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How to Run Your Fastest Mile Yet

Hitting that new personal best isn’t just about moving quickly. The experts share what you need to know.

By Dawn YanekSeptember 28, 2023

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Even if you’re not training for a race, you probably have an ideal mile time ingrained in your head. We were introduced to the concept during physical fitness tests back in high school, and we’re reminded of it every time we step onto a treadmill. And if you’re running a race or simply want to challenge yourself, that number is something you’re literally chasing. So, how long does it take to run a mile? 

That’s kind of a trick question. A person’s mile time varies widely based on a number of factors, but there’s a lot you can do to lower your own number, whatever it is. Here, we’ll dive into the factors at play, what some average mile times look like, and how you can tweak your exercise regimen to run your speediest mile yet. 

How Long Is a Mile?

A mile is equal to 5,280 feet or 1,760 yards. (This also works out to 1609.344 meters or 1.60934 kilometers.) 

Of course, that’s nearly impossible to visualize. So, what does it look like in the real world? A single mile translates to approximately 20 New York City blocks—or the length of 14.7 football fields.

How Many Laps Is a Mile?

If you’re running on a track, things are a bit easier to calculate. Each lap is a quarter of a mile, so four laps equals one mile. (If you’d rather think in Olympic terms, this equates to four runs of the 400-meter dash.) 

How Long Does It Take to Run a Mile?

Generally speaking, a noncompetitive runner in decent shape averages a 9- to 10-minute mile. On the other hand, according to RunningLevel.com, a “good” number for an intermediate runner is 6 minutes and 37 seconds for a man and 7 minutes and 44 seconds for a woman. Elite runners bring that number down to between 4 and 5 minutes per mile. (The world record for the fastest mile is held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who ran a mile in 3 minutes 43.13 seconds in 1999.)

Many factors go into how fast a person runs a mile—including the length of the run: Are you running a one-and-done mile, or are you going the distance in a marathon? Your pacing will vary between the two options, since you’ll need to conserve energy in longer runs by going slower, especially in those early minutes, to make it to the finish line. 

What Impacts How Long It Takes to Run a Mile?

You already know that your physical fitness affects how fast you run a mile. It’s common sense, after all: The better shape you’re in, the stronger your muscles are, and the better your cardiovascular endurance is. However, there are a few other factors that influence your run time.  

1. Genetics

You may believe that certain people are born to run—and you’re not wrong. Your genes influence everything from your muscle composition and metabolism to your cardiovascular endurance and lactate threshold. According to a 2016 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, differences in athletes’ monocarboxylate transporter 1 (MCT1 gene) affect how their bodies process lactate. Translation: You might not be running as fast because your muscles are getting fatigued earlier.

2. Biological Sex

Sure, men run faster than women, going 10 percent to 12 percent faster in distance events, but is that an immutable fact? Conventional wisdom holds that men have more muscle strength and can attain higher VO2 max, which means they have increased cardiovascular endurance. However, according to a 2022 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, that may just be because there’s been a lack of research on female athletes. 

Because of women’s fluctuating hormones, especially during their menstrual cycles, and other specifics of body composition, they “likely require different nutritional, recovery, and injury prevention strategies than male athletes to reach optimal performance,” the researchers write. But there’s a lack of understanding on what precisely these athletes need, primarily due to their absence in the majority of sports performance literature. 

3. Age

“There is an unavoidable decline as we age, but endurance athletes have a wide age range during which they can train effectively and perform optimally,” says Jeremy Frost, PhD, an associate professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and director of the Holbrook Exercise Physiology Center. “All we can do is start where we are at and use sound training principles to maintain and improve our fitness.” So, just how big of a decline are we talking about? 

Let’s start out with this fact: Most elite runners will run their fastest times between the ages of 18 and 30. But, of course, this is all relative for “regular” people. Maybe you didn’t really start running until 30—or you started training seriously at 40. Your speed will definitely improve with proper training. That said, according to a comprehensive study of 194,000-plus participants published in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, run times decrease by 0.2 percent per year after age 40, with men declining faster than women in terms of performance. This downward shift is likely due to changes in your cardiovascular function, muscle strength, bone density, body fat, lactate clearance, and more.

4. The Length and Type of Run

Typically, the longer your run, the slower your mile will be. “As you add miles, the pace must slow down to be able to cover the longer distance,” explains Frost. “An elite runner doesn’t slow down as much, but a beginner must slow down significantly to be able to complete the added miles. Some elite marathon runners can run 26 sub-five-minute miles in a row—a time of 2 hours and 11 minutes or faster in the marathon.”

There’s a reason for that, adds Marcel Dinkins, Peloton instructor. “What these runners have optimized is their overall running economy—their ability to use oxygen well enough to sustain a high overall VO2 max throughout their performance.” Using that principle, as your VO2 max increases, your run time will decrease—even if it’s not a marathon-caliber pace. 

