the joy of strength training


April 6th, 2008 at 11:56 am

Improve your running mile

» by in: running


Running track

Photo by latvian

Being able to run fast and strong is a pretty useful skill. Although it is trendy in some strength training circles to bash running and other cardio exercise, the fact remains that it is useful – even necessary – for taking part in many sports, outdoor pursuits and other fun stuff.

The distances don’t have to be daunting or boring; you can train for anything from 800m to 5k. For fitness and enjoyment, being able to run a mile or three at a decent pace is a popular goal. The cardiovascular endurance benefits will also help in strength training sessions and daily life.

You can improve your mile time and overall fitness with only a couple of running sessions a week. The key is how you train. Just going out for a half hour jog might be a pleasant way to spend some time but it won’t make a huge impact on your performance over a distance such as a mile. You will see much better improvements from interval training and some attention to technique.

Interval training

Most people need to improve two parameters: endurance and speed. Fortunately, you can do both at the same time through interval training.

Interval training is where you work for a prescribed interval (based either on time or distance) and recover for a prescribed interval, repeating this pattern a number of times. An example of an interval training session would be to run 400m four times, with 4 minutes rest between each 400m.

This improves your mile time in two important ways. Firstly it makes your body used to running faster. This is actually something neglected by a lot of people who habitually run a mile or more. They get better and better at trotting along over the distance but find it difficult to improve speed. Running shorter distances at a faster pace will train your nervous system and muscles to generate more speed. The second improvement is in fitness and endurance. Working at a high heartrate over a shorter distance will improve fitness, and working hard for the duration of the training session, even though you are having recovery periods, will improve overall endurance.

You can even combine the running elements of the training session with other exercises. For example, do your 400m run and then do sets of press-ups or sit-ups until the next run. This maintains the intensity of the session and keeps the heartrate up but allows you to recover from the running before the next interval. And you get some strength training in as well!

Hill sprints

Brides running up hill
Photo by jurvetson

Hill sprints are a type of interval training that build strength in the legs and work the heart and lungs very intensively. Hill sprints are also useful for running technique as they teach you how to use your arms and legs effectively.

And finally but perhaps most importantly, hill sprints teach mental discipline, how to push through the pain barrier and carry on working even when it hurts and you desperately want to stop! For most people, this has to be learned and takes practise; it’s not just a facet of your personality. Some will find it easier than others, but even if you think you don’t have the will power to keep going, you can acquire it with practise.

How to do hill sprints

Find a steep hill that takes between 30 and 60 seconds to sprint up. Sprint to the top of the hill, jog slowly back down and then sprint up it again. Repeat as many times as necessary. If you are not used to hill sprints, then 4-5 sprints is probably sufficient. If you are very fit, go for around 10 sprints. This is a tough session but well worth it.

The most important thing is not to stop at the top of the hill. It is supremely tempting but you must turn around and go back down immediately. Jog as slowly as you like – but keep moving. You will be surprised at how quickly you can recover and this recovery ability will only improve the more you train.

Good technique for hill sprints is to lean slightly into the hill, lift the knees and pump with the arms to propel yourself up the hill. Keep your head in line with your spine so you will end up looking at the ground a few feet ahead of you, with occasional glances at the top of the hill if you want. Breathe deeply and in a steady rhythm.

Try to maintain a steady cadence going up the hill. Cadence is the rate at which your feet strike the ground. What this means in practice is that as the hill gets steeper, you will need to shorten your stride slightly in order to maintain the same cadence. If you don’t shorten your stride, your cadence will slow down and you will begin to lose momentum. Keeping the same rhythm helps you to keep going mentally, even when your legs are burning.

Running technique

It is productive to train distances that are a bit longer than your target distance. For example, if you want to improve your mile time, run 5k. This helps to build up running strength in your body, primarily the legs but also the core, to maintain good posture while running. It is also an opportunity to work on running technique.

Many people slouch or hunch over their shoulders while running. They look at the floor, don’t really use the arms and fail to maintain a consistent stride length or pace. Often people don’t breathe in a regular rhythm and the breathing is shallow. A common error is to start off too fast, and get out of breath quickly or get a stitch. Running longer distances such as a few kilometres at a steady pace will allow you to iron out these technique problems.

Keep the head up, in line with the spine and looking straight ahead (unless you are running up a steep hill as mentioned above, where looking up would put your head out of alignment with your spine). Shoulders should be down and relaxed. Core should be firm and supportive. Arms should be relaxed and should swing naturally with the body. Be prepared to use them if you need extra effort. In a sprint or on a steep incline, focus on pushing the elbows up into the sky.

Walking lunges are a good warm-up exercise to include as they train your abs to maintain the right posture for running.


Be careful not to over-stride, as this will put the brakes on and throw you off balance. People sometimes do this in order to run faster but ultimately it is counter productive. The cumulative effects of the increased impact can cause injury and an ineffective stride limits your potential for speed.

Over-striding happens when you reach too far forward with your lead leg or land with a straight leg. So without reaching for the ground, land lightly on the midfoot with a slight bend in the knee and push off strongly with the balls of the feet.

