We Brits were once in love with the mile. From the 1850s to the end of the 19th century, UK athletes dominated the world rankings. In 1954, Roger Bannister finally did what many thought impossible: breaking the elusive four-minute mile barrier. That same year, another Briton, Diane Leather, was the first woman to have ever run a sub-five-minute mile. The 1980s saw a resurgence of British talent, with Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram passing the world record between them like a relay baton. Cram's 1985 time of 3:46.32 stood for eight years. But these days, the once-glamorous mile seems to have lost its place in the public's affections. The athletes who become household names are now more likely to come from the extreme ends of the spectrum: sprinting and the marathon.
It's a shame. While the mile may no longer be a popular race event on its own, it remains the yardstick by which most of us measure our performance. What runner doesn't know their minutes-per-mile pace?
"It's such an inspiring distance," says Stella Bandu, a UK Athletics level three endurance coach, who specialises in middle distance and is a member of Kelly Holmes' On Camp With Kelly staff team. "That's not only because of its rich history - it's also a great challenge for runners to work towards."
Bandu believes that many runners overlook the mile - and the training it demands - at their cost. "Training for the mile challenges all the energy systems," she says. "If you can learn to run faster over a shorter distance, it will benefit your longer race performances and give your training a completely fresh focus. Look at the great 5K and 10K runners, such as Haile Gebrselassie (whose mile PB is 3:52.39), and you'll find their mile times are very respectable."
Joe Rubio, creator of a free online guide to middle distance running, agrees: "Distance runners can be one-dimensional in their approach to training," he says. "They focus on the area of training they feel comfortable with and primarily develop that system at the expense of a more balanced approach. Volume, tempo work, long intervals, short intervals, speedwork, form and strength development all play an important role in enhancing your performance over any distance."
Rubio believes that the advances made by the US in recent years to raise competitive distance running performance has a lot to do with many of the top coaches and athletes acknowledging this, and spending time developing all the energy systems - rather than fixating on just one aspect of training.
In the old days, milers tended to focus their efforts on running short reps of 200-400m - almost exclusively challenging anaerobic energy systems. It is now known that more than three-quarters of the energy required for running the mile (at least, at the elite level) comes from aerobic energy production. Research carried out by the Australian Institute of Sport found that the relative contribution of the aerobic energy system during 1500m of track running (slightly shorter than the 1,609m that makes up a mile) was as high as 84 per cent.
So what does it take to be a good miler? Certainly more rounded training, involving more than just short reps for speed. "You need the complete package: speed, VO2 max development and a high lactate threshold," says Rubio.
If you run anything from 5Ks to marathons, you are likely to be familiar with the tempo runs and longer intervals that hone aerobic fitness and lactate threshold. So what have you got to gain by introducing repetitions as short as 200m? "Short, fast repeats offer valuable physiological and psychological adaptations for a distance runner," says US running coach Greg McMillan. "Physiologically, there is an increase in running economy - one of the most important factors in distance running performance. This type of training also elicits neuromuscular [nerve to muscle communication] changes, which enable you to exert more force and run with greater efficiency, avoiding the 'marathon shuffle'." For example, you'll be able to recruit more muscle fibres within a working muscle or muscle group, and reduce the time it takes for a message to travel from brain to muscle to generate a contraction - all of which combined translates to a more efficient, powerful stride.
According to Bandu, there are also psychological benefits to be had. "You'll become tougher mentally," she says. "You'll gain the courage to push on when it hurts. And it will hurt!"
Training like a miler will have crossover benefits for your other race distances. "It can help athletes break through the plateaus that can occur with constant long-distance training," says McMillan. One of the biggest impacts training above 5K race pace will have on your running is on your technique. "You rarely see a miler showing poor form," says Rubio. "Running at mile race pace or faster is hard work. The body strives to find a more efficient manner when it's asked to run at these paces on a regular basis. Form improvements are also a result of the strides, accelerations and fast finishes that are all a large part of mile training."
Training to improve your mile time involves some high-intensity efforts, so you should only embark on the programme below if you already have a solid base of regular running. Start the programme by recording your current one-mile time.
It doesn't have to be on a track - just pick somewhere flat and even and, unless you are entering an official race, repeat your mile time trial at the same place at the end of the programme. Once you have your mile time, use it to work out your 200m and 400m times at mile pace. For example: if you run a mile in 6:30, that is 1609m in 390 seconds. Therefore, each 400m at mile pace should be run in around 97 seconds and each 200m at mile pace should be run in 48 seconds. "Checking your splits is a useful guide, but it can dent your confidence if you're having an off day," says Bandu. She recommends varying the location of your speedwork, and not getting too hung up on the distance being exact.