In last year’s New York Fifth Avenue Mile, an event well attended by amateur runners, 173 non-elite men (and three women) crossed the finish line in 5 minutes or faster, putting them in the top 5.7 percent of racers. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but are you up for it? Here's how to know if you’ve got it in you, and how to get there (or hit a personal best in the attempt), with advice from renowned Olympic running coach Jack Daniels, now of the Run Smart Project.
If you’ve hit these benchmarks
Zipped to a 17:09 or better in a 5K? Or a 35:37 in a 10K? Even a 1:19 half-marathon or a 2:44 marathon indicate a proclivity for pulling off a 5-minute mile time. Of course, this math isn’t exact—some people have a propensity for the shorter distances, so you won’t know until you give it a go.
If you’re already pretty fit
Someone who regularly runs is going to be able to get into racing shape a lot faster than, say, a bodybuilder or a martial artist. But the more in shape you are, as indicated by a low resting heart rate (below 70 beats per minute) or simply your ability to maintain a high intensity without getting winded, the sooner you’ll be blasting through four laps of a track.
If you have youth on your side
“About age 40 is when things start to slow down a little so a 25-year-old would certainly have a better chance of accomplishing this than would a 40-year-old,” Daniels says. Then again, there’s a little something called “Age Grading,” in which the times for runners over the age of 30 (“Masters” as they’re called in the sport) are adjusted to reflect their competitiveness against an “open” age field (i.e., under age 30). For a 40-year-old man, running a 5:16 is akin to a younger man’s 5-minute mile. At 50, achieving a 5:41 does it.
If you’re already lean (or getting leaner)
In general with running, the less of you there is to careen through the air, the faster you can careen. “If you have fat to lose, then each pound is about 1.67 seconds per mile,” says Daniels. “but if not, then weight loss would be muscle and that would not improve the time for the mile.”
If you’re willing to put in the time and effort
Most of those 173 Fifth Avenue Mile runners didn’t just wake up that morning and decide to show up 2,841 other dudes. “I’d suggest running five to seven days per week,” says Daniels, who indicates that frequency rather than intensity is the key to improving running ability.
On three to four of those days, he recommends easy runs lasting 30 to 40 minutes. On the other two or three days, hit the track for some intervals. Go for eight fast reps of 200 meters (half a standard track) with 200-meter recovery jogs in between. “If you have no previous running experience, the 200s just have to be comfortably fast—a pace you feel you could keep up for five minutes steady if you really tried.” After four to six weeks of these 200s, swap one speed session each week with 8x400s, maintaining the 200m pace for twice the distance—one full lap—and recovering for twice the distance as well.
A few more of Daniels’ training do's
● Count your paces. Aim for 180 steps per minute while running. “A light, quick turnover is the key,” he says.
● Focus on your breathing. You want to inhale for two steps and exhale for two steps; i.e., a 2-2 breathing pattern.
● Stay relaxed. Keep your shoulders down, arm swing light and easy, and hips open.
● Keep it light. Your footfalls, that is. “Don’t bound over the ground; float,” Daniels says.