Target residence time plays a crucial role in the pharmacological activity of small molecule inhibitors. Little is known, however, about the underlying causes of inhibitor residence time at the molecular level, which complicates drug optimization processes. Here, we employ all-atom molecular dynamics simulations (~400 μs in total) to gain insight into the binding modes of two structurally similar p38α MAPK inhibitors (type I and type I½) with short and long residence times that otherwise show nearly identical inhibitory activities in the low nanomolar IC50 range. Our results highlight the importance of protein conformational stability and solvent exposure, buried surface area of the ligand and binding site resolvation energy for residence time. These findings are further confirmed by simulations with a structurally diverse short residence time inhibitor SB203580. In summary, our data provide guidance in compound design when aiming for inhibitors with improved target residence time.