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Comparing Speed and Duration: Running Faster versus Running for an Extended Period of Time

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

If you consider yourself a dedicated runner, you probably feel settled into one of two categories: velocity or distance. You might have the ability to surpass everyone on the track, or perhaps you possess more marathon bibs than you can tally. On the other hand, you could be a complete running novice and are unsure of the best approach when it comes to your training (aside from, well, putting one foot in front of the other).

Running at a faster pace and running for a longer duration both have advantages. Quicker runners burn a greater amount of body fat and carbohydrates, utilize more muscle fibers, and burn calories with greater efficiency. However, fast running necessitates additional recovery time and may not be suitable for daily practice. On the other hand, distance runners experience increased endurance and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Since recovery periods are not necessary, distance running can be done every day.

But is there truly a definitive answer to the age-old debate on whether running faster or longer is better? Here is a guide to help you determine whether you should focus your training on increasing your speed or extending your distance in order to reap overall fitness benefits. This guide includes expert advice from Danny Mackey, a coach for the Brooks Beast Track Club who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics.

Advantages of Running at a Faster Pace

Even if you prefer to stick with a slow and steady approach, it is important not to completely dismiss fast-paced runs. In short, neglecting sprints or fast runs will not make you the best runner.

“If you consistently choose the easy route, you are limiting the other intensity levels required to fully benefit from exercise,” says Mackey. “While it is certainly better than not exercising at all, it is not the only thing you should do. It is not ideal for body composition and fat storage,” he emphasizes.

Running Faster Burns Fat and Carbohydrates

Relying solely on long and easy runs will not suffice for several reasons, one of which is the fact that it does not burn carbohydrates. “When you run at a slower pace, the energy demands are lower, and your body primarily relies on fat to fuel the exercise,” notes Mackey. “Carbohydrates are not used during easy runs because the energy is not needed as quickly. Carbs are utilized when you engage in higher intensities since obtaining energy from carbohydrates is a faster process. If you increase the intensity, the energy demands will rise slightly, and your body will begin to use both fat and carbs,” he explains.

Running Faster Engages More Muscle Fibers

Running at an easy pace also involves a lower utilization of muscle fibers, thereby engaging less of your nervous system. During higher-intensity training, the engagement level increases to about 80 percent compared to only 60 percent during easy runs, according to Mackey. Additionally, pushing yourself to run faster requires acceleration, which places significant stress on your muscles. However, this is beneficial stress that encourages your body to adapt and make improvements.

Running Quicker Burns Calories More Efficiently

Since it’s more efficient, you’ll torch more calories per mile when you’re moving faster — even if it means you’re jogging for a shorter duration. This can also lead to weight reduction. But remember: Torching calories and weight reduction shouldn’t constantly be the most critical factors in determining your workout.

Advantages of Running for a Lengthier Period

All this might have you tying up your sprinting cleats, ready to hammer out some seriously speedy training sessions. But hold up a second. Devoting yourself solely to short, explosive runs isn’t the best approach either, and there exist numerous benefits to playing the long game.

Running for a Longer Duration Requires Less Recovery

When you’re running five or six days a week, you require lengthy, slow runs to allow your body to recuperate, says Mackey. “When you go harder, you hit all the metabolic levels and intensities,” he notes. “Our body is not constructed with switches; there’s no on or off. And if you’re going hard, you’re utilizing everything. But the consequence is that you have to recuperate from it, or you’re going to get injured,” explains Mackey. (It also helps to make sure your running form is on point.)

Running for a Longer Duration Enhances Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance refers to “the ability for the body to work for an extended period of time,” Dyan Tsiumis, C.P.T., an instructor at Openfit and Equinox, previously informed Shape. When you’re engaging in that work for a prolonged period of time — in this instance, running — you’re training your body to convert oxygen into energy in a more effective manner. During a sustained run, you’ll be strengthening your aerobic endurance.

The primary advantage of enhancing your muscular endurance is that “exhaustion will not set in as rapidly, and you will be able to endure more while expending less energy,” Corinne Croce, D.P.T., a co-founder of Body Evolved and in-house physical therapist for SoulCycle, previously mentioned to Shape. Translation: You’ll be able to sustain a longer effort without perspiring excessively (or becoming breathless).

