Mile Training: Spend Time on Speed

To race a fast mile you need speed! Image by Jinger Moore.

Speed-work: we do it to train for every race distance. It’s our chance to practice running at our target race pace, taking on the challenge in small pieces before stringing it together into a race on our big day. I thought I had plenty of experience with hard speed workouts training for the 5K and the10K, but I was completely unprepared for mile race speed-work. For mile training, speed work means running REALLY hard.

I started out chronicling my journey to a brave mile by telling you my reasons for tackling this distance. Then, I told you about the stamina training I do to build the strength to hold a fast pace for a whole mile. This week, I’ll talk about my mile-specific speed-work.

Improving your speed for the mile involves setting a baseline, priming your nervous system and building strength with sprints, and tackling mile-specific hard interval workouts.

Time Trials

I’ve written about time trials in a previous post, but I’m mentioning them again because they can be very helpful in mile training. Unlike with the 5K or 10K where you can find a race on any given weekend and easily track your progress, there are far fewer opportunities to race the mile, especially if you are primarily racing on the roads. Running a one-mile time trial about every four to six weeks during your mile training can give you almost as good an idea of your progress as a race will. Then you can target areas of weakness to focus on in your training going forward.

Channeling my inner lion to embrace the pain! Photo by my coach, Kathy Utzschneider.
Channeling my inner lion to embrace the pain! Photo by my coach, Cathy Utzschneider.


One element of mile training that I am finding to be especially fun is that you get to sprint a lot, even if you aren’t a sprinter! About once or twice a week at some point during or after an easy run, I sprint. This either entails 6-8 x 8-10 second all-out sprints on a steep hill (about a 10% grade), or 5-6 x 20-30 second sprints on flat ground at a perceived exertion of 90% of maximum. Either way, I allow full recovery between each sprint. I usually run at least two slow easy miles first so I am thoroughly warmed up, and sometimes I even wait until the penultimate mile or the very end of the run before I sprint.

Sprinting has been a great way to build speed and power, as it’s about the most running-specific strength training you can do. It also lets me practice faster stride turnover during easy runs without being overly fatiguing. A word of warning: if you aren’t used to sprinting, ease into it or you might wind up tweaking a calf or hamstring. One or two short sprints on a hill at the end of an easy run and then building up gradually are the safest way to include sprints when you are just starting out.

Hard Interval Work

We’ve written about intervals on Salty Running before (see here and here). Intervals for mile training serve an important purpose: conditioning us to deal with the extreme discomfort of running short distances at a pace way outside of our comfort zone. Once a week during this training block, I’ve been running 2-3 miles of hard intervals either on the track or on hills at-or-close to goal mile pace and sometimes significantly faster. Talk about discomfort!

These workouts are all about courage. First, the anticipation of going to a workout you know is going to hurt takes mental fortitude. I personally have to talk myself down from a ledge every time. Then, adopting a brave pace from the very first repeat, knowing full well the discomfort in doing so will steadily increase as the workout goes on, has helped me to work on developing a steely will. The lessons learned? You can feel awful and still run fast, and you can usually hang on to a tough pace for a lot longer than you think.

Sample Workouts

Here are some of the workouts I’ve done that have taught me these things:


●  6 miles with 1 x 800m very hard (perceived exertion of 90% of maximum), 800m jog recovery, then 4 x 400m hard (perceived exertion of 85% of maximum) with 30 seconds jog recovery

●  7 miles with 6 x 800m at current mile pace with 400m jog recovery

●  8 miles with 4 x 1200m at 3K pace with 800m jog recovery

Heartbreak hill in Boston
Naturally, I choose one of the most famous marathon hills for my mile training hills. Photo of Boston’s Heartbreak Hill by me.


●  7 miles with 6 x 1-min hard (perceived exertion of 85% of max), then 6 x 45-seconds hard (perceived exertion of 85% of max), then 6 x 30-seconds very hard (perceived exertion of 90% of max), all with full jog recovery

●  7 miles with 4 x 0.75 miles comfortably hard (perceived exertion 75% of max), then 0.25 miles very hard (perceived exertion 90% of max), 0.25 mile jog recovery between repeats

These workouts convinced me I could run at paces well beyond my expectations, which I hope will give me the courage to run my bravest mile.

What are your favorite speed workouts? What lessons did you learn from them?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. Training for half marathon and this was first week with speed workouts (intervals) since early last fall. As you note, mental endurance is key: 10×400 was tough both physically and mentally (when can I stop?). I enjoyed them when training last summer for half marathon so hope that with a few more sessions I’ll get back to that place. Really admire your training program. Wow!

  2. Went to the track for the first time in a year last night and did 400s and 200s. I had been doing mostly treadmill training so I knew it would be rusty but boy was it very rusty! However, it always brings me back to the days of hard efforts and races on the track, which in the end are so fun. It just stings a bit when you start back up again. Great tips! Keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks Ginger! So true that it’s totally fun in the end, even though it’s really hard when you’re doing it. I’ve been very surprised at how much I enjoy running on the track.