When Strava approached me to see if I wanted to run the New York City marathon this year, I opted for a much more terrifying race: the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile.
The mile is the murky, tricky—and increasingly popular—middle ground of running. Not short enough to be a sprint, not long enough to be an endurance event. But you still have to go all in. Just not too all-in, too early, or you’re gonna be walking.
Pushing your speed for a whole mile, even practiced milers admit, just freaking hurts. For a devoted endurance athlete like me, the mile is somewhere between intriguing (you save three or four hours on a training day, no lost toenails) and puke-tastic (self-explanatory).
What would have to change for an endurance athlete used to 4-, 8-, 10-hour swimming, running, and multisport races to run a mile well? Pretty much everything. Pretty fast. Because Strava’s offer came with just 4 weeks to go before the race. Fortunately, it also came with run coach John Honerkamp, of Run Kamp LLC. In addition to being a prominent coach, he has a track record on both sides of the divide—he’s an eight-time top-10 finisher at the U.S. Track & Field Championships (with a personal best mile of 4:01.30), and has run plenty of marathons as well.
To switch from long races to the mile, you have to teach your body to do some things differently. You have to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can go neglected in long-distance training. You need to teach your body to more actively recruit different energy systems to fuel it through the effort. And you need to get your mind on board with all this.
Longer than a month is ideal. But Honerkamp assured me that I could still turn in a much-faster mile in just 4 weeks. As a plodding runner, I had serious doubts.
Race day proved me wrong and him right; it was the fastest I’d ever run. He’d had me do a test mile in the first week of training where I hit my maximum sustainable pace. Thirty days later, I’d shaved a gigantic 40 seconds off that time. Here’s what it took to turn an average endurance athlete into a faster mile runner in just 4 weeks.
What It Takes to Run a Faster Mile in 4 Weeks
“You’re not going to get much more physically fit during this time,” Honerkamp told me. “This training is about getting your mind and body used to what a mile is without blowing up.” Keys to what it took:
A smart training schedule. That goes without saying. Honerkamp had me do a classic mix of weekly runs that the Strava app logged for me. There are a few ways to approach a mile program (check out another one here), but for me, I did one day of short intervals (400s), a tempo run, and a longer, easier run each week.
Ideally in training for the mile, these runs, over time, are going to train different energy systems. There’s the one your body uses for 3 to 15 seconds of an all-out effort (the ATP-PCr system), explains Colleen Brough, DPT, an assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “But if you need to keep going with an all-out effort, our bodies turn to the glycolytic system. This gives us another two minutes of energy. To keep on keeping on with a single mile or a full marathon, we turn toward the oxidative, aerobic metabolism.” Until you train these systems with a plan designed to work them all, “you won’t have the speed or power you’re looking for,” she says.
A whole different way of landing the plane. Finishing an 8- or 10-hour endurance race is like landing a plane when the engines are shutting down. Training gets you used to managing fatigue and pain and gliding in on your reserves.
But the mile? That’s like landing a plane while every single engine is on fire. Training for it, then, is about learning to hear those red-alert alarms yet landing the thing as calmly as possible. You learn to stop imagining that the pain of pushing hard is a catastrophe every time you meet it. With training, “faster paces won’t be such a shock to your system,” he says.
A new relationship with “relaxation.” Running well means running relaxed (while everything’s on fire). “Nothing about tensing up is going to help you run faster,” Honerkamp says. “You don’t want to be trying too hard.” To release tension, really focus on form, he says. Stay smooth and stay smart.
A good strategy. I’d thought that in a race this short, “cross your fingers and pray” would be an adequate race strategy. Honerkamp set me straight: Turns out in a race this short, even for a non-elite, having a real strategy is everything. Since I wasn’t necessarily going to get fitter during my 4 weeks of training, “strategy will make you smarter about the race, which allows you to finish faster,” he says. That meant—as it does with any race—control the beginning. For 5th Ave, it also meant not freaking out about the slight uphill on the second 400. From then on, the game was pace yourself and as he puts it, “mitigate the misery.”
On race day, he assured me, “if you run it well and run it smart, it should hurt.” Yet when you run it well and run it smart, that hurt won’t last much past the finish line. “If it were easy,” he says, “it wouldn’t be as exhilarating.” True no matter what distance you go.
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