Olympic Medalist Nick Willis on How to Run a Faster Mile

Nick Willis runs the men’s 1,500 meter semifinal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

While a masochistic segment of the running community continues to push the boundaries of human suffering in ultramarathons, another group is returning to the basic mile to test their mettle. Just about anyone who’s ever run one — in junior-high gym class, on the high-school track — can rattle off their best time, and a resurgence of mile-long road races is inspiring weekend joggers to take another shot at their personal record. In fact, the number of road-mile events across the country shot up from 730 in 2010 to 1,350 in 2015, according to Running USA.

Two-time Olympic medalist Nick Willis happens to be one of the fastest milers on the planet, with a personal best of 3:49.83. A few years ago, when his wife, Sierra, a recreational runner, was logging long, grueling runs training for a half-marathon, she got jealous watching her husband divide his week between hill repeats, track intervals, and long runs. “She asked me, ‘Why is this kind of training reserved for elites?’” Willis says. “So I shaped a training plan for her and her friends, and they fell in love with it.”

In what eventually became a 30-person training group, some runners not only dropped their mile times by a minute or two, they also lost six or seven pounds. “Training for a mile is a more holistic approach to running,” says Willis. “It’s like the running version of CrossFit. You don’t get bored and your performance doesn’t plateau like it does when you’re running the same pace mile after mile.”

Now the husband-and-wife team have started a six-week boot camp called The Miler Method to help runners chase their times, which all happens online thanks to technology (everything except the running, that is). Whether they start out doing 5- or 15-minute miles, Willis says, his students emerge from the training running significantly faster times — and faster road races of every length.

We asked him to share a few pro tips for shaving the seconds off:

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Buy a pair of lightweight running shoes
Cushioned shoes are good for long-distance training, but too many of us are heel strikers with short, shuffle-y strides. To run the mile, we need to run like children, which means getting off your heels and onto your toes. Less-supportive and lighter-weight shoes create a better running form and eventually help you to develop a powerful push-off as you run.

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Run hill repeats once a week
This is the best way to trick yourself into using better running form. Running uphill forces you to lift your knees high, create a powerful stride, and stay on your toes for a good foot plant. Plus, hills provide resistance training and a way to get your heart rate up without the impact on your joints and other negative side effects that come with running on the road.

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Develop a stable core
The shorter the race, the more important your core strength. You need a rigid foundation from ankle to head for the moment your foot pushes off the ground. When a runner’s core is weak and they get tired in the second half of a mile race, it looks like they’re sitting down at the waist. A strong core allows you to utilize your legs, prevent your body from twisting around, and push against the ground so that your whole body moves forward and not up-and-down.

Photo: Aleksander Kaczmarek/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Build leg strength, especially glutes and hamstrings
No amount of jogging can produce the leg power you need in the mile. Without leg strength, you’ll find that you can’t pick up your legs in the last quarter of the race. You need to be able to recruit the muscles that run from your toe to your hip, and single-leg exercises like single-leg glute bridges and single-leg squats can target the whole muscle chain.

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Practice pushing through pain
Running a hard mile gets very painful in a short amount of time. People who are used to running long-distance races never learn that particular kind of discomfort, and it’s hard for them to embrace the pain. Track intervals with short recoveries do that. You never fully recover before you start the next interval, and you’re never comfortable. You have to hurt during the race to get the time you want. It’s a different kind of runner’s high. You finish, you hurt, but you’re like, “Wooo!”

Olympic Medalist Nick Willis on How to Run a Faster Mile