How to Train to Race a Mile: Start with Stamina

Runner midstride
Training for a mile requires more than speed.

When most of us distance runners think about how to train to race a mile, we think speed, speed, and more speed! Compared to a marathon a mile is a very short race, but like a good marathon race, a good mile race requires training that balances speed, strength, and stamina. Lest you think forgoing marathons for miles means low mileage and nothing but short speed workouts on the track, nothing could be further from the truth. A good mile race requires lots of miles in training, including tempo-type workouts and, yes, long runs!

Last week, I told you about my quest to run a brave mile. This week I want to begin talking about training for a mile race. Because I started my mile race training with building my endurance, let’s start with stamina training. We’ll get to speed and and strength later.

Building stamina for a mile race requires building base mileage, incorporating a long run, as well as specific stamina workouts.

Base Mileage

I ran an average of 40 miles per week for the three months leading up to my mile training. Over the course of this training cycle, I have built my mileage up further to an average of 45-50 miles per week. Running this volume of weekly miles to run one single fast mile might seem surprising, but it’s essential to build a strong aerobic base. Like other races distances you are probably familiar with, from the 5k to the marathon, the mile is primarily an aerobic event. For a thorough explanation of the difference between aerobic and anaerobic running, go here.

For our purposes, aerobic training allows us to run farther at faster paces. Anerobic training allows us to sprint at the finish. When we start tapping into the anaerobic system when we run, we cannot sustain that pace for long without our legs burning. Anaerobic running causes lactic acid to flood our muscles faster than our bodies can clear it out. Once we go from aerobic to anaerobic, we will not be able to sustain fast running for very long. For a mile race, only the last 20% of the race can be run anaerobically, while the first 80% of the race relies on the aerobic system. That means a strong aerobic system is the foundation you need to race your best mile.

You may not have the time to run 45-50 miles in a week, or you may not be able to tolerate running this much without getting injured. That’s okay! This doesn’t preclude you from training to run a fast mile. Run as many miles as you can within your time constraints, your experience level, and your propensity for injury. If running every day or most days isn’t possible, you can substitute cross-training, like aqua-running, for some of your runs. The point is, even though you are training for a short distance, you can’t be short on the volume of aerobic training you do if you want to improve.

10 miles might be short for marathon training, but for a mile race, it's long.
10 miles might be short for marathon training, but for a mile race, it’s long.

The Long Run

Yes, you still need to do long runs to train to race the mile. The good news is that this long run need not be nearly as long as those you might have done training for races like half or full marathons. During my mile training block, my daily runs have ranged from 6-8 miles. Once a week I run a slightly longer run of 10 miles. To add a little extra training stimulus to these runs, I run them at an easy pace, but within each mile of my long runs, I run one to two minutes at a “plus pace.” My coach defines “plus pace” as perceived exertion of about 65% of maximum, which is a little pick-up in pace. This slightly longer run gives me some extra aerobic endurance, while the addition of some “plus pace” running during this longer, easy run adds a little jolt to my nervous system, which keeps my stride feeling light and fresh. Give it a try!

Threshold Running

On another day each week I run a workout that usually includes a total of 3-4 miles at threshold pace. Threshold pace is commonly described as a pace you could race at for 50 to 60 minutes, somewhere between marathon and 10K race pace, and threshold runs are used to build strength and endurance. These workouts can be challenging, so it’s best to pick a flat, well-defined course to help you keep your focus.

For my threshold runs, my coach plugged my most recent race time into the Daniels Running Formula to calculate the appropriate pace range for my threshold runs. Though I keep this pace range in mind when I run these workouts, I generally aim to maintain a “comfortably hard” level of perceived exertion, approximately 75% of maximal effort. Some examples of my threshold workouts are listed here:

  • 9 miles with 2 x 2 miles comfortably hard (perceived exertion 75% of max, or threshold pace), 1 mile jog recovery between (This is my staple workout)
  • 8-9 miles with 1 x 2 miles comfortably hard, 1 mile jog recovery, then 1 x 1 mile comfortably hard
  • 8-9 miles with 3-4 x 1 mile comfortably hard with 1 minute jog recovery between
  • 8-9 miles with 3-4 miles comfortably hard continuous running

These runs are both mentally and physically challenging, and I hope they will help build my strength for the mile!

Have you trained to race a mile? What kind of workouts do you use to build stamina?

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. Hi Rebecca, my name is Barb and I’m a good friend of Laura/ Salty! You posted excellent info on training for the mile. When I was training for the masters indoor/outdoor mile events, I was also training for half and full marathon events. In addition to one tempo run weekly ( your workouts are awesome!), I also did one session of track workouts a week. I feel the speed / interval workout helped me immensely and I was able to transfer that training – including the visualization, foot turnover, etc. onto the track. The only thing I’d do differently now- for myself- is alternate the track with hill repeats 1x weekly. I’m hoping to compete this summer at the USATF masters championships in Michigan.. Where the 1500m race is run vs. the mile. Is your coach Cathy U.?? Say Hi from me!

    1. Hi Barb! Thanks so much for your comment – your amazing performances are a huge inspiration! Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which is on hard interval work, which I also do once weekly and which has been hugely helpful for improving my mile time. And yes, I am extremely lucky to have Cathy U. as my coach and mentor – I will definitely say hi!