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The mile might be the most underestimated distance in running: It is an incredible test of athleticism at every level; it is accessible to almost everyone; and, with the right mindset and training plan, it can be extremely fun.
We asked Cory McGee and Rachel Schneider, two of the fastest American milers and members of the sub-4:30 club, for their top tips on how to run a faster mile. McGee, who ran a 4:21.81 in 2020, loves the distance for many reasons. “It’s easy to pay attention to the mile because it’s the perfect amount of time—not too short or long,” she says. “I was never the popular kid in high school, but when I was on the track, racing the mile, it felt like I was.”
Schneider boasts a 4:20.91 personal best. For her, racing the mile has been a family tradition and a distance special to her running journey. “It’s such a unique and exciting race,” she says. “I think everybody knows the distance of the mile and has their own personal times and experiences with it.”
5 Tips to Master the Mile
If your mile memory is still the third grade suffer-fest put on by your old physical education teacher, then it’s time to revisit the distance. Chances are, if you train your body and brain (and take McGee and Schneider’s advice to heart), you will run faster and love the mile more than you ever thought possible.
1. Break it down.
Despite the mile being just a few minutes long, segmenting the distance into stages will help you mentally attack it. The most natural way to divide it is in quarters.
“I like having a different mantra or a specific mindset for each quarter,” Schneider says. “It is going to be different for everyone and every race, but if you plan to have something specific to tell yourself before each 400, it will keep you focused and excited.”
Schneider uses phrases like “run freely” or “stay strong” to get her through laps one through three. After that, she looks at the last quarter as smooth sailing.
“The fourth lap to me is the party lap,” she says. “That is the fun lap where you get to just give it everything you got and then it’s over.”
2. Focus on speedwork.
For some runners, the ability to improve their speed is a mystery. But it’s not hard to shave seconds and maybe minutes off your time, especially if you incorporate speed sessions in your training. For the mile, both McGee and Schneider recommend 400-meter repeats.
“Quarters are the best way to understand how each stage of the race will feel,” McGee says. “If you really get to know how to push a 400 at race pace, you will be able to feel out how to run the whole mile.”
Fartleks are simple to add into training miles and another tool to stoke fast-twitch muscles. “Try 30 seconds at a fast pace followed by a 60-second recovery jog,” Schneider says. “This is a great way to get a faster turnover and develop some speed.”
3. Always warm up.
It might seem elementary, but before running the mile, getting your muscles warm is essential. Yes, of course a dynamic warm-up is important for injury prevention. But it will actually improve your performance too.
Schneider suggests really easy jogging from 5 to 15 minutes followed by a series of dynamic stretches (think: high knees, windmills, butt kicks), followed by fast, short strides.
“I would definitely recommend doing 10- to 15-second sprints followed by a full recovery to get your muscles ready to go,” she says. “Strides will get your legs turning over quickly because once you start the race, there is no time to warm up. The mile is over before you know it.”
4. Prepare your mind.
Approach the mile with a positive outlook and with respect for its difficulty. “Know that it is going hurt,” McGee says. “And that you will make it through.”
Schneider agrees: “On our team, we say to train to be relaxed in a state of stress.”
This type of mental preparedness comes from working through the physical burn of speed endurance through training. But the mile can be incredibly fun and rewarding, despite the pain.
“I think it’s all about mindset,” Schneider says. “It is whatever you make it. If you make it all about a certain result or outcome, it will be stressful. But if you just make it about being the best you can be on that day and pushing yourself in the presence of others then I think it ends up being such a fun event.”
One tip McGee has for taking her mind off the stress and difficulty of the race is to watch the pros and your running heroes run the mile. “I used to watch videos of Bernard Lagat before my meets because he just made the mile look so beautiful,” she says.
5. Don’t psych yourself out.
Even the most in-shape, talented women in the world are challenged by the mile’s mental toll. Years after her high school track meets, McGee still remembers her dad warning her about the dreaded third lap of the mile.
“I can still hear him saying ‘watch out for the third lap,’ and it was in my head for years,” she says. “It took a long time for me to stop fearing it. There will always be tough spots—right now for me it’s the last 150 meters—but worrying about it will not help your race.”
By getting over her third-lap fear, McGee learned how to overcome mental blocks and work through difficult times in training sessions and races. “You cannot overcomplicate it,” she says. “Instead, accept that the race or a portion of the race is going to be hard, but don’t overthink it.”
Running by feel is especially helpful when it comes to getting over mental blocks. “It’s really easy to fall into a place where you think you are monitoring yourself, but you’re actually in your own head,” McGee says. “Instead of thinking ‘What pace should I be hitting right now?’ or ‘Where do I kick?’, give your body the space to take over.”