Our writer endures two days of grueling workouts designed to improve his mile time
“If you’re not going to run fast, there’s no point in running the mile,” says Blue Benadum, a Nike Run Club coach based out of Los Angeles. I’m at Nike Zoom Camp, a two-day event designed, among other things, to help ordinary runners (who work in the media) improve their mile times. I'm in my early thirties now and haven't run or trained for an all-out mile in years. I wanted to see how close I could get to my high-school PR of 4:26 before the dreaded onslaught of middle age.
Aside from myself, there were between twenty and thirty attendees coming from as far afield as Australia and Brazil. Upon arrival in Eugene, Oregon, we were divided into teams named after three prestigious Nike-sponsored running clubs, each guided by a professional trainer: the Oregon Track Club, the Bowerman Track Club, and the Oregon Project. I was put on the Oregon Project team, while Blue “you’d better run fast” Benadum coached Bowerman.
Of course, Benadum was merely pointing out that, as a mid-distance discipline, the mile is meant to be run way more aggressively than a 5 or 10K. For some non-runners, of which there were several in attendance at Zoom Camp, running 1,760 yards without stopping can be challenging enough. Once you progress beyond the beginner stage, however, four laps around the track isn’t much. Hence, if you are going to realize your potential in the distance, it’s got to be about velocity. We’d start, Benadum said, with “a high-leg speed turnover workout to get your legs moving quicker than ever before.”
Oregon Track Club runner and winner of last year’s NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile in 3:51, Jordan McNamara, led us in a series of dynamic warm-up drills that emphasized high knees and driving our hands to the piston-like movement of our legs. Commonly referred to as A and B skips, this kind of exercise is typical for sprinters and hurdlers, who want to maximize power as their legs come off the ground.
Afterwards, we tried to put these mechanics to the test by running two “turn and burn” laps around the track, in which straightaways are run with a hard stride and the turns are run at a more moderate pace. This was a followed by a fast quarter mile, brief recovery, and then a fast half-mile, like an abbreviated interval workout.
After that, most campers were ready to take a break.
The afternoon program began with a three-mile run on Pre’s Trail, a woodchip path through grassy fields, whose construction was initiated by its famous namesake. The run concluded at Autzen Stadium, home of the Oregon Ducks football team, and venue for our final workout.
Normally, walking out onto the field in an empty 54,000-capacity stadium would be thrilling, as it would have been now, were it not for a lingering sense of dread that the steep stadium stairs were going to feature prominently in what we were about to do. This fear proved well founded, and for the next half hour we were put through workout stations focusing alternately on strength, agility, and endurance.
The agility station, which involved a sideways plank walk down the field, was still bearable, even if it made me look like a demented, oversized crustacean, creeping along the 50-yard line.
As for endurance and strength, both required a continuous ascending and descending of stairs, which caused a representative from Runner’s World Argentina, to say adios pretty early on. The strength station was particularly brutal, as the manner of ascent changed with every set, varying between hitting every step in your way up, to every other step, to hopping, froglike, on both legs, then the just one, then the other.
By the end, my quads and glutes felt more than a little violated. I realized that this was the point, but if I was going to run my fastest mile, it was not going to be any time soon. Our clocked mile, however, was scheduled for the next morning.
After a 45-minute warm-up session of jogging, dynamic stretching, and a few easy strides, we gathered near the starting line for a “special guest.” This turned out to be Oregon-native Galen Rupp, silver medalist in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a new pair of Air Jordans, Rupp spoke eloquently about the importance of speed, especially for distance runners. He cited the night before, where he’d finished third in a highly competitive 5,000-meter race that came down to a furious sprint finish.
Asked if he had any last minute tips for us, Rupp said that above all else, he tried to “run with courage.”
I tried to heed this advice for my four laps around Hayward Field, an experience which, for a running geek like yours truly, is like getting to play pick-up basketball in Madison Square Garden, or soccer at Camp Nou. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do justice to the venue. I had nothing in my legs and finished in five minutes flat, just a few seconds quicker than the pace I run mile repeