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Does Pace or Distance Matter More When Running?

Runners wonder whether they should add time or distance to get better results. What if we told you that the pros do both?

I consider running a big part of my life, but I have no intention of ever competing in a marathon and achieving the mental and physical triumph of moving for 26.2 miles straight. I’m perfectly content running four to five miles a day at a pace that requires effort, but typically doesn’t leave me gasping for air. I do often wonder, though, if I’m cutting corners by not trying to clock my miles at a faster pace — or conversely, if my speed should remain the same, but my mileage should increase (not to anywhere close to 26.2 miles, of course). 

According to RunRepeat’s Paul Ronto, who has run six marathons and a 24-hour ultramarathon, the answer depends on, for starters, what your goal for running is, where you run and what you weigh. But if you’re “a typical person who is running to get into better shape and maybe wants to try a local race at some point,” the answer is basically both. 

Especially for new runners, running at a slower pace mitigates the likelihood that you’ll pull a muscle, or be so drained that you avoid running the next day. As such, Ronto advises, “New runners shouldn’t focus on their pace. They have a lot of muscles to build up before they should aim at going faster. Injuries are common for beginner runners who try to go too fast too soon.”

Matt Huey, a physical therapist in Texas, echoes this sentiment. He points to the book 80/20 Running, which outlines how 80 percent of elite runners do “most of their training at low intensities, because it allows them to run longer distances to build endurance” without risk of injury. “There have been many runners who were able to run well into their later years because they trained primarily at lower paces,” he explains.

But what are you supposed to do if you’re like me and your daily 5K is starting to feel like less of the physical challenge it once was? 

Again, it depends on what you’re after. “If your goal is to lose weight, faster may be better than longer,” Ronto tells me, pointing to a study done by RunRepeat where sprinting for short distances “resulted in a 91.83 percent higher reduction in body fat percentage than running slowly for longer distances.” 

“Short sprints repeated over and over create the best results in terms of burning calories and losing weight,” he says. “Plus, running faster also boosts your calorie burn in post-run recovery, so the harder and faster your run, the longer your body will burn calories for. The downside is that you need more recovery time because you cannot go all out every day. And if you do, you’ll burn out and eventually get injured.”

At the same time, if you’re more inclined to run for mental health and to stay in shape, adding mileage might be the way to go. Just don’t expect much in the weight-loss department. “Slow runs don’t burn a lot of carbs or push your muscles to get stronger to improve,” Ronto explains. “So if you’re only relying on slow runs, you’ll miss some of the metabolic benefits that faster running promotes.” 

Moreover, Ronto continues, staring into my soul, “Once you hit your target pace and distance, it’s really easy to ease up on training, but continuing to run the same four-mile loop at a 9:30 mile won’t lead to further progress. A lot of runners plateau, or those running to lose weight start gaining some back, and wonder what happened — it’s because most people get into a routine and stop pushing their body.” 

Ultimately, then, runners should focus on both improving their pace and distance. “But slowly — and with a plan in mind,” Ronto advises. “Patience is a virtue in this sport, so don’t expect to build speed or distance overnight. It’s hard to tell new runners that a long run is a recovery run since they may feel like dying on every run, but focusing on pace two to four days a week will get you fitter and stronger, while you can fill some of the other days with longer, slower runs without too much fear of getting hurt and also building endurance.” 

“In the end, Olympic sprinters spend time doing longer runs and champion ultra runners do speed work at the track,” Ronto adds. “Running is like any other sport in that it takes practice to get better — the goal is to mix it up to ensure you’re working your full body and getting all the benefits possible from this painstaking undertaking.” 

Speaking of which, as much as I don’t want to, I guess I’ll go for a run now and actually push myself to a faster pace. Here’s to a 9:25 mile.