Running for a Longer Duration Is Beneficial for Your Heart

Even if it’s less efficient than running for velocity, jogging at a slow pace has significant cardiovascular advantages. A study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that leisurely runs for even just five or 10 minutes a day greatly reduced the risk of heart disease.

Choosing Between Running Faster or Running Longer

So for anyone keeping track, sprinters gain points for all the health benefits that come with running at high speeds, but distance runners gain points for the gentler nature of their runs, allowing them to do it every day. But what’s the optimal scenario? Doing both.

You might consider altering your workouts on a weekly basis, depending on how many days per week you wish to exercise. In that case:

Opting for a Daily Routine: Running Longer

If your upcoming week doesn’t look too busy, you can use your free schedule to prioritize long, leisurely runs. By not exerting yourself excessively, as you would in sprints, you can engage in a daily, relaxing jog to clear your mind and improve your endurance. The runner’s high is guaranteed, and you might even achieve a sense of running meditation during your miles.

Preferring Sufficient Rest Days: Running Faster

If you only have a couple of running sessions per week, focusing on speed will provide you with more fitness benefits — as long as you allow your body sufficient time to recover. “Faster running is always ideal if you can recover effectively, such as when you only have a few days a week for workouts,” says Mackey. “If, for example, you can workout only three days a week, that means you have four recovery days. So if you can manage that without getting injured, that’s the way to go,” he explains.

There’s a reason why you can’t constantly push yourself to the limit. Even when training professional athletes, Mackey states that they would only do two, maybe three, highly intense workouts per week. “Any more than that, and you risk burnout, weight gain, negative mood changes, and poor sleep quality,” explains Mackey. Therefore, if you’re running approximately three days a week, those off days should serve as your recovery period.

So, Which Is Superior — Running Faster or Running Longer?

There’s no definitive answer to this question — it mostly depends on the amount of time and energy you can dedicate to your runs. If you enjoy a daily leisurely run, going at a slower pace is the best option for you. However, if you prefer to limit the time spent running while still reaping the benefits, faster runs might be more suitable. Regardless, it’s best to vary your workout routine regularly.

That being said, if you’re training for a specific long-distance race (such as a half marathon or marathon) or a speed competition (such as challenging a fellow gym-goer to a 100-meter dash), your training should be tailored to suit that particular event.

But if you’re the mean, leisurely jogger, recording miles primarily for the health advantages, and wish to know where to most effectively channel your endeavors, the simple response is to be receptive to adaptability.

How to Formulate a Plan for Running at a High Speed and Distance

Ideally, it is recommended to engage in both lengthy and rapid runs rather than solely focusing on one or the other. The crucial element is variability, according to Mackey. To gain the greatest advantages and minimize the risk of injuries, try incorporating a combination of the following training techniques that Mackey utilizes in his coaching.

Intervals. These intervals can be in the form of “fartleks” (a Swedish term meaning “speed play”). For instance, after completing a warm-up, engage in eight rounds of running at a high intensity for two minutes, alternating with two minutes of running at an easy intensity before cooling down. It is generally recommended to keep interval durations between one and five minutes, as suggested by Mackey. The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during these intense intervals should ideally be about eight to nine out of 10. Mackey usually advises implementing these intervals once a week.

Tempo runs. During a tempo run, it is typical to run for approximately 20 to 25 minutes at an RPE of 6 or 7. Mackey usually suggests performing these runs once a week.

Sprints. Sprints can be incorporated into easier or longer, low-intensity running days. These involve brief bursts of all-out sprints lasting under 10 seconds. The primary benefit of sprints lies in their positive impact on the nervous system and coordination, as stated by Mackey. Try adding sprints to your training routine once a week.

Extended runs at a slower pace. The concept of these runs is quite straightforward: run longer distances at a comfortable pace. It is recommended to keep your heart rate below 150, and you should be able to maintain a conversation during these runs.

Resistance training. Consistent engagement in strength training is crucial for injury prevention, even if it does not involve intense workouts aimed at increasing muscle mass. Mackey advises incorporating a 20-minute strength training session twice a week to help minimize the risk of injuries.

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