If you are not sure if you are over-striding, you can test this by counting how many strides you do in a minute. If it is less than 90, you may be over-striding. When your stride is spot on, you will be able to feel it. You will feel as though you are gliding along and everything just feels easier. It’s a great feeling, as any runner will tell you!

Further information

Over-striding and how to correct it

Workouts for the mile and 1500 metres

Running correction video from Crossfit (mov)

Mile training schedules from Runner’s World

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  • 1

    About interval training: I always thought and read that rest periods should be just that, rest. If you begin using other muscle groups and keep the heart rate up in rest periods, you dont get the full benefit of interval training.
    I find using a heart rate monitor to be great help when doing any kind of running. This is probably different from person to person, but I tend to push too hard and raise my heart rate above where it should be for e.g. a long distance run.
    Another kind of running I like to do is fartlek: or going through my own terrain track. I walk at a brisk pace in the steep parts going uphill and jog/run on the flats and downhill, aiming to keep my heartrate between 75-85%Max for 45-60 minutes. One round takes about 20 minutes and it is all along forest tracks with one real climb of about 150 meters and have lots of possible variations. Track is going through an WWII coastal fortification so there are stairs, paths, roads, jumps and everyting. Perfect for me!

    You are writing a fantastic blog. I check in here most every day for news and inspiration! Hope you are happy and keep up with it.

    PS: How are you doing with the muscle-up? Hope you keep at it!

    Rolfe on April 6th, 2008
  • 2

    I belive you can do it either way, to be honest. I think that the ‘rest is rest’ approach tends to be taken by people who are just runners, whereas those who are interested in overall fitness often incorporate other exercises.

    I’ve certainly seen my mile improve with this method. Perhaps it would have improved even more if I had taken the ‘rest is rest’ approach, but I would have lost out with the strength training. We used to do 500m reps and do core work (sit-ups, press-ups etc) in between, which worked pretty well.

    Thanks for the good wishes regarding the muscle-up. I’m working on my ring dips and ring pull-ups at the moment.

    Very glad you enjoy the blog too! It’s great to have your input and you always make thought-provoking comments 🙂

    gubernatrix on April 6th, 2008
  • 3

    I love hill sprints! Yes they are hard and if you haven’t been doing anything similar you get sore muscles in unexpected places, but they are sooo effective! Running on the flat seems too easy after a few hill sprint sessions.

    Lady G on April 7th, 2008
  • 4

    Agree! When doing hill sprints, I do prefer someone else motivating/yelling at me though. Having a partner to race against or encourage you up the hill is always a bonus.

    gubernatrix on April 7th, 2008
  • 5

    I have to say you have one of the most informative and interesting blogs around. KEEP IT UP!!!!

    John Bennett on April 9th, 2008
  • 6

    Thank you so much John! Comments like that really spur me on 🙂

    gubernatrix on April 9th, 2008
  • 7

    A colleague on my firm does a lot of endurance work and has taken part in the Ironman UK triathlon. We have agreed to do some hill sprinting either on Primrose Hill or Hamstead Heath (damn Euston for being so flat!). I’m keen to try it out, something tells me it’s going to hurt!

    Btw, unrelated but I have been working on the push press quite a bit with the bar, I’m much more confident with the move now, especially with putting my head through the ‘window’ so to speak. Can’t wait to start adding weight to it!

    Rooroo on April 9th, 2008
  • 8

    Hi rooroo: sounds like an excellent plan, I have fond memories of sprints on both Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill. Especially on summer evenings when people are relaxing and taking in the view with a bottle of wine, and you come panting over the brow of the hill!

    Nice work on the push press too. There’s nothing like overhead pressing for building lifting confidence.

    gubernatrix on April 9th, 2008
  • 9

    Thanks for the well researched info. I\’m book marking this site.

    Bodybuilder on August 15th, 2008
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    […] Improve your running mile […]

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    […] Improve your running mile […]

  • 12

    This helped me so much I did it with waits for only two months and I knowed off 30 seconds off my mile man I can’t wait tell track front of the pan here I come

    Ironman on September 8th, 2009
  • 13

    great article, I am going to try the interval training from tomorrow running 400m then taking the 4 minute rest between each run, hopefully can last for all 4 runs!

    zahid on May 25th, 2011
  • 14

    I have to do some training for field hockey national tournament and have just been jogging but I like what I am reading here. Which interval do you recommend 400 x 4 or hillsprints or both. What is the fastest way to improve game fitness. eg can cope with short sprints in combination with jogging and lots of changes in direction and keep going for over an hour etc. I am 40 year old woman and already jogging 5km 3 times week as well as crossfit, cycling playing hockey and golf weekly. Cheers Carla

    carla on January 27th, 2013
  • 15

    Hi Carla,
    Since you are doing so many activities, stick to interval training 1-2 times per week (perhaps swop out one of your 5km sessions). Interval sessions should be hard so you can’t do them every day.
    For hockey, flat speed training makes sense. A good rule of thumb for interval training is for all your intervals to add up to 1600m. So this could be 4x400m, 8x200m, 1x1600m etc.
    You coud try doing the intervals as shuttle runs between two points to get the change of direction in.

    Good luck,

    gubernatrix on January 27th, 2013
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