The problem is, I usually have to be completely beaten down to hear this little guy. Mile 2.5 of a 5k where I've given my all. My lungs are on fire. I can feel and hear my heart in every inch of my body. Everything is telling me to stop. Or at least slow down. And maybe I do. Maybe I do ease off. Maybe I even keep easing off and stop. And that's fine. Easing off provides a sense of relief. You can literally feel it washing over you sometimes. And in that relief there's a moment of silence and calm. Sometimes it's as brief as the gap between heartbeats. It is so nice there you just want to sit right where you are and revel in it. In that small gap, there's an even smaller voice that says all the right words at just the right time.
Mile 5 of my usual spring 10k. I've gone out too fast again. I can see the hill at the finish. Mr. Negative comes through again. Ease off. Get ready for the hill. Walk a bit. And maybe I do. Just like the 5K, a moment of peace, and that little voice chimes in.
Mile 24 of a marathon. Not only have I gone out too fast, I've fueled wrong. Mr. Negative is in the corner laughing as I'm hugging the trash can. There is no silence. My bodies violence roars in my ears as every muscle begs for peace and my stomach churns and expels so many half digested packets of gel. Somehow through this violence the little voice is there again.
And more often than not, I do. I lean forward. I pick up my knees. I quicken my step.
Why? How? Well, that's where it gets really complicated. That little voice is my inner strength. He knows if I've given it my all. He is the one that will feel bad if I look back on a race and realize I could have pushed a little more on that hill, or could have kicked into the finish a little harder.
I love to hear from this voice. Not only does it push me to go, it congratulates me on a job well done. This is the voice that recognizes not every race is a PR. Not every finish is a win, or an age group place. The battle may seem to be with the clock, or that one guy who keeps showing up and beating me by mere seconds every single time. But this voice knows the real battle is inside. It's the little voice against Mr. Negative and his loud, obnoxious voice. Every time this little voice wins, everything is happy. If I can look back on an effort and know that I gave it everything I had, I really can't ask for or expect any better.
But this is where it gets interesting. That little voice will congratulate me on a good effort and a good finish. That little voice will help me celebrate. And then, after the celebration it comes back.
Keep going? What does that mean? That was the voice that convinced me it was OK to sign up for the first 10k. That was the voice that convinced me to sign up for the first half marathon. That little voice convinced me to sign up for a full marathon. I've heard this voice before. Back in the day, this voice would often go rock climbing with me. This was the voice that pushed me to go higher. Climb harder. Try new things. This is the voice of the explorer.
And what an explorer. A true adventurer this one little voice is. But this little voice isn't always pushing to see new things on the outside. Just as often, this little voice is pushing to find something new on the inside. Just how much farther can I go? How much deeper can I dig? Like the fading phoenix, how low and dark can I get before the voice comes back to rekindle me.
We're about to find out. I'm taking on a new challenge. The explorer is pushing me again. I started training. I'm going long. Real long. The next 14 months will build slowly. September 2015 is the big race. I'll be pushed beyond where I've been. I'll be leaving my comfort zone and things known. I'm sure I'll spend a fair bit of time with Mr. Negative. And I'll fight through it. Because at the end of the fight, there's that little voice.