Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Want to jump-start your fitness, improve your running form, snap out of feeling stale? Start training for the mile.
Rob Delong was like most kids growing up when it came to running. Every year in gym class, he had to run a mile.
That was the endurance component of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, a grade school program developed during the Eisenhower administration to encourage American children to be healthy and active after a study showed their European counterparts were much more fit.
Fast-forward 20 years and, in the midst of getting fit for his first marathon, Delong, a 34-year-old Manhattan currency broker, found himself channeling his younger self.
In his debut marathon, Delong clicked off a steady percussion of 8:50 miles to finish the Chicago Marathon in 3:52:31. Glancing back through Delong’s lightning-fast progression into a fit runner, one particular race highlight jumps out: specifically training to run the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City. Training for and racing in a 1-mile race, Delong says, clearly helped him hold a faster marathon race pace in Chicago.
This was by design, says his coach, Brian Rosetti, creator of the Run SMART Project, a group of 10 national-class runner-coaches, at different locations around the country, who guide runners of all levels through individually designed programs set to the doctrines and principles through author and coaching great, Dr. Jack Daniels.
“I have clients who are training for races from the 5K to the marathon,” Rosetti says. “The repetition work that our runners do is at their current 1-mile race pace, and it serves the purpose of boosting your economy and efficiency, which feeds into the longer stuff.”
Rosetti—a former member of the ZAP Fitness Olympic Development program with track PRs of 3:44 in the 1500 and 8:08 in the 3,000—says that the value of training for the 1-mile race or low-key time trial is not just a matter of increasing speed and efficiency. He argues that it also helps runners reduce the risk of injury.
“There’s a misconception that speed work injures people,” Rosetti says. “In fact, proper speed training will teach you how to run with good form and build the strength to hold good form longer.” It’s in longer, fatigue-inducing runs, he explains, that form breaks down and exposes the body’s weaknesses to wear-and-tear.
Stay Smart and Sub-Maximal
The key, Rosetti adds, is to be disciplined in your aerobic training and smart about your speed work. Adding flexibility and agility drills will also help develop speed, but the act of getting faster for a distance runner doesn’t come from all-out sprints. Instead, workouts are run at a controlled, sub-maximal pace with small amounts of rest to build speed endurance.
“People get into trouble when they don’t understand that what’s important is to run the target pace of the rep workouts; not just run them as fast as you can, just because you can,” he says.
Turning your workouts into races not only undercuts the true purpose of the workout, but the red-line intensity can wear you down and wear you out, prolonging recovery and increasing injury risk. Additional measures that Rosetti suggests for runners doing speed work at 1-mile race pace are to take the time you need to warm up thoroughly, and be sure to take adequate recovery between the repetitions.
With such precautions in place, Rosetti says that spiking your overall road running and racing plan with an intermediate goal of a mile race or time trial can serve up improved efficiency and strength. “And, for distance runners, a 1-mile race can be a great tuneup before a big goal event. The 5th Avenue Mile draws a lot of crazed NYC Marathoners, as a matter of fact.”
Fellow Run Smart coach Malindi Elmore agrees. A 2004 Olympic 1500-meter runner for Canada, she knows from experience how speed has spread: She has a 1500 PR of 4:02, a 15:02 for 5000 and a 33-flat best for 10K on the road.
“I think most people will find training for a mile race helps their longer races,” Elmore says. “Our body doesn’t always like doing the same thing and sometimes a stimulus to your training and racing will provide huge breakthroughs in other events.” Elmore adds that even if you cut down your overall volume during a training spell for a 1-mile race, you won’t lose out on strength. “You’re still really working the legs, lungs and heart. When you return to longer and slower work you will have given yourself a real fitness boost.”
Give it One Day a Week
So how do you do it? How do you shift your training, and your physiology, into the lactic-acid storm waiting for you in the mile? According to Rosetti, a runner who wants to spice up their road training and racing by jumping in a mile race can adequately prepare by simply including into their working program one day per week of speed work at a current mile race pace.
First, determine your mile race pace either with a time trial or by entering a recent 5K or 10K clocking into a pace calculator to get a projected time.
Then after a thorough warm-up, run repetition intervals at that pace, in simple workouts like 8 x 200 meters with a rest interval of 200 meters of easy jogging, or, if you’re a more advanced runner, 4 x 400 meters with 400 meters of easy jogging. Be sure to run that specific pace and to allow for the recovery you need. You can also take these workouts to a modest hill and simulate the same effort to get a good dose of power training. Additionally, after tempo runs you can add some similar repetition intervals, like 100s or 200s — once again at mile race pace.
“One of the best strength and drill training sessions for runners is pure sprinting,” Elmore says. But distance runners have to be careful about adding such elements of fasting running. Do this by adding striders to the end of your regular runs or in track workouts where you focus on really fast 100s.
