The Minimalist Mile: How Much is Enough?

In the previous post, I mentioned the concept of minimalist running, and we’ll explore this concept a bit. Last time we visited some health and functional considerations related to running a mile. In this post I want to emphasize performance. Specifically, I want to try to answer this question: “How much training is necessary to run a fast mile?”


Or maybe another way of saying that is “How little (training) can I get away with and still produce a decent performance that represents most of my current potential…or, how can I get more for less?” There are a lot of ways to ask that question and there are also many ways to answer it. It’s probably important in this discussion to define some of the parameters of this inquiry.


When I say fast, we need to recognize that it’s a relative term. Especially when I’m talking about myself (insert a chuckle here). I’m alluding to speed as it applies to each of us personally, and I’m suggesting that it is actually interesting and fun to see just how fast you can run a mile, right now. Or at least what you might be capable of with a few weeks or even a few months of focus. So the definition of fast for the purpose of this piece is personal and specific to each runner. It’s kinda like refining that question further to say “How can I run my best mile this year on minimal training?”


Why so much interest on minimal training? Thanks for asking. I’ve got nothing against anyone doing the maximal amount of training they can absorb from time to time, it’s just that such endeavors are not always easily sustained, given the complexities of modern life which can compete aggressively with training time. My philosophy borrows from both economics and pharmacology. Maximum return on investment (ROI) is a common term in the financial world that requires no explanation. And in the world of prescription medication, intervention spans the range of minimum effective dosage to maximum absorbable dosage. What I’ve seen is that if we work smart and figure out just how to optimally tweak an athlete’s (not just runners) training, the difference between minimal training and maximal training may, in many cases, be only a few percentage points. So sure, when someone has a very specific and lofty goal, and the time to train maximally, that is going to yield the best result. But we can get pretty darned close using a minimalist approach.


Enter yours truly. Perhaps a poster child for minimalist running. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons I wear minimalist shoes (and they last me a very long time) is that I do a minimal amount of running. It’s hard to wear out shoes when you don’t run in them too much. I’d like to say that’s because I’m really intelligent and scientific about training but that’s probably secondary to reality. The truth is that I can’t run that much total weekly volume (mileage) due to some orthopedic issues. My knees are a bit thin on articular cartilage and menisci and one of them is a tad unstable. Through extensive experimentation, I’ve discovered that I can run a small amount (1-2 miles total per session), exclusively on soft surfaces like grass, dirt, and tracks, on non-consecutive days (2 recovery days between runs is better for me than 1), 2-3 times per week. So basically, 6 miles per week is a high mileage week for me and 3 (or more often 2) miles per week represents the low end of my training (in my case it’s really just play as opposed to official training most of the time) volume. Oh, and another reason my shoes last so long is that for much of the summer, when training on grass fields, I don’t even wear the shoes and just go barefoot. I’ve also found that doing mostly interval-based training and getting that mileage in shorter, slightly faster segments with breaks in between works better for me than straight-up jogging in most cases. I surmise this has something to do with force vectors and how they generate specific loads within my knees. So, ironically, a set of repetitions using quicker striding keeps me more functional and free of joint pain and inflammation than just trotting along. Everybody is different, and your mileage may vary, and it’s fun to experiment.


So I found myself just a few weeks ago thinking “How fast can I run a mile these days?” I’d come off the UPhill ShowDOWN (a grudge match race with a buddy that really should have been called THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS OF EVERYTHING) feeling fairly fit. I’d even managed to gut out a 5:58 mile in a workout. But I thought there was at least a little more in the tank and I wanted to test it. I contacted my friend Patrick Judge in our nearby state capital of Helena, Montana. Pat is the president of the Vigilante Track Club and I asked if I could participate in their upcoming Vigilante Scrimmage One Mile Race. He said “the more the merrier” and a plan was hatched. The only problem in the deal was that the race was coming up in just 3 weeks and I was looking at an even more minimal time frame than I usually embrace. I thought, hey…whatever…we’ll make the most of it.


The next day I was doing one of my brief workouts, business as usual. Maybe (no, definitely) I was thinking about the upcoming race and gassed it a tiny bit extra on one of the reps. My right calf tightened up, and while not pulled, it was mildly strained. Karma? I immediately shut down the workout and did some plotting. This injury wasn’t serious but no amount of running was going to help it for probably as much as a week. Ok…no problem, I said to myself. I’ll just take easy walks and ride my bike (usual things I do in addition to running) a little extra until the calf again feels “runnable.” Then, the next day, I was out in my backyard pulling a monster weed whose roots were decidedly subterranean, when I strained my lower back. Not the worst episode ever, but I couldn’t quite straighten up and walking was doable, but I was unable to sit on a bike. I’d added an insulting injury to an injury! Bummer!


Suddenly my “less is more” philosophy in training was looking more like “less might not be quite enough.” It was dangerously close to “nothing is nothing.” But given my experience I thought I’d just take it one day at a time and not panic (warriors never panic). If I didn’t heal up I could always help out with the race and enjoy the opportunity to be on the sidelines as a journalist. That first week after the injury (of the 3 leading up to the race) didn’t have much training. I’d call it “naining.” Also, I was working on the recipe section of a book (more on that another time) and found myself cooking and eating large gourmet dinners every night. Hmmm….I might not be quite as lean as I’d like to be come race day. Taking it for the team. Seeing the silver lining and large pitcher of lemonade, I recognized that I’d be super rested and my glycogen stores would be almost overflowing with stored energy!


