The 8-Minute Mile Standard
Running is an essential function that every human should be able to perform correctly. But most people don’t. In the next year, up to 80% of runners will be sidelined with an injury.
Running quantity has trumped quality for a long time. When I worked in a corporate office, I heard countless people congratulating themselves for running 10 miles over the weekend in 2 hours or finishing a 5k in 35 minutes. These people had no business running more than 1 mile, let alone 10.
This isn’t elitism, or about having to be fast to run, but rather the necessity of needing a good base of speed in order to be safe. Completing a marathon or adventure race may earn bragging rights, but most people never think about the damage they’re inflicting on their bodies. Running 26.2 miles with poor form is the equivalent of taking a jackhammer to your knees and hips. It’s time to stop running endless miles just to punch a hole in your belt.
You might be able to go out and survive that six-hour marathon, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]
Speed Over Distance
Basic running technique has to be established before work can begin on speed and inefficiencies. This includes learning to land on the mid-to-forefoot, having a relaxed jaw, hands at or just below 90 degrees swinging lightly with the opposite leg, landing softly, a slight forward lean from the ankles, and a good posture.
Speed is often overlooked, but is a very important factor for safe running. If you’re running slowly, there’s a good chance you’re running sloppy.
Every human should be able to run a mile in 8 minutes with proper form, and as a coach, this is my requirement for clients to progress in mileage. If you can’t run an 8-minute mile, there’s a good chance you’re not able to open up your stride, quicken your cadence, or don’t have adequate muscle conditioning for the length of your run.
I do not have a specific formula as to why the time frame of the mile should be 8 minutes. But I have found this to be a sweet spot for beginner to intermediate runners to improve their running form and speed. Kind of like the “what the hell effect” in kettlebell training, we don’t have specific reasoning to describe exactly why certain programming is so effective. But through experience, we know it works, and that’s what matters.
To run stronger and faster, address the following three major inefficiencies before speed training and tacking on the miles.
Unable to Open Up Your Stride
There are two possible issues if you are unable to open up your stride: your mobility, or the way you land and carry over to the next stride. If mobility is the issue, look at obvious problem areas. Are your hip flexors tight? Can you dorsiflex your ankle properly without discomfort? A few weeks of mobility drills for problem areas should increase your stride length.
If your mobility is okay, assess the landing and carry over phase of your running. Upon landing on the mid-to-fore foot you should focus first on pushing back and off of the foot, then transitioning into quickly extending the leg behind, and lastly pulling the heel back towards the butt then forward to carry in to the next step and complete the motion. By maximizing not only the push, but also the extension and pull of the leg, you will maximize the power and length of your stride. This will also help you keep proper muscle engagement throughout the run.
Cadence is Too Slow
A common problem with beginning runners is they simply are not turning over their feet quick enough. Efficient running occurs at 180 steps per minute. It is common for beginners to run with a cadence of 140 to 160 steps per minute. At these low cadences, you are either spending too much time on your landing, adding unnecessary height to each step, or your muscles are not properly engaged.
Spending too much time on your landing creates immense pressure on the joints. Drills like barefoot running on soft surfaces, running backwards focused on light and quick steps, or kicking the heels to the butt quickly help you become light on your feet. Spending too much time airborne in between steps makes you look like you are bobbing up and down. This inefficiency places greater strain on the joints when landing. Again, practice pushing back, extending the leg, and having an active pull upon impact, rather than bouncing up and off the leg.
Lack of Muscle Endurance
While running, the muscles of the posterior chain and core should be engaged throughout the stride. When many runners learn the push, extend, and pull method of the landing, they often become sore in the hamstring and gluteal muscles because they are not used to this muscle engagement during a run. The same goes for sore calves and ankles when they learn the proper way to foot strike. This is why changing running technique should be done gradually.
If conditioning is an issue, a combination of concentric and eccentric leg exercises will help add muscular strength, stability, and control. Exercises to create a stronger runner include calf raises, reverse lunges, and barbell hip thrusts. Plyometric exercises like box jumps or jumping lunges are also fantastic for conditioning and develop explosive power. When working on plyometric exercises, it is important to not rush through them. Every rep should have maximum explosiveness and muscular contraction. Do not do plyometrics to muscle failure.
Adding Speed and Mileage
Working on sprints will increase your VO2 max, conditioning, explosiveness, mental fortitude, and lean body mass. Beginners should start with shorter distance sprints, anywhere from 50-200 yards. Once you are better conditioned, incorporate longer distances like quarter-mile sprints. The final progression would be half-mile and mile interval sprints; however, these are reserved for more advanced runners. Sprints should be treated like plyometric exercises. Recover fully between sprint sets and every sprint should be a maximum effort with excellent form.
Once you have built a decent base through strength development and speed work, you can start to expand the mileage. Increase your mileage as long as it falls around the 8 minute per mile rule. Train running anywhere from 2 to 6 days per week, but for every distance-running workout, do one workout focusing on inefficiencies and speed work for beginning and intermediate level runners. The 8-minute mile rule is a fantastic way to work on weak spots and create efficient running form, all while progressing quickly and safely.
For example, if you can run 2 miles in 18 minutes, look for limiting factors, work on speed, and wait to move on to 3 miles until you can run 2 miles in 16 minutes. Most times, after correct technique and mobility issues are addressed it becomes an issue of conditioning. However, if you can’t maintain the same form from mile 1 throughout your run, then there is no reason to increase mileage, and it is in your best interest to improve technique at your current mileage. Figure out which part of your running form is lagging and work specifically on that issue. Then work on speed while slowly increasing the mileage within an 8 minute per mile time frame.
Run Right, or Don't Run
If you want to run to improve your health, then learn how run the right way or you’re far better off walking. If you have had any joint pain, shin splints, foot pain, tendon pain, or complete stagnations in your running within the past 6 months, check your form and speed. Even as a recreational runner, I still check in with my coach each month for a review and an outsider’s perspective because I’d rather have perfect running form now, than play shoulda-woulda-coulda sitting in an orthopedic surgeon’s office when I am 60.
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