The Mile: America’s Classic Distance

If your running is 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 2012, with razor-sharp fitness, Delong clicked off a steady percussion of 8:50 miles to finish the Chicago Marathon in 3:52:31. In glancing back through Delong’s lightning-fast progression into a fit runner is one particular race highlight that, upon scrutiny, reveals what may be the coolest app of his program: specifically training to run the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City.

“I hadn’t raced an all-out mile since the President’s Physical Fitness Test in school,” Delong says with a laugh. 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.

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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.”

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.

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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 If you can’t find a race nearby, do a time trial on your local high school track.

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