DURATION vs. DISTANCE
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
We measure the majority of the training activities we prescribe by time rather than distance. While this might not be the way you're accustomed to training, we have found that measuring the duration and intensity of an activity enables both the athlete and coach to better understand the demands placed on the body and mind from day to day, week to week, and month to month.
We take the following timeless principles into account when designing training:
1). Time is finite. There is only so much time in a day to allocate to physical activity and recovery.
2). Extensive research on performance suggests that deliberate practice is most effective when “chunked” into short, 60-90 minute blocks. This same body of research also demonstrates that even the most elite performers rarely exceed 3-4 hours of deliberate practice or deep work in a 24 hour period.
3). The metabolic and energy systems within the body are activated by particular levels of intensity that correlate with specific durations of activity.
4). Many of the terms and models used in exercise science to describe “training zones” or efforts levels are based on race type efforts for specific periods of time.
The good news is that not everyone has to follow the same plan in order to progress. They simply need to adhere to timeless training principles.
Maximizing the Finite Resource of Time
The majority of the athletes with whom we work have jobs. On average, these work commitments occupy 8-16 hours of 4-6 days per week. In addition to these work commitments, most people have friends, family, and community commitments. Between work, family, friends, eating, sleep and recovery, there really isn't a lot of extra time for training. Rather than training for the sake of training, we apply timeless training principles when we design training so that our athletes can maximize the limited time that they have to make the greatest gains in the least amount of time. Our goal is to help our athletes maximize their time in training so that they have adequate time to fulfill their other commitments while also ensuring they have adequate time to recover.
Chunking & Batching Deep Work and Deliberate Practice
According to Anders Ericsson whose research formed the foundation for the best selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, the majority of these training sessions should not exceed 90 minutes. In fact, for optimal results, most practice should be "chunked" into short, manageable 60-90 minute training sessions.
Among other things, Ericsson coined the term "deliberate practice." One key component to deliberate practice is “chunking” blocks of stress. "Our empirical studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout." ("The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" 400).
In their best selling book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness emphasize the principle of "chunking" extensively.
“In the years of studying experts, Ericsson, found that top performers across all fields are unable to sustain intense work and deep concentration for more than 2 hours. Outside of rare, short-term situations, once this threshold is passed, neither the body nor the mind can sustain the workload. Great performers, Ericsson found, generally work in chunks of 60 to 90 minutes separated by short breaks” (Stulberg & Magness, Peak Performance 65).
Naturally, this has implications for the durations of the training sessions that we prescribe. The majority of the training sessions we prescribe fall between 60 to 90 minutes.
Cal Newport has made a name for himself as an expert of time management. In his best selling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport furthers this discussion on cognitive capacity.
"Deep work is exhausting because it pushes you toward the limit of your abilities. Performance psychologists [like Anders Ericsson] have extensively studied how much such efforts can be sustained by an individual in a given day [...] They note that for someone new to such practice, an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more" (Newport, Deep Work 219-220).
Naturally, this has implications for the duration of the long runs we prescribe.
Newport extends the concept of "chunking" to the "batching" of bouts of deliberate practice into blocks of "Deep Work." For creatives, these periods of "batching" may last days, weeks or months. For our purposes, these "batches" of deep work align nicely with the strategic planning of long runs, simulation workouts, tune-up races, "training blocks" or "training cycles" leading toward a goal race. For more about strategically "chunking" and "batching" training to maximize race performances, please read, "Race Strategically."
Timing Training to Maximize Metabolic Gains
For the first 90 minutes of continuous aerobic activity the body sustains itself from a combination of the glycogen stores (carbohydrates) and fat stores that are already in the body. However, after about 90 minutes of continuous aerobic activity without replenishment the body begins to run out of glycogen and relies more on the fat stored in the body.
This is one of the many reasons we recommend regular long runs that reach or exceed this 90 minute benchmark every 7 to 10 days. Long runs increase the body's metabolic rate and can help the body become more efficient at burning fat for fuel.
Long runs are especially important for athletes training for races that will exceed 90 minutes so that the body and mind are prepared for the metabolic and musculoskelatal demands it will experience under the duress of running for such a duration. However, long runs are not just for those racing long. They are also very effective ways of boosting the stamina and endurance of athletes training for races less than 30 minutes in duration. For example, Arthur Lydiard, hailed by Runner's World as the "All-time best running coach," had all of his runners, including 800m specialist cover up to 22 miles / 35 km of undulating terrain in a single long run as part of their "marathon conditioning phase" leading up to Olympic and World championships.
On the anaerobic end of the training continuum, there are specific metabolic and neuromuscular gains that can only be made with short, explosive bursts that can only last a matter of seconds. These bursts are purely anaerobic and rely upon a naturally occurring fuel within the muscles known as ATP - adenosine triphosphate. The only way for this fuel to be replenished is through recovery - often much longer than the duration of the explosive burst.
