The mile (or the 1500 meters outside of the US) is a tough nugget for runners. A common time trial and a popular racing distance at all levels of Track & Field Athletics, the mile comes closest to pushing your absolute anaerobic limits versus just challenging your raw power and speed like the sprints. It’s typically run at a cut above your VO2max and typically redlines your heart rate to its max.
As various coaches have said about racing, your speed is not the problem. Most runners, especially elite runners, have great speed. The problem is developing the specific endurance to sustain as much of your speed as you can over your needed distance.
Most coaches over-polarize middle distance training. They go to three different workout buckets: Hard, usually all-out intervals… tempo runs of a few miles… and your typical extended easy runs.
While all of the above are great for general fitness and development, your goal with the mile is a lot more specific than the above covers. The speed in your hard intervals are not being carried over 1500-1600m (and it can’t, and shouldn’t). The tempo runs are not as hard as you need to run in the mile, and the easy running definitely isn’t hard enough. You’re not working specifically on what you need to do once it’s Go Time.
Again, all of the above are generally valuable, and shouldn’t disappear. But as race season approaches, as you approach time for your mile time trials, your qualifiers, your key races… none of these elements are being suitably combined in your training, and race/trial day becomes 4-8 minutes of misery as you strain to stretch speed that lacks strechability, and you’re going (necessarily but) way too hard for your tempo/easy aerobic work to really help you.
Meathead Coach Mindset claims that such divergent training approaches will somehow come together within your body on race day when you need it. That’s not how most things work, and barring exceptional natural talent that’s not how training for the mile works on race day.
Obviously, I don’t think the answer is to run mile time trials several times in one sitting as a 4×1500 or 3×1600 workout to practice. That’s far too brutal, and totally unnecessary. There is a better, and more human, approach.
I previously covered an approach to racing or time trialing the mile that can help you focus through the strain and difficulty. But I realize most could benefit from one additional key step: Specific endurance training for the mile.
There are two quality workouts I think are valuable for specific endurance. Deep into training, these can replace your 200-400m repeats, and (if this isn’t a time trial but an event you actually compete in) can even replace whatever extended tempo runs you do. I think the easy runs and other cross training remain valuable for generating recovery and maintaining your aerobic fitness, but once you reach the end-game of peak training, your quality workouts need to specifically prep you for the 1500 or the mile.
Both of these workouts are best done on a standard Olympic size running track with full markings.
Workout #1: 2000 Meter Fast Finish Cruisers
Preface: This will push you beyond the mile distance and not only get you comfortable running hard for 1500-1600 meters, but to finish with a strong, hopefully max effort once it’s Go Time.
Depending on your running volume, you probably want to only do 2-3 of these in a single workout. If you do a good amount of easy running each week and can handle it, I’d do 3 in a workout. You want to be tired but in good enough shape to (if you had to) go for an easy run the next day, and to be able to do another long or quality workout in 3 days.
The Workout: After a good warm-up… start the 1st repeat at 10K pace (about 85% of your race effort) and run this for 2 laps (800 meters).
On lap 3 you may step it up a bit, up to 5K pace, for the next couple laps until through one mile (1600 meters). If 10K pace incidentally feels tough, you’re welcome to stay at this 10K pace into laps 3-4.
Once you get to the final lap (final 400 meters), pick up the pace and finish as fast as you can reasonably sustain for the last 400 meters. Don’t sprint all out but definitely go as fast(er) as you can kick, surge, stride, however you approach it.
Hold this extra speed through the final lap and then take an easy lap around the track.
Repeat the above for the next 2000 meters, and again until you’ve finished all your repeats.
NOTE: If you’re elite-caliber, and you’re only doing a couple of these repeats, you are welcome to start at 5K pace and step the middle laps 3-4 up to 3K race pace. I recommended 5K-10K pace if you’re doing 3 or more reps because this is a sizable enough volume of fairly hard running and too much could negatively impact future workouts.
