As professional running coaches, my wife and I are often asked about how many miles our athletes run each week. That would seem to warrant a fairly simple answer. However, we usually have to do some quick mental calculations to determine the appropriate answer.
Why? Primarily because we plan our training using “time spent running” versus total distance run. In recent years, there have been quite a few other coaches also espousing the use of time versus distance for calculating training and total work values. It should be noted that we do use distances in planning our interval or repetition training sessions, but for the overall long, medium or easy run days, we just set a target time such as 2 hours, 80 minutes or maybe 40 minutes of running.
For our weekly targets, we total minutes spent running. Our athletes averaged between 350 and 900 minutes per week, depending on their specific individual needs and strengths. If we desire to calculate miles per week, we just divide by a default such a 7:00 per mile or 4:20 per kilometer. This method is as old as the hills and became familiar to me during my days of training with the famous Florida Track Club. More recently, former University of Wisconsin coach (now with the Bowerman Track Club in Portland, OR) labeled this method “Badger Miles” when he used it with his Wisconsin Badger distance runners. For example: a 70-minute run would be 10 miles (70 / 7 = 10) even though the runner may have gone slower or faster (usually faster at their level). It usually averages out over the week.
For some reason Americans like to measure things in miles. The majority of American runners time their runs and are tethered to “pace per mile” for their acceptance of whether their training session was successful or not. Ironically, the majority of running events are measured and run over metric distances: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, 5000, 10000 meters and are not easily divided by the imperial measures such as yards or miles.
Yes, your GPS can easily calculate your pace per mile for a 10K, but it is easier to switch the unit value to Kilometers (Ks) and receive more frequent feedback of actual segment splits rather than the computed average. If you don’t have a GPS, dividing segments within the metric distances is much easier than in the imperial measurement system when running metric distances. For example: a 30-minute 10K is just 10 x 3:00 minutes for each K and a 40-minute 10K is just 4:00 minutes per K.
Just for fun: mentally calculate the mile pace for either of those times (30:00 or 40:00 for 10K) in the next 15 seconds. Not very easy?
Many runners still think that each lap of a standard outdoor track is one/quarter of a mile. And it almost is, but not quite. Our 400-meter ovals are just short of 440 yards and running four laps is about nine meters short of a mile. Close enough if you are only running one mile, but obviously as you run longer distances, the gap begins to grow.
So, after many years of running and coaching, we definitely plan our timed-quality workouts using meters. Our brains have accepted the metric system.
So what about minutes versus miles, or kilometers? As previously stated we target specific metric distances for interval or repetition workouts as we usually run such on either a 400-meter track or some other measured surface such as grass or asphalt. (You can find our GTC-ELITE athletes on Greenville’s Swamp Rabbit Trail on quite a few Tuesday mornings during the year.) But we use time, especially minutes, for the majority of our runs.
For instance, our usual pre-workout warmup includes a 20-minute run instead of a 4K or 5K run. Even though each of our athletes may wish to run at their own pace and perceived effort for their warmup run, everyone starts and finishes at approximately the same time (20 minutes). If the target warmup was a specific distance, there would be discrepancies among the athletes and we would have to wait for some to complete the exact distance.
But, most importantly, the human body does not have a pedometer to measure distances, but does have an internal clock at the cellular level, which computes time spent using a specific energy system. For example, when using the phosphogen energy system, there is enough energy to run 8-10 seconds. The body does not compute the distance covered, but the time it is working. The same holds true for the anaerobic energy system, which is utilized for work bouts under 120 seconds. If an athlete is running hard (above anaerobic threshold and above VO2 max) the muscles are energized by anaerobic systems.
This philosophy of using time versus distance corresponds very favorably when incorporating the important “long run” into training programs. Many marathon programs prescribe a 20-mile run. However, we always target time since each of our athletes will most likely run at a slightly different pace. Some may cover 36 kilometers in their 120-minute (2-hour) run while another may only complete 30K. Even though there is a difference of 6K between the two athletes, each of them produced a positive training effect, respective to their current capability.
And time, not distance, is even more important on our recovery days. We like our athletes to run easy and not force the pace to cover a prescribed distance. We usually cover from 30 to 45 minutes depending on our target for the week and what transpired on the previous workout or harder day.
So the question may not actually be “minutes versus miles?” but more correctly “minutes versus kilometers?” But the answer according to our philosophy is that elapsed time trumps distance covered. So ladies and gentlemen “start your watches”.