Minutes or Miles?

I got this in an email called 'Terrell at The Half Marathoner,' so I'm going to have to paste the content below. It's written by Terrell Johnson, and I found breaking down the differences between measuring a run by time vs. distance interesting and worthwhile. As I get back in the groove, I've been focusing more on minutes and trying to build endurance back up, as opposed to any concerns about distance or pace. It's a different mindset and extremely helpful when just starting out. Enjoy!


One thing that I hope comes through clearly each week when I write to you is I’m not an expert at running — I’m a student, just like you. (I’m not sure I’m an expert at anything, if I’m being honest!)

Even though I’ve been at this for quite a while now — I ran a race for the first time in the late 1990s, and have been running more-or-less continuously since — I’m still learning new things, still trying to grow and get better, and explore new ground with my own running.

Sometimes, I stumble across a nugget of truth without realizing what I’ve encountered. That has happened for me recently in our wonderful comments section, in a discussion about the training miles we run each week.

Each week, I’ve included a training plan for us that covers the upcoming week — four days of running, with the mileage listed for each day.

But, as one reader pointed out, not everyone runs a set number of miles when they lace up their shoes and head out for a run. Instead, lots of us measure our runs by minutes instead of miles.

When I first read that reader’s comment, it caught my attention and made me think. But, thanks to the stream of things I need to attend to in a day (like you, I’m sure), I put it behind me and moved on to other tasks.

I thought about it again, however, when I was reading a book on running by Jason Karp, a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and the author of Running For Women and Running a Marathon For Dummies.

The book is titled The Inner Runner, in which he delves into detail about all the different kinds of running you can do. (Did you know there are “awareness runs,” “breath runs,” and “emotional runs”? I didn’t!)

Karp talks about the benefits of running a set number of minutes vs. a set number of miles in a chapter titled “Better Runs,” in which he sings the praises of slow running:

“Science tells us that slow runs are good for your health. Humans are aerobic animals, after all. The constant push of oxygen through the blood vessels is a superb stimulus for waking those vessels up and improving perfusion of all your organs.

Science also tells us that slow runs are good for becoming a better runner. Too many runners feel that every day of training needs to be hard, that they have to push the pace and chase a time on a stopwatch... If you want to be a faster runner, you must first spend a lot of time running slowly and with control, mastering each run and each level of training before moving on to the next level. Physically, slow runs are relaxing and restorative, building your body up. When done right, and with patience and intention, slow runs lay the foundation for much faster running to come later.”

To be sure, Karp doesn’t say we should never run fast. Rather, that we work our way up to it gradually, especially if we’re a beginning runner. Building our endurance takes time, and the risk of injury when we try to run too fast, too soon is too great — it happens to so many runners.

That’s why focusing on minutes vs. miles can be helpful, because it pulls you out of the trap of running for speed before you’re ready.

When I thumbed through a few of the books on running I’ve collected over the years, it jumped out at me how many echo this advice. Amby Burfoot, a longtime editor at Runner’s World who published the great book Run Forever a few years ago, put it this way:

“Here’s the problem with miles. If you measure a mile, you’re also going to measure your speed. It’s inevitable. We’ve all got clocks on our wrists or our smartphones, and we all live lives according to what these clocks say.

As a result, any time you run a certain number of miles, you’re going to divide the distance by the time it took you. That will give your pace or speed. The two represent different ways of expressing the same thing…

But speed is the wrong thing for beginning runners to measure. Speed leads to a dark and perilous place. If tempts you to run a little faster each day. You’ll try to improve from 15 minutes per mile to 14 minutes per mile, then to 13, and so on. This is a trap any runner can fall into, but it’s particularly alluring and dangerous for beginning runners.

Dangerous? Yes. Here’s why. Speed kills. Not literally, but it stops your fitness progression. There comes a time in a runner’s life when it’s completely normal, healthy, and motivating to pursue faster running. But that’s not when you’re a beginner. Speed kills beginners by increasing the risk of injury, burnout, failure, and discouragement.

There’s no pace in a minute. It’s an empty canvas. No matter how you paint it, you can’t go wrong. If you aim for 30 minutes and complete 30 minutes, you have met your target. There’s nothing else to measure yourself against. You can’t fall short.”

Okay, perhaps he’s being a little dramatic. But his point is well-taken. And it’s right in line with the advice Dr. Karp offers later in his book — that the way we improve over time as runners is to run more, and we’ll have a really hard time running more if we get hurt.

In fact, he says the amount of running we do each week has “the single biggest impact on your fitness, how fast you run, and how much you can control your races, if and when you run them.”

That’s because running more helps us build our endurance, which fuels a virtuous cycle of being able to run faster:

“Running more, even when those miles are completed slowly, makes you a faster, stronger, and better runner. Sounds counter-intuitive. How does running more slow miles make you run faster and more in control? Well, that’s because running lots of miles enhances many of the characteristics you need for good endurance. Most people think of endurance as the ability to run longer. But endurance is really the ability to maintain a faster pace. Most people have the speed to run fast for a short period of time. We all sprinted across the playground as kids. What’s lacking is the ability to endurance that pace over the whole duration of the race. What can be improved is our ability to sustain our efforts over the duration of our lives.”

Here’s the thing: it’s completely and totally fine if you don’t want to get faster. Or run longer distances. Many, many runners are very happy doing what they’re doing, and simply want to keep doing it. That’s me too sometimes!

But it is fun to dream, especially when I see runners like Lucy Bartholomew, a 25-year-old Australian who’s become a highly accomplished ultra marathoner.

She ran her first 100-kilometer ultra on her 15th birthday, and finished third in the Western States 100-miler a few years ago. So, she’s certainly no stranger to really challenging distances.

But what she emphasized in this interview she gave in 2020, more than anything else, is that runners should simply have fun.

“I think about the opportunities I have on the long runs, I've always seen something or learned something, met someone or seen something new... It becomes less about the running and more about what you see and what you do.”

And, especially on the runs where you want to stretch yourself, how important it is to listen to our bodies and take it easy when we need to:

“Hands down, the mistake everyone makes is they run too much. You see it in this pandemic, people are going from zero to hero. Most people think the more you run the better you'll be,” Bartholomew said.

“A big thing is stress plus rest equals growth. Those rest days are really important. You have moments when you add stress to your body, but you have got to have those rest days so your body can respond.”

Getting those easy runs is also harder when we don’t even know what an easy run is; most of us probably think we should do all-out effort whenever we run. Not so, says Bartholomew:

“The biggest fault is that the easy run is not easy enough. Runners have an ego attached to these numbers. Easy runs are just about going through those movements, motion is lotion, shaking out their muscles. It's about getting that consistency without stress.”