OPTION: If you want to do 3 or more reps in a workout, you can (and probably should) only do the final two reps with the surge/fast final lap, while the prior repeats are done entirely at 5k/10K pace (so they’re basically just 5K pace reps or 10K pace reps). For example, let’s say you do 4 of these repeats in a workout. So you do the 1st and 2nd 2000’s entirely at 5K/10K pace, and then do the fast final lap as I described above for the 3rd and 4th 2000’s.
This ensures you have energy to successfully surge in your final repeats, while also ensuring all your work with those final surge lap reps is done when tired.
Workout #2: 3×500 Race Pace Repeats
Preface: This takes a page from Greg McMillan’s 5K and 10K workouts, and practices your ability to handle mile/1500 race pace in smaller, more easily digestible portions.
The Workout: Simply put, you run your goal race pace for 500 meters three (3) times, taking a recovery jog or walk between each rep.
Find the 1500 meter start line (or the 100M marker) on the track. Start the repeat here, running your mile pace through the main finish line, around the first turn and past where you started, until you reach the nearby 200 meter mark.
Turn around and jog or walk back to the 1500m start line. Turn back around, and start the next repeat. It’s important the recovery be short (albeit useful).
You do three of these repeats. I’ll argue as McMillan does with his workouts that if you run the 1500m, and you can evenly run your goal pace in all three of these repeats without significant trouble, you will hit your time goal on race/trial day.
NOTE: For those doing the mile, you may turn this into a 4×400 workout or a 3×600 workout. Obviously you’ll need to adjust the start, procedure and finish from the 500m repeats, but this is actually a bit easier than the above.
For 4×400: Run a lap. Simple as that. Instead of jogging a full lap, I would jog for about 100 meters (however you wish) before running the next lap. Since you’re doing exactly one lap, it doesn’t matter where the next rep starts since you’re stopping at the same spot.
For 3×600: Find the 200 meter mark halfway around the track and start your repeat there. You obviously get to the main finish line and continue with an additional full lap from there. Once you return to the main finish line and the rep’s done, continue along the track and jog back to the 200m line, then repeat the process until finished.
Final Note: Why start at the 1500m start line for the 3×500’s, instead of the main start line and just finishing at the 100m mark? For competitive 1500m runners, I like the pattern and sense memory work of physically starting at the line that a 1500m runner will start at. This helps with the mental patterning and prep for race day. Trust me on that. It will feel more natural and help with your nerves on race day to start these reps at the same place you’d start the race.
Scheduling These Workouts:
These workouts are best done about 2-6 weeks before a race or time trial, as peak training.
If you have multiple mile/1500 races, and you don’t compete at other distances, you could schedule these accordingly between races provided at least 2-3 weeks of time before your next race.
As with any training, you need about 8-12 days to see initial benefits from a key workout, so burning through these between races when your races are a week apart probably won’t help you. Do this before a block of races, and then let your races serve as your quality workouts from there.
I would do these workouts no more than three times a week, and ideally I’d do each one once a week, spaced at least 3 days apart. If you compete at this distance, you can’t go too far wrong during peak training doing the 3x500s in midweek and doing the 2000’s on the weekend.
Once again, remember that you don’t see benefits from a workout until 8-12 days later, so taper off and cease these about 8-10 days before your next trial or race, or block of races.
I hope this helps you run a better mile, whether you’re just trying to do so for your own fulfillment, or you run this distance competitively for glory, medals, and such. Best of luck.
I’m not sure what you’re describing is better mile training than 8-10×400@mile pace or even ladders like 2x(1000/800/600/400). These workouts are much higher volume than what you’ve described at a more race specific pace. Also, I wouldn’t underestimate the values of cruise intervals (like 3-5×2000@half marathon or tempo pace) fartlek and slow relaxed running for developing mile fitness. I like the workouts you’ve described, but aren’t sure why you’ve challenged conventional wisdom the way you do in the introduction. The vast majority of your mile training mileage will be far slower than race pace except your track workouts, strides, and hill sprints. Also, btw, mile is an aerobic event, even if it’s a touch faster than vo2max.