Should You Train for Time or Distance for a Race?

Running coaches weigh in on the oft-debated issue.

Should you be training for distance or a good time? Running coaches say it depends on a number of factors. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

If you’ve signed up for one of the many races in DC this spring, chances are you’re already a month or so into training. But there’s one important question that always seems to come up at the start: Should I train for time or distance?

Local running coaches typically give this answer: “Train for both.” Running coach Kathy Pugh says, “I believe it is beneficial for a runner to pay attention to both speed work and building mileage.”

That said, there are a few things to ask yourself:

Have I ever run the race distance I’m training for?

No: Then your first priority is to train for mileage to ensure you can actually finish the race. “With any new runner, the first goal is to make sure she can handle the ten-mile or half-marathon distance on race day, so increasing the mileage is priority number one, regardless,” says running coach Mike Hamberger.

Yes: While you should keep up with appropriate mileage, if your goal is to run a new personal best, then it’s essential you train for speed, too.

Do I run with a midfoot strike?

Yes: A midfoot strike is ideal, says Hamberger, because it allows a runner to run both longer and faster. In this case, if the runner has a competitive edge, then he should do one or more speed workouts per week. If the runner just wants to cross the finish line, then he shouldn’t feel pressured to train for speed.

No: Before you even start training, work to correct your running form. Landing on your heels will likely lead to injuries down the line. “Running shorter and faster usually helps the runner correct their form more quickly,” says Hamberger. Long, slow runs “inevitably resorts to running [too slowly] and [being] more likely to land on the heels.”

So I do need speed work. But how will it help me?

“Speed work is very beneficial because it will improve a runner’s overall pacing and give her the extra boost she needs when she is trying to finish the last mile or two,” says Pugh. A good speed workout should involved hill repeats or track work once a week. Ending a run with a few striders is another option. (Try our hills and track workouts.)