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Better Than a Marathon: The 1 Mile Challenge

If you wanted schoolyard acclaim at my middle school, you didn’t bother with how much you could bench, how many pullups you could do, or how far you could throw a football. And you certainly didn’t bother with running a marathon. The true path to lasting seventh grade athletic immortality ran a mile in length. If you could break six minutes, you were fast. Break five and a half? You were elite. Once a week during PE, we’d line up on the track to test our mettle. Coach’d say go, click his stopwatch, and we were off chasing glory. You’d run and you’d run until you got to that final leg where you’d kick without even knowing it and propel your body past your rival to beat him and your own time. The mile was special.

It proved useful in high school, too. My first year there, I was smart enough to place out of a few classes and ended up in an all-senior PE class, where I got towel-whipped and tit-twisted to the point of bleeding. But once spring track season rolled around, I became the top point man on the varsity squad by routinely trouncing the opposition in the mile and 2-mile runs, and sometimes the pole vault. This gave me cred. The locker room hazing stopped. I’d found my calling – running.

Of course, I ditched the mile run to chase glory in the marathon [1] and later the triathlon [2]. I sometimes wish I’d never graduated past the mile, but then I might not be here writing to you. What happened to me and my body throughout years of chronic cardio was probably necessary to make me who I am [3] today.

Since going Primal [4] and giving up the vast majority of my endurance training [5], I’ve found value in revisiting my old chum, the mile run. You guys should do the same.

Here’s why I think the mile run is the ideal distance for most people to run who aren’t training for any specific longer distance event:

It’s short enough that you can really push yourself. If you want to push yourself hard in a marathon, you need to train for it [6]. You need to devote your life to it. If you want to push yourself hard in a single mile run, you just need to do it. The mile is very democratic.

It isn’t long enough to impede your other training. A mile fits nicely in with any kind of training program. If you’re a CrossFitter [7], integrate the mile run into one of your metcons. If you’re lifting with barbells [8], run a mile once a week to keep your conditioning up; it won’t degrade your gains like a 10k might.

It isn’t Chronic Cardio. A mile run is self-limiting. You can’t do much damage in a mile. The danger grows when you start stacking up mile after mile after mile, but the occasional or regular single mile run won’t put you in danger of lapsing into chronic exercise patterns [9].

It’s a good way to measure overall cardiovascular fitness and risk for cardiovascular disease. A 2011 study [10] in middle aged men found that a single mile run test was a fair predictor of future CHD mortality. Men in their 50s who could run a mile in 8 minutes had optimal cardiovascular health and a 10% lifetime risk of heart disease; 10 minute milers had a 30% risk. Get better at running a mile and you’ll probably improve your heart health.

If you run them easily (10-minute mile pace), you can do them almost every day and obtain huge benefits. Research shows [11] that 5-6 miles a week of easy running is associated with drastically lower risks of heart disease.

A mile is about as long as you’ll have to run in a real life situation. We’re no longer persistence hunting [12] (which, remember, involved a ton of walking and resting anyway) for our food. We’re jogging through city streets to escape the rain. We’re running back to our apartment because we forgot something. And in my experience, these spontaneous bouts of running never go longer than a mile. If you can easily and somewhat quickly run a mile, you’re covered.

Your kids can join in. If you have kids, they’re precluded from many workout routines. You don’t want your toddler trying to life a barbell (yet). You’d rather your slobbery tyke not try to swing a kettlebell [13]. But a mile is doable, albeit slower than if you were alone. Heck, if you let most kids have their run of the land, they’ll cover a mile on their own just going in circles.

Bottom line: the mile run is a simple way to test your fitness levels that requires very little time or training.

Okay. You’re sold. But how do you get started?

The simplest way to improve your mile time is to run the mile once or twice a week on top of your regularly scheduled training [14]. Then, every six weeks or so, try an all-out mile where you attempt to beat your previous time. It’s easy like that. You don’t have to map out your month in advance like marathoners [15] do. You don’t need to worry too much about specific macronutrient ratios. You just run the thing. But, if you want to get a little more specific, these workouts can help:

6 x 3 min work efforts at 15k race pace with 30 second rest intervals: The 3 minute work efforts are much slower than mile race pace. Envision the pace you could hold if you went all out for around an hour.

40 s effort/20 s recovery at 5k race pace repeating for 10 minutes: Running 40 seconds at 5k race pace isn’t that hard and by the time you start feeling it the 40 seconds is up and you get to jog for 20. By the 8 or 9 minute mark, you’ll feel some difficulty holding your 5k race pace, which is why the workout only lasts 10 minutes.

HIIT miles: Instead of running the entire time, try staggering the running with walking [16]. Run really fast for 30 seconds, then walk for 30 seconds. Repeat until the mile is done. Use any permutation of run/walk you prefer. 15/45, 10/20, it all works. Have fun with it.

400/800 m repeats: Run intervals once a week, alternating between 400 and 800 meter repeats from session to session. Take 2-3 minutes rest in between, and try to keep moving (walk or jog). On a scale of 1-20 with 20 being the most intense, keep the intensity at about a 14-16. Start with as many rounds as you can comfortably complete, even if that’s just one or two. When you find you can “sprint” each repeat, add another round next time.

Hills: Find a nice steep incline that stretches for a while. Walk most of it at a really brisk pace, then sprint [17] the last leg. Do this on a regular basis and try to progressively increase the distance of the final sprint [18].

All forms of sprints have a place, but specificity counts for more. To run well you still have to, well, run. Just not as much as we used to think, and even less so when it comes to the mile.

Consider this a formal challenge: I want you to run a mile. Record your time, and then go out and improve on it.

Are you currently running a mile regularly? If so, what’s your time? Let’s hear all about it!

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