The mile race has captured the hearts and imaginations of track fans for decades. And for good reason: It requires the speed of a sprinter with the endurance of a distance runner.
The mile — at 1,609.344 meters — is the only imperial distance that survived the sport’s transition to the metric system and is still recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations with a world record.
It’s considered the “perfect four-part drama” (since it consists of about 4 laps around an outdoor track). Two of the biggest track meets in the world, the Millrose Games and the Prefontaine Classic, feature the mile distance. The New York Road Runner’s 5th Avenue mile also has national television coverage.
In short, it’s a distance most of us “understand” and should be seen as an event that lures non-track fans into the sport.
That’s a lot of responsibility, so let’s make sure we train accordingly.
Runners who specialize in longer events like the half-marathon and marathon must reconfigure their mindset about training for a race this short.
Endurance is less of a factor so there’s less focus on total mileage and the almighty long run. Of course, these are indispensable aspects of training for any miler, but they’re simply not the most important.
This is often a tough pill to swallow for many distance runners, particularly recreational runners who have never competed in middle-distance events. The focus for these runners is often only on easy mileage with inconsistent workouts or those that are not nearly difficult enough to create success in the mile.
In short, the mile is intense. It’s about 4–7 minutes for most runners at a sub-maximal, controlled sprint.
That’s a skill requiring an intense training program.
The traditional training structure of a long base phase of training with a build-up in mileage and the distance of the long run needs to be rethought for the mile.
Rather than only focusing on endurance or aerobic fitness during the base phase, runners must incorporate some faster running into these early weeks to enable them to withstand the rigors of the more challenging workouts that come later in the season.
Start with strides (100m accelerations after your easy runs) or hill sprints (maximum intensity sprints up a steep hill for only 8–10 seconds with full recovery) that build the capacity to sprint. These fast-but-short sessions improve mechanics, neuromuscular coordination and the ability to produce power.
In other words, they make future workouts easier by giving you some exposure to speed.
In addition to strides and hill sprints, it’s beneficial to include a weekly workout that includes some very fast running, like an informal fartlek session with repetitions at 800m–5k race pace. Recovery should be full and the total length of the reps should be short.
The goal is not “to get a good workout” but instead, to practice running fast in a relatively easy or moderate way.
As with most races, specific training is going to greatly aid your performance on race day.
After getting comfortable with strides or hill sprints and then fartleks, it’s time to add “real” workouts to your training. These can be repetitions on the track or road, but the defining aspect of these sessions is they must gradually progress into workouts that mimic the demands of the race itself.
Here’s a basic 5-week progression you can follow:
- 6 x 200m at mile race pace with 90-seconds easy jog recovery
- 5 x 300m at mile race pace with 90-seconds easy jog recovery
- 6 x 300m at mile race pace with 75-seconds easy jog recovery
- 6 x 300m at mile race pace with 1-minute easy jog recovery
- 5 x 400m at mile race pace with 1-minute easy jog recovery
The final workout resembles the marathon itself: slightly longer, but with recovery jogging, at the same pace as your goal race.
The mile is one of the more difficult events in track & field because it’s finished within the window of 3–10 minutes.
Why are these length races so difficult? Because you’ll be experiencing “peak lactate” (commonly known as lactic acid) with a high level of muscle acidosis. Ouch!
Success in the mile is therefore an exercise in how much you can run toward suffering. The more you can handle — and the more you accept and encourage — the better the performance.
As the first sub-4:00 miler in history, Sir Roger Bannister, once said: “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”
To train the brain to cope with high levels of discomfort, it’s important to experience high levels of discomfort in training and racing before your goal one-mile race.
You can do this in two main ways:
1. Run progressively more challenging race-specific workouts (see training rule #3) that will put your body in a similar physiological state as the mile race itself
2. Run tune-up races before your goal race to practice the skill of racing
Point #2 above requires some explanation. Racing, tolerating pain and pushing beyond preconceived barriers are skills that require practice.
Rather than putting all of your eggs in one basket (i.e., one race), you can run many mile races before your goal race to hone these skills and give yourself a better advantage.
Aim to run 3–5 tune-up races before your goal mile race. They can be shorter, like the 800m, or longer like the 2-mile or 5K. The goal is racing practice, so while other race distances can be run, make sure they’re still close to the mile distance and you schedule at least 1–2 other mile races into your plan.
When you combine a strategic base phase of training with race-specific workouts and mental preparation, you’ve put together the ingredients for a very fast mile.