The second week saw some healing and the naining transitioned to “minimalist lite” as I was able to do 2 sessions with some easy striding and calisthenics. As race week approached, the injuries were just about gone but it was getting too close to race day to consider much of a workout. I was able to participate in our fitness group’s 1.4 mile uphill mountain road run, which I jogged. Good enough I guess. I felt like I could do the race and I had to conjure up a new mindset. Instead of feeling confident in my conditioning, I was at least reassured that I wasn’t tired. I was fresh but not fit. I thought there was just enough baseline fitness left over from the spring, which hadn’t all washed away, that I could muster up for an effort just above doggie-doo polish. It was on (the mile, for me). I even managed to talk two friends, Doug and Dewey, into joining me and thus Los Tres Stalliones del Belgrade made the pilgrimage to Helena.


I should mention that the Vigilantes run their sessions at high noon (would there really be a different time option?) and on a bright sunny July day we were looking at race-time temperatures on the track of about 90 degrees. Ever the optimist (just can’t help it) I thought this would be a great opportunity to sweat and purge all those environmental toxins we modern humans contain. And the vitamin D synthesis would be outstanding! It’s only a mile, but the heat might be worth a few seconds or so (slower) in the race, but that thinking felt like Excusevile and I didn’t go there. My goal for the day was trying to run the race in 5 minutes plus my age in seconds, or a finish time of 5:54. Given the heat and my low fitness, I knew that accurate pacing was critical, and I decided to try to run 6-minute pace for the first 3 laps and then see what could be done in the last lap. Going out hard is never a great idea for me and today it seemed particularly ludicrous.


Warmups went great and after all the greeting and joking, we were called to the line. This was a very official mile event, with split markers and times in 220-yard intervals, pace clock, video cameras, and the works. The Vigilantes know track. I was running in the first of two heats, and this was the sub-6 minute group. With my 5:58 qualifier, I immediately settled into the back of the pack, otherwise known as dead last. That first lap is all about finding your rhythm and that seemed to happen well enough. The legs felt good and the breathing settled. Went through the quarter in 1:29, right on pace. The second lap felt about the same and I just concentrated on not overstriding. Split was 2:59. Then, as all milers will note, the 3rd lap presented itself to be exponentially challenging. You’re getting tired and the demons are trying to sneak into your brain, and you must focus hard, get competitive, and keep going. Plus I didn’t want to let my hosts down because a weak, sucky phone-in wouldn’t show proper respect to their awesomeness. Got around that 3rd lap at 4:30. Right where I wanted to be. Then that pivotal moment in a mile race enveloped me. You go past the bell and into turn 1 for the last time. You assess how you are feeling and sure, the effort is big for everyone. And you make decisions. You decide “Am I going to die and just give up, am I going to hang on and salvage this, or am I going to rally, test myself, and give the absolute best I’ve got!?” You know the decision we all want to make (#3). But I must admit I’ve made the others a lot. Not today. I got up on the balls of my feet and pumped my arms and Hail Mary-ed it for the finish. I felt the calf a little but it didn’t slow me down. It wasn’t pretty but I got it done, crossing the line in 5:53 with just a tiny dry heave. Dewey ran great up ahead of me and in the next heat Doug also posted a goal-achieving performance.


During post-race analysis, I was walking around the track recovering and chatting with my pal Peter Dan Sullivan, who at the same age as me smoked the event with a 5:23. I was celebrating and recounting the race, and the gratitude and joy was abundant. In all manners, my performance was quite mediocre, but I was so pleased. I’d managed to squeak out the race without reinjury, I achieved my goal, and even made top ten! PD reminded me that there were only 12 runners in my heat and while optimistic, I might be slightly delusional. Some things never change.


If I get back to reality, and physiology, this experiment demonstrates the point I wanted to make. You can run a decent mile off very little training. Doing so might not make you any healthier than just jogging a mile, but it can give you a performance marker with which you can evaluate your fitness from time to time. You can’t casually train for a marathon, but you absolutely can do that for a mile. In my own case, a longer and slightly more dedicated training block might have gotten me a slightly faster time, but on the recent day, I ran my absolute best. And what I mean by that is not my absolute life or season PR, but the very best I was capable of right then. Such things don’t happen too often and it’s nice to walk away from the track knowing that’s it, right there. I could have done no better.


Shout-out time. Sincere and heartfelt thanks to the Vigilante Track Club for allowing us to participate in their great event. And hats off to Pat Judge who has spent a lifetime not just training and racing but promoting health and fitness, and organizing and directing innumerable events with aplomb. You are all a class act and we were elevated in your presence. PD, Christy, Jeff, Jessie, BJ, Chris, Katie, and everyone else needs to be recognized for your leadership in making your community and state an example in fitness. You even made Los Tres Stalliones del Belgrade honorary Vigilantes for a day. Thank you!


And thanks for reading. We’ve looked at the mile run first with respect to health and function, and now with regard to training and testing, I’ve got one more perspective to share in this series. We’ll take a look at various norms, records, and standards, and try to come up with some very loose guidelines that we can all use to run the mile and evaluate our performances. I’ll be back at ya in a week or two after I do some number crunching. Enjoy your summer!


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