Shot of feet running on a tread, how long does it take to run a mile

How Many Calories Do You Burn Running a Mile? 

Many factors come into play here, but generally speaking, the average person will burn about 100 calories during a one-mile run. There is, however, a person-to-person variation of 10 to 12 calories above or below that number, Frost says. “These variations in energy expenditure can be related to differences in speed, body composition and ethnicity. The number of calories burned also likely increases as our speed increases, due to changes in running economy and if we run over ground versus on a treadmill.”

How to Improve Your Mile Time

Ready to maximize your workouts and achieve your best running time? Here’s how to do it.

1. Keep the Majority of Your Runs Slow and Steady

Yes, you read that right. Around 80 percent of your runs should be at a lower intensity, while the remaining 20 percent should be split between tempo runs and interval training, Frost says. By moving at a slower pace for the majority of the time, you increase your stamina and change your physiology, resulting in a higher red blood cell count, more hemoglobin, and a greater ability to get the oxygen going in your bloodstream. “In more simplistic terms, you will go faster [with] the same effort,” Frost explains. “Many people don’t believe that moving slower will help improve one’s fitness, but it is necessary to accumulate training miles. It provides sufficient stress on the body to make physiological adaptations, even at low intensities and after many years of training.”

A routine is also critical, especially for new runners. “I would suggest beginners start with a training plan that emphasizes training on a consistent basis (most days of the week) at lower intensities, with one high-intensity session each week,” he says.

2. Mix In Interval Training

Even though the majority of your runs should be at an easy pace, you can’t neglect that remaining 20 percent. To nail those challenging days, Frost recommends turning to interval training. He suggests mixing in four to five intervals of 4 to 5 minutes (e.g., 4x4 minutes) at a pace that is 90 percent to 100 percent of your maximum heart rate, with an active rest period between each interval of 4 to 5 minutes. Hills are a good way to try this, whether you’re doing them outside or on a treadmill incline. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that hill workouts helped runners run faster and hold that harder pace for longer. 

And don’t be afraid to mix in these challenging pushes during your long runs. “Incorporate interval work during your long runs, spending three to five miles at a 10-kilometer pace with a relatively short recovery before jumping into it again,” Marcel says. The key here is improving your overall running economy. The better your cardiovascular endurance, the easier it will be to run faster, since it will require less exertion.

Try Treadmill Sprint Workouts 

A form of interval training, treadmill sprints can help you work up to your personal best by getting you more accustomed to a faster pace, testing out your speed, and building your endurance. They’re also a lot shorter than some other types of interval runs, with 1- to 2-minute sprints at varying inclines, followed by a minute or two of recovery.

The best part of treadmill sprint workouts is that you’re doing them in a controlled, consistent environment, unlike the ever-changing weather you encounter outside. You’re able to work up to your goal in an intentional way—without letting any weather deter you. 

Switch Off With Tempo Runs

Tempo runs require sustained effort the whole way through. Mixing these into your routine helps identify your lactate threshold. From there, you can work to build your tolerance to lactic-acid buildup and the resulting fatigue.

3. Step Up Your Cadence

You may not give much thought to your stride when you’re running, but it plays an essential role in your ability to move quickly. The rate at which your feet meet the ground is known as your stride turnover

To improve your mile time, particularly for distance runs, some experts suggest taking shorter and quicker steps, making sure to keep your feet directly under your hips instead of overextending them in front of you. In addition to helping you pick up the pace, this will result in better running form, allowing you to run more efficiently, be less fatigued, and reduce your risk of injury.

4. Add in Strength Training

According to Marcel, you should incorporate leg strength exercises and plyometric movements at least twice a week. In fact, a 2017 review of 24 studies in Sports Medicine found that this type of training improves your running economy, sprint speed, run time, and performance in medium or long distances.

5. Properly Fuel Yourself 

It’s not just about what you eat but also when you eat. Too much food too close to your run can cause digestive issues, while too little sustenance too far from it can cause less-than-optimal carbohydrate storage in your muscles and liver, Frost says. The best approach? “Eat smaller meals and limit fat intake if you are exercising relatively soon after eating, and larger meals if you have a few hours before exercising,” he advises. (And don’t forget to hydrate.) 

6. Going the Distance

Maximizing your mile isn’t all about moving faster—it’s about running smarter. And sometimes, you have to let your brain lead instead of your body. “The most common training mistake I have observed in endurance athletes is completing most of their workouts at a similar intensity,” Frost says. This concept, known as intensity discipline, occurs when your easy and hard workouts lack distinction—and instead merge into moderately hard threshold runs. 

The key is to recognize it when it’s happening. Use a heart rate monitor or a training app to evaluate your efforts and help you get back on track. After a while, you may just realize that faster mile isn’t so elusive after all.

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