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.
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