Training by Race Duration
Many of the terms and models used in exercise science to describe “training zones” or efforts levels are based on race efforts for specific periods of time.
For example, VO2 Max effort is the pace/effort one could exert for an 8 to 12 minute race. For the best runners in the world, this pace falls between 2 mile and 5K race pace, whereas for others it may not even be 1 mile race pace. So to prescribe 5K race pace for two very different athletes means two different things and would ultimately mean two very different durations of a workout.
If we were to prescribe a 3 mile / 5K warm up run, + dynamic warm up routine, drills & strides + 5 x 1 mile / 1.6 km @ 5K race pace w/ half time recovery + 3 mile / 5K cool down the total time to perform the workout would vary greatly between two different people.
Athlete A may be able to warm up at roughly 7 minute mile pace (21 minutes). If they spend another 15 minutes on the strides, drills, and dynamic routines that's 36 minutes. Then they run 5 x 5 miles @ 5:00 pace for 25 minutes + 12.5 minutes recovery. Now we’re at 62.5 minutes. Add a 3 mile cool down at 7:30 pace and we have an 85 minute or one hour and 25 minute workout. 1:25.
Athlete B may be able to warm up at roughly 12 minute mile pace (36 minutes) + 15 minutes of strides, drills, and dynamic routines. That's 51 minutes before the meat of the workout. Then they run 5 x 5 miles @ 9:00 pace for 45 minutes + 22.5 minutes recovery. Now we’re at 118.5 minutes. Add a 3 mile cool down at 12:30 pace and we have 156 minute or two hour and 36 minute workout. 2:36.
That’s a difference of more than an hour for the same workout. But here’s the thing. Athlete A gets an entirely different workout than Athlete B. The efforts fall in very different effort levels, working different energy systems, and have very different metabolic demands.
Athlete A is approaching VO2 Max whereas Athlete B is closer to Critical Velocity. Athlete A could probably do the workout on an empty stomach or after a light snack and may not even have to think about fuelling during the workout unless it is really hot. In contrast, athlete B will likely have to fuel before and at least a few times throughout the workout otherwise the glycogen stores will likely run out with more than an hour of running to go.
Race Simulation by Duration
We recognize that there are standard race distances that some athletes feel they need to approach, match, or exceed in training to be confident going into the race. For example, many aspiring marathoners feel the need to run a marathon before actually running their goal marathon. However, for a number of reasons this may not be the best course of action for a beginning marathoner.
First of all, it isn’t advisable for a beginning marathoner to run the marathon distance at race pace in the weeks leading up to the goal race because 1). It defeats the purpose of running the goal race and 2). It will more than likely leave the athlete beat up and depleted and will hinder training and likely negatively impact confidence leading into the race.
So if it isn’t advisable to run a marathon at goal pace, then the only alternative if one insists on running the marathon distance in training would be to cover the distance at slower than goal race pace. This would mean that an aspiring 4:00 marathoner (5:41 km/9:09 mi pace) might run the marathon distance in training at 6:31 km/10:30 mi pace and cover the distance in 4:35. This will likely take considerable time (weeks) to recover from.
In contrast, it is not uncommon for elite marathoners to run the marathon distance or more once or twice in the build up toward a goal marathon. However, if they can run a marathon under 2:30 (3:32 km/5:43) in a race setting, they can usually cover the marathon distance or more in 3:00 or less at what to them is a relatively “easy” effort below the ventilatory threshold. 28 mi/45 km in 3:00 hours at 3:59 km/6:25 mi while a big effort in terms of duration and time on feet, would likely take an elite marathoner less time to recover from than a 4:35 marathon in training for an aspiring 4:00 marathoner.
In simple numerical terms, that's over 1.5 hours less time on the feet that can be dedicated to recovery or other things. It’s easy to see how elites can make the long run 20% of their total weekly volume if they only range between 2-3 hours per week. 2-3 x 5 = 10-15 total hours of training. This means they may even have time for massage, rolling, strength, and mobility training. Whereas if an aspiring 4:00 marathoner tries to follow the same training plan by distance rather than time the simple math of the long run @ 20% of total weekly volume equates to 3-5 hours per week x 5 = 15-25 total hours of training. And this doesn’t even include time for recovery or ancillary work. What else will this athlete have time for other than sleep? When will they work or spend time with friends or family?
We recognize that for some specific distances and surfaces it is important to simulate running at race pace / effort for specific durations to gain the confidence and competence one needs to perform on race day. We generally include some distance specific workouts and build-up races that serve as measuring sticks and race simulations for athletes as they progress toward their goal race, but find that for best results the majority of training should be measured by duration rather than distance.
Coaches Malc Kent and Jacob Puzey discuss how they prioritize various metrics when designing and analyzing training in Episode 1 of the Art and Science of Running Podcast.