Which Is Better: Running Faster vs. Running Longer?

Here's what to know before choosing a running style and sticking to it.

person in workout clothes running on a bridge

If you consider yourself a serious runner, you probably feel settled into one of two camps: speed or distance. You might be able to lap everyone on the track, or maybe you have more marathon bibs than you can count. On the flip side, you could be a total running newbie and don't know which way is best when it comes to tackling your training (besides, well, putting one foot in front of the other).

But is there really an answer to the age-old debate regarding which is better: running faster or longer? Here's a guide to help you find out whether you should dedicate your training to upping your pace or extending your distance for all-around get-fit benefits, with expert advice from Danny Mackey, a Brooks Beast Track Club coach with a master's degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics.

Benefits of Running Faster

Even if you think you'd rather stick to the slow and steady route, don't turn your back completely on fast-paced runs. Long story short: Never challenging yourself with sprints or fast runs won't make you the best runner.

"If you're going easy all the time, you're really limiting all the other intensity levels needed to get the full benefit or exercise," says Mackey. "It's better than not exercising for sure, but it's definitely not the only thing you want to do. It's not great for body composition and for fat storage," he points out.

Running Faster Burns Fat and Carbohydrates

Running only long and easy won't cut it for a bunch of reasons — one being the fact that it doesn't burn carbohydrates. "When you're going slower, the energy demands are lower, and your body's going to rely predominantly on fat to drive that exercise," notes Mackey. "We don't really use carbohydrates for easy runs because we don't need the energy that quickly. You use carbs when you go at harder intensities, because getting energy from a carbohydrate is a quicker process. If you're going more intense, the energy demands are going to spike up a little bit, and you body's going to start using fat and carbs," he explains.

Running Faster Uses More Muscle Fibers

Going at an easy pace also uses fewer muscle fibers, which engages less of your nervous system; it's about 60 percent versus 80 percent during higher-intensity training, says Mackey. Plus, pushing yourself to go faster requires acceleration, which puts a lot of stress on your muscles. This is the good kind of stress, though — the kind that encourages your body to adapt and make improvements.

Running Faster Burns Calories More Efficiently

Since it's more efficient, you'll burn more calories per mile when you're going faster — even if it means you're running for a shorter amount of time. But remember: Burning calories shouldn't always be the most important factor in which workout you choose.

Benefits of Running Longer

All this might have you lacing up your sprinting spikes, ready to hammer out some seriously speedy workouts. But hold up a second. Sticking to only short, explosive runs isn't the best idea either, and there are plenty of benefits of playing the long game.

Running Longer Requires Less Recovery

When you're running five or six days a week, you need long, slow runs to let your body recover, says Mackey. "When you go harder, you hit all the metabolic levels and intensities," he notes. "Our body is not built with switches; there's no on or off. And if you're going hard, you're using everything. But the consequence is that you have to recover from it, or you're going to get hurt," explains Mackey. (It also helps to make sure your running form is on point.)

Running Longer Improves Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is "the ability for the body to work for an extended amount of time," Dyan Tsiumis, C.P.T., an instructor at Openfit and Equinox, previously told Shape. When you're doing that work for a long period of time — in this case, running — you're training your body to turn oxygen into energy more efficiently.

The key benefit of improving your muscular endurance is that "fatigue will not set in as fast and you will be able to withstand more while using less energy," Corinne Croce, D.P.T., a co-founder of Body Evolved and in-house physical therapist for SoulCycle, previously told Shape. Translation: You'll be able to go longer without working up a sweat (or running out of breath).

Running Longer Is Good for Your Heart

Even if it's less efficient than running for speed, running low and slow has major cardiovascular benefits. A study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that slow runs for even just five or 10 minutes a day greatly decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease.

How to Choose Between Running Faster vs. Running Longer

So for anyone keeping score, sprinters get a point for all the go-fast health benefits, but distance runners get a point for it being gentle enough to do every day. But the best-case scenario? Do both.

You might want to switch your workouts up on a weekly basis, depending on how many days per week you want to get a workout in. In that case:

If You Want a Daily Dose: Run Longer

If your upcoming week doesn't look so busy, you could use your open schedule to prioritize long, slower runs. If you're not overexerting yourself (as you would with sprints), you can do a daily relaxing jog to clear your head and up your endurance. The runner's high is guaranteed, but you might even get a bit of running meditation in during your miles as well.

If You'd Rather Have Plenty of Rest Days: Run Faster

If you're only running a couple of times a week, running for speed will get you more bang for your buck in terms of fitness benefits — as long as you give your body time to recover in between. "Faster running is always ideal if you can recovery really well, like if you only have a few days a week to workout," says Mackey. "If you only have, for example, three days a week to work out, that means you're recovering on the other four days. So if you could do that and not get hurt, that's the way to go," he explains.

There's a reason you can't go all out all the time. Even when he's trained pro athletes, Mackey says they would do two, maybe three, really intense workouts per week. "Any more than that, and you could get burned out, start storing calories, see a decrease in your mood, and stop sleeping well," explains Mackey. So if you're running about three days a week, those off days can and should act as your recovery.

So, Which Is Better — Running Faster vs. Running Longer?

There's no over-arching answer to this one — it mostly depends on how much time and energy you have to devote to your runs. If you prefer a daily jaunt, low and slow is best for you, but if you'd rather limit your time running and still reap the benefits, speedy runs might be your cup of tea. Either way, the best idea is to switch things up on the regular.

That said, if you're training for a certain long-distance race (i.e. a half marathon or marathon) or a speed race (such as challenging your gym buddy to a 100-meter dash), your training should be tailored to that event. But if you're the average, recreational runner, logging miles mainly for the fitness benefits, and want to know where to best direct your efforts, the easy answer is to be open to versatility.

How to Create a Speed and Distance Running Plan

Ideally, you'll do both long and fast runs and not just stick to one or the other. Variability is key, says Mackey. Try a mix of the following types of training that Mackey uses in his coaching to get the best benefits and reduce injury risk.

Intervals. These could be fartleks (a Swedish word for "speed play;" for example, a 40-minute run where, after warming up, you do eight rounds of two minutes at a hard intensity alternated with two minutes at an easy intensity before cooling down). Keep the intervals between one and five minutes as a general rule of thumb, recommends Mackey. Your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) should be about eight to nine out of 10 during the intensity intervals. Mackey usually recommends doing these once a week.

Tempo runs. You'll typically run for 20 to 25 minutes at a 6 or 7 RPE on a tempo run. Mackey usually recommends doing these once a week.

Sprints. Your sprints can be done on easier days or long, slow-distance days. They consist of 10-second or under bouts of all-out sprints. Their biggest benefit is for your nervous system and coordination, says Mackey. Try adding these to your training once a week.

Long, slow-distance runs. These are pretty self-explanatory — that means running longer distances at an easy pace. Your heart rate should stay under 150, and you can most likely hold a conversation.

Strength training. Consistently strength training is key to preventing injury, even if you're not doing it often or hard enough to add muscle mass. Just adding some strength work twice a week for 20 minutes should help keep you from getting hurt, advises Mackey.

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