He’s run a 3:58 mile and coached others to break this iconic barrier, James Thie shares what he knows about the magic distance. 

65 years ago Sir Roger Bannister became the first runner to clock a mile inside the magic four-minute barrier. Over the past month the running forums buzzed as 53-year-old US runner Brad Barton ran inside 4:20 for a world age best. Back in May over 11,500 entered this year’s Westminster road miles in London. The mile is as popular as ever and there is still an interest across the globe in the 1609m distance!

As a self-coached athlete, I had the delight of going ‘sub four’ myself on a cold and windy San Francisco morning back in September 2002. It was only a few weeks ago that I revisited the same track for the first time in 17 years. There was a strange sense of nostalgia and emotion as I stood in the place that I ran three minutes and 58.24 seconds.

It gave me a better understanding as to why I have been so proud to coach three sub four milers (3:56/58/59) and another four athletes running the 1500m equivalent (3:36/38/43/43). The mile has provided me with many chances for trial and error and putting many training theories into practice.

Wider benefits

The mile, with all its history can massively benefit runners of all distances including the marathon. Record holders such as Eliud Kipchoge and Paula Radcliffe have sped to fast 1500m/mile times. Haile Gebrselassie and Sir Mo Farah have showed that speed is a vital component of their development and training.

My belief as a coach is that every one of all abilities and standards can benefit from mile training and races. You might just find that missing piece of your 5km to marathon training jigsaw.

The perfect blend of speed and endurance

The physiological breakdown of any event is important to fully understanding the demands on the body. Dependant on who you reference it believed to be in the range of 77% to 83% an aerobic (using oxygen) and 23% to 17% anaerobic (working without oxygen), so make sure your training represents this.

Keeping it simple for those who use heart rate or RPE anything over 80% of your maximum could be considered more anaerobic. Anything below that more aerobic. A such a weekly mile programme cannot just be either speed or running slowly. You need a mix and balance between all extremes. It was getting the blend right that led Steve Scott (most sub miles in history – 137!) to highlight how fun, but also challenging training for the mile can be.

Thie’s recipe for succes

An ability to run at your goal mile pace is of course key. However remember that it is critical to also run faster for a shorter distance and then longer for further than a mile.

I was always a fan of Frank Horwill and Peter Coe’s multi pace system. This uses interval training to access these paces (run a distance or time and taking recovery after each repetition to continue). I have though learned that you can combine different paces in the same sessions where previously they had been on separate days. For example one to three sessions per week with a combination of the example interval sessions below. These can be done on track, road, grass and as time or distance.

The list below gives and idea of the different volumes and recovery times you’ll need for different paces;

• 400m pace: 4-8 x 150m (4 mins recovery)
• 800m pace: 4-6 x 300m (2-3mins recovery)
• 1500m pace: 2 x 4-5 x 400m (1 min recovery between reps & 3mins between sets)
• 3000m pace: 5-8 x 800m (2 mins recovery)
• 5000m pace: 5-6 x 1km (2 mins recovery)
• 10,000m pace: 3-6 x mile (90 secs recovery)

Stronger, faster

As well as these types of interval sessions, I’m a firm believer in conditioning. Similar to Anthony Whiteman (first V40 outdoor sub four miler), a big fan of the circuit session. Using a mix of exercises with just body weight acting as the resistance and benefits include speed, power and endurance.

An example might be starting of with one set of 20 seconds per exercise with 10 seconds rest and building up to three sets of 30 seconds with 15 seconds rest. Mix the demands of the next exercise – so never the same body area twice i.e. move from arms to legs to core to back and repeat!

Examples of circuit exercises:

Breaking it down

Lord Seb Coe described the mile race as ‘a play with 4 acts’. This is a great analogy for the need to break the race down – mentally and physically.

Start to 400m: Getting out into your goal pace should feel comfortable, you’ve trained at this pace! You have take care to not over cook it.

400 to 800m: You can’t be struggling to half way. Stay relaxed and in a rhythm, with an eye on the clock.

800 to 1200m: The key here is to think about running ‘strong’. Milers must master the dreaded third lap as many good times and races have been lost in this vortex. Much of this third lap falls back on the interval training. Those quick reps and circuit sessions that made you believe that you are physically strong enough.

1200m to the finish: You must control this last part of the race. It’s fundamental to holding your form and maintaining technique to the line. The extra speed you have worked on may also help you hit that goal time or pip that club runner you dreamed of beating.

Test yourself

Do not be scared of the track mile. Many meetings now have graded heats and embrace the track environment and the four laps of drama. Road miles are super popular, the Westminster mile is going from strength to strength. Perhaps even travel further afield to great venues like New York for the Fifth Avenue road mile.

There are also some up and downhill miles that offer different tests but both are fun! So find a mile race or even a time trial in training, get some sessions in the legs and feel the nice classic burn of distance on the lungs.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’: ‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it! Remember your own training in that last 60 seconds of your mile, regardless of whether it’s 200m, 300m or even the magic ¼-mile to go! Good luck and hope your miles keep getting better!

James Thie is Head Performance Coach for Endurance at Cardiff Met University and has a successful group of current & alumni athletes.

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