Should Beginners Run for Distance or Time? Brief Training Guide!

One of the dilemmas most beginning runners face is whether it is better to run for distance or time. Should they go out and attempt to run 2 miles, or should they try to run for 20 minutes? It’s tempting to say, “Who cares how long or far you go – just get out there and run!” But I know it isn’t really that simple. Most of us want some kind of measure, whether it’s miles or minutes, to keep track of.

To be completely honest, it really is good to keep track of your progress from week to week. Having a measurable aspect like how many minutes or miles you ran the previous week give you a guidepost for how much to run the following week.

If we want to become better runners, it is best to increase our exercise load in small increments of around 10-20 percent. It’s hard to nail that kind of accuracy without tracking our performance.  If we don’t know the numbers, we might increase our running volume too much and set ourselves up for a bad result.

I remember keeping a training log when I was preparing for my first marathon. We lived in a very rural area and didn’t have a good way to measure the distance of the roads around us (this was back before the days when everyone had a GPS capable phone in their pocket!).

So rather than track miles, I would keep track of how many minutes it took me to run each route.  If my long run was 50 minutes one week, then I would go out and run 55 minutes the next week.

Even though my training plan was built around a certain number of miles each week, it worked out just fine for me to run the equivalent amount by tracking time on my watch. When race day came around, I was just as prepared to take on the marathon distance as those around me who had trained by tracking their miles.

Should beginners run for distance or time? In my opinion, it is better for beginners to track the time they are running rather than the distance. Psychologically, running for time is better because beginners won’t get hung up on smaller numbers.

A beginning runner’s training schedule may include workouts that total a mile or two. That distance is plenty long enough to start building their base of running endurance.

However, they may read or hear about other people running much further, and possibly be disappointed by that lower mileage number. If they choose to use minutes as a measure instead, then it levels the playing field.

Thirty minutes is thirty minutes, no matter how much distance is covered during that time.

How Long Should Beginners Run?

When just starting out and running for the first time, it is important to not try and go too far, too soon. For the majority of beginner’s workouts, it is recommended to exercise for 20-25 minutes.

The keyword in the above sentence is “exercise.” Beginners shouldn’t feel it necessary to run for the entire length of their workout. It is completely acceptable to alternate running and walking.

As long as we are moving, we are exercising. Those first workouts are all about getting the body acclimated to using those muscles, as well as tuning up the circulatory and respiratory systems.

One approach for beginners could be to first warm up by walking, and then to alternate 2 minutes of running with 1 minute of walking for the remainder of the session. As they get stronger, they could increase the length of the running portion and walk a little less.

It is best for beginners to plan for at least two weeks of these same 20-25 minute exercise sessions. Once they have been running for a couple weeks and their body has become used to the effort, they can think about increasing the length of the workouts by a few minutes.

How Often Should Beginning Runners Run?

Completing three to four running workouts a week is a great goal for beginners. This frequency gives the body several opportunities to strengthen running muscles, while also allowing for plenty of rest.

Running every other day is a good strategy for beginning runners. Since they are just getting used to the activity, it’s important not to try and do too much. Running uses specific muscles and connective tissues that otherwise may not have seen much action before. By exercising them one day and then letting them rest and recover, those parts are becoming stronger and more accustomed to the stresses of running.

This frequency is great for beginners but can be carried on and used by more experienced athletes as well.

Those who have been running for years may be able to take on longer and harder workouts, but their bodies will appreciate a chance for rest just as much as beginners. Working out every other day can be an especially useful tactic for people who are prone to running related injuries.

This method allows them to rest their joints regularly rather than constantly subjecting their system to the stresses of running.

What Should Beginning Runners Do on Their Non-Running Days?

Those who are new to running and are still building up their muscular and cardiovascular endurance should take several days off from running each week. If activity is desired during SOME of the off days, they could go for a long walk, take a bike ride, or even a swim. However, it is still recommended to take at least one day of complete rest per week.

Those activities will allow the running leg muscles to recuperate while giving the cardio system a workout. Keep in mind these are rest and recovery days, so it’s not a good idea to try and go all out in whatever sport you choose. Instead, you want to take it easy, and focus on movements that feel relaxed and restful rather than stressful and difficult.

Many people like to incorporate yoga into their weekly workout schedule, which is a wonderful way to incorporate exercise while stretching those sore and tired muscles.

One of the best things about yoga is how it provides rest for the mind as well as helps to repair the body. According to Dr. Natalie Nevins of the American Osteopathic Association,  “Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration.” [source]

So if you are just starting out as a runner, don’t stress so much about the distance. Instead, try to focus on running for time rather than trying to cover a certain number of miles. You’ll find it is just as helpful and may even help you enjoy the run a little more!

Brad Birky

Brad Birky is an endurance athlete and trained chef who has qualified for and completed the Boston Marathon as well as multiple Ironman distance triathlons

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