“You become a better and smoother runner by practicing running faster than you would in a race.”
Or practicing a race shorter than your goal race, as was the case for Rob Delong.
To search for a 1-mile race on either the road or the track, check with your local running clubs or surf the vast listings at www.bringbackthemile.com. If you can’t find a race nearby, do a time trial on your local high school track.
How To Train For The Mile
Want to run a faster mile later this summer? You need to build your speed and speed endurance over a six- to eight-week span. The following is a sample week for ramping up your mile training as suggested by Elmore. Assuming you have a solid running base, implement a week like this (or some of its workouts) on a regular basis as you approach a mile race or time trial.
2- to 3-mile easy warm-up run, followed by dynamic warm-up drills and 3 x 60-meter build-up strides at 75-80 percent effort
[BEGINNER] 8 x 200m in 35-40 seconds with a 60-90-second recovery jog between reps
[INTERMEDIATE] 4 x 400m in 80-90 seconds with a 60-90-second recovery jog between reps
[ADVANCED] 8 x 400m in 75-85 seconds with a 60-90-second recovery jog between reps; 2- to 4-mile cool-down
Easy 5- to 7-mile run, followed by 6 x 60-meter build-up strides at 75-80 percent effort
2-mile warm-up, followed by dynamic warm-up drills
5 x 1,000-meter repeats at your 5K race pace with a 3-minute recovery jog between reps
Easy 4- to 6-mile run, followed by 6 x 60-meter build-up strides at 75-85 percent effort
15-minute easy warm-up run
15- to 20-minute run at a “comfortably hard” tempo pace (or a pace 20-30 seconds slower per mile than your 5K race pace)
15-minute easy cool-down
Cross-training with cycling, swimming or gym fitness.
75- to 90-minute easy run, followed by 6 x 60-meter build-up strides at 75-85 percent effort
How To Race The Mile
Elmore knows how to race: She’s a 15-time middle-distance national champion for Canada. As far as pacing, what words does she have for the aspiring distance-runner-turned-miler?
Don’t worry about pacing, she says.
“The point of the mile is to run as fast as you can and the hold on until you don’t think you can possible go any further,” she says. “But not to stop — just keep digging to the end!”
In the process you will likely enjoy both a rush of adrenaline and then some of the special joys known to milers.
“Burning legs, bursting lungs, exploding heads and churning stomachs,” she says. Forget the sit-and-kick version of the mile you see in the Olympic final, Elmore counsels — the true satisfaction in the mile is found in going hard from the gun.
“The final few minutes might be a bit painful but pushing your body hard is very rewarding and addicting. It is really cool to see how fast you can go for a relatively short period of time and participate in such an epic and historical event.”
Q&A With Leo Manzano, Olympic Miler
Leo Manzano has run 3:50.64 for the mile, making him the ninth-fastest American ever at that distance. But the 29-year-old sealed his status in the history of U.S. running with a relentless finishing kick in the final of the 1500m event (the mile’s metric alternative) at the 2012 London Olympics. The Mexican-born American dashed to a second-place finish, becoming the first U.S. runner since 1968 to win an Olympic medal at that distance.
What makes the mile so special?
“It’s the ultimate race, especially here in the U.S. If you ask anybody about it, most people have a pretty good idea what a mile is all about. Everybody runs it in school. Everything here is measured in miles. Most people don’t know what the 1500m race is, even though it’s almost the same thing. But when you hear someone say they run a 3-minute, 50-second mile, they say, ‘Wow, that’s fast.’ Most runners here know how fast a mile is because every time they run, either in training or a race, is broken down by miles and pace-per-mile.”
How can anyone relate to the mile?
“I’ll get a little philosophical here, but racing the mile is kind of a metaphor for life in some ways. You can’t go out too fast, and you can’t live life too fast. You have to pace yourself, and that’s the same thing in the mile, too. In second and third lap of the mile, it gets pretty hard, just like in life. Then the fourth lap is the hardest. But you have to know there is always going to be a finish and whatever your troubles or challenges are, you just have to keep pushing and you’ll be done soon enough. But it’s all about balance, too. You can’t get behind and go too slow in either one, you’ve got to live.”
How can any runner get faster?
“If a runner is trying to get faster, they definitely have to work on their speed. A lot of people might think they can go out and run and run and then run fast when it’s time to race. But it doesn’t work that way and the chances of getting hurt are very high if you normally don’t run fast. One of the best ways to start approaching speed, even without doing a hard speed work session, is to do eight to 10 strides after almost every run to loosen up your legs muscles and teach the body how to get used to running fast.”
Updated from an article that first appeared May 2014