One of the most common things I hear from athletes is, “I need to get my miles in.” This statement is rooted in the common and widespread training theory that one must log a particular amount of miles in training in order to be successful at a targeted goal race. It’s easy to see why this is the case; if you’re training for a race of a particular distance (i.e. 13.1 or 70.3 miles), then it makes sense that the way you should prepare for it by completing a certain number of miles in training, right?
This week, I’m here to provide an alternative option to this training theory. I humbly suggest training by duration, not miles. So, for instance, in lieu of a particular long run distance (let’s just use 14 miles), I suggest running for 2 hours, 15 minutes instead. This principle can be applied to all disciplines, not just running (although running will be the focus of today’s post).
Why would I suggest such a thing? Well, like most things that I suggest, there are a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, it’s WAY easier to plan for. You’re busy. I’m busy. Ain’t nobody got time to go an hour longer than planned because you had an off day and ran a bit slower than projected. Over the years, I’ve found that duration-based workouts are much easier for age-group athletes with real lives to incorporate into their lives. They know exactly how long they’ll be gone...no guesswork there.
Secondly, no two athletes are created equal. 20 miles is a lot different for someone who runs a 7:15 pace than it is for someone who cranks out 14:00 miles. It’s the difference between 2 hours, 25 minutes and 4 hours, 40 minutes in terms of total workout duration. That athlete training for 4 hours, 40 minutes is at MUCH higher risk of injury due to the total time they are spending on their feet training in a given week. Setting workouts by duration allows athletes and coaches to manage volume much better, and managing volume is probably the single most important thing to consider when seeking to keep an athlete injury-free.
Finally, training by duration is usually really helpful in setting athletes up for success mentally during workouts. If an athlete has an off day and runs slower than normal, then they still are out there training for a particular duration, and they will feel successful when they hit that duration goal. Conversely, if an athlete has an off day and runs slower than normal, but is aiming for a mileage goal, they will feel defeated if time doesn't allow them to go for that full mileage target or if they don’t hit that mileage target. So.many.things can affect pace that it’s really helpful to have an overall workout goal that isn’t affected by one’s pace on a given day.
“But Coach Coach Laura Henry! If I don’t run 20 miles in training, I’ll never be ready to run a full marathon!”
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this friends, but if that’s your line of thinking, then you are sadly mistaken. A solid training plan that is based on duration does enable you to get in a sufficient amount of volume to be prepared for your goal event. Your body will understand this and adapt to it. It’s your mind that needs the convincing, not your muscles. :)
My job as a coach is to prescribe the exact amount of volume and intensity that it takes for athletes to reach their very best. Not more, not less. Like all training theories, there are times and places for all of them, and yes, sometimes it is appropriate to prescribe miles the length of a workout, not a duration. But on the whole, training by duration is not going to set you up for failure. If anything, it’ll increase your chances of hitting the start line injury-free, which actually INCREASES your chances of success.
The next time you’re staring a 20-miler down and feeling like it might just not happen, revise the workout to be duration-based and see how you feel about it. You might just feel fan-freaking-tastic. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.