Every runner will tell you, “the first mile is the hardest.”
If you have not run since the days of your school gym class, and you dread being invited to participate in a 5k, and you would much rather lift weights or cycle or swim, you are not alone.
Running is something many people avoid simply because that first mile can feel like hell on earth. You wonder if you will ever be able to breathe.
However, something curious often happens in mile two for those who stick it out: you settle in and start to breathe. You (dare we say it) start to think, “this is not so bad after all.” But even for the seasoned runners, that first mile can always be a tricky one. And improving your time can seem like a daunting task, but we have nine proven ways to do it below.
Tip #1: Make Sure You Are Getting Adequate Rest
We know this seems too easy. But we are intentionally starting with “rest” because its importance is too often overlooked.
A runner who is chasing a faster mile may be feel compelled to overdo it, running every day of the week and sometimes twice a day. However, rest and recovery days are crucial. The muscles you engage while running need a break to avoid injury.
A “rest” day does not necessarily mean three pints of Ben and Jerry’s on the sofa while watching Netflix. It simply means a break from running. Use that time to take a yoga class, swim laps at the pool, or just get outside with family and friends and toss a frisbee. A day off from running will do your body good, and it will also do your running good.
Tip #2: Run Hills
So ends the rest! Our next tip may not be anyone’s favorite, but it absolutely works.
Get out and run some hills to increase your endurance and efficiency, which will ultimately help you shave time off your mile.
The key to hill work is proper warmup and form. Do not just set out to sprint hills without running at an easy pace for 10 minutes first. Your body needs a good warmup to prevent injury during hill work.
Additionally, you want to ensure that even as you fight your way up an incline that you are paying attention to proper form. Beginner runners can start with 2 or 3 reps and then add a rep weekly over the course of a month. A more advanced runner could start with 5 or 6 reps and add one weekly.
Be sure you carefully jog or walk back down each time (this is your cool down between reps), and once you have completed your reps finish off the workout with another 10 minutes of easy running.
Tip #3: Climb Stairs
If you skipped over Tip #2 because you are surrounded by flat terrain, we still have you covered with stair work.
Running upstairs is a great way to build endurance and strength, just like hill work, and this can also help you shave time off of your mile.
The key to this kind of training is to ensure you can run for at least 30 seconds without having to turn around, so you may need several flights of stairs. A parking garage is a good option for this (just be sure it is safe and well-lit), or you may be able to do this in an apartment or office building.
Beginners should run up the stairs for 30 seconds for five reps, gradually adding reps until they get to 10. Be sure you walk carefully back down the stairs each time to recover.
Once you have mastered this training, you could go for longer than 30-second reps to continue to increase your endurance.
Tip #4: Take Part in Interval Training
While “interval training” sounds complicated or intimidating to some new runners, it is simple and can be done anywhere: on a track, on a treadmill, or even on your own street.
Just like with hill work or stair work, a warmup is crucial. Make sure you get 10 minutes of easy running first.
Once you are warmed up, try several rounds of 200 or 400-meter sprints, with a recovery lap in between. On a track, you can easily map this out with half laps for 200 meters and whole laps for 400 meters, or you can also add the distance to a treadmill.
If you do not have access to a track or a treadmill, you can still estimate the distance and set up your own “intervals” on your street using mailboxes or lamp posts.
If you incorporate interval training just once per week, you will inevitably see a better mile time as a runner.
Tip #5: Run Distance to Build Endurance
For those who simply want to run ONE mile faster, this advice may be frustrating: nothing improves your one-mile time more than running additional miles.
There is simply no substitute for the gains made in strength and endurance by incorporating distance running into your routine. This does not necessarily mean you have to hit marathon-level runs, but a safe and gradual increase in distance will pay off handsomely when it comes to your one-mile time.
Take it slowly to ensure you minimize the risk of injury. You do not want to go from running only one mile to attempting 10 miles a day later. But if you can work yourself into running 2 or 3 miles a few times a week, then start adding a mile per week until you get to 7 or 8, the increased cardiovascular strength will be noticeable.
Tip #6: Check Your Stride Turnover
This is where running groups and coaches really help when it comes to looking at the WAY we run. You may be completely unaware of your own stride turnover and how it is affecting your time. A good running coach can easily spot areas to address that will help you hit a faster mile.
If a coach or trainer is not an option, you can still assess and work on your own stride turnover with a simple counting exercise.
Run at your normal pace as if you were participating in a 5k. Turn on your stopwatch for a minute and during that time, count the number of times your right foot hits the ground. If you double that number, you will then have what is known as your turnover rate.
Trainers will tell you to aim for a turnover rate of 180. You can use your own measurement to try and increase your strike count but do so with some caution in mind. You do not want to overdo your stride and risk injury. Be aware of where your feet are landing, which should be under your hips rather than in front of you.
Tip #7: Fix Your Form
One thing that slows runners down is wasted energy. Pay close attention to how your body moves as you run, and think about not just your stride turnover but also the way you are using your arms.
Form is incredibly important when it comes to speed, and the last thing you want to do is waste energy with movement that does not increase your speed.
Form improvement is aided by some useful warmup exercises. Try challenging yourself to some “fast feet” drills, which help train your feet for rapid movement. You may feel silly doing it, but it works!
Another movement that might look awkward but yields results is what is known as “butt kickers.” Essentially you will run in place using an exaggerated movement where it appears you are trying to kick your own rear end. This motion works to improve the way your hamstring works while running.
Finally, consider having someone record a short video of you while running, so you can observe your own form and pick up on things you may not even realize you were doing. Minor tweaks to running form can pay off in a big way when it comes to shaving seconds off the mile.
Tip #8: Build Your Strength
Runners can benefit from strength training, which is needed to work muscle groups that are not always the focus in running.
In fact, if you only run and do not engage in other exercises, you run the risk of certain muscle groups weakening and unable to support you as you run. Your body needs variety when it comes to physical fitness to ensure all of your muscles are engaged and strong.
Simple bodyweight exercises like pushups, squats, and lunges will enhance your overall physical health and improve your mile time.
Tip #9: Shed the Weight
Finally, losing excess weight safely will help you run a faster mile.
This can be tricky for runners, especially those who need plenty of fuel for long distances. But with the advice of your physician or a nutritionist, you can strike a healthy balance between taking in enough calories needed for running while eliminating the “empty calories” that are simply serving to pack on extra weight.
Lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains are all good choices for runners. A consistently healthy diet and exercise plan also leave room for the occasional well-deserved splurge, especially after a race or after you set your personal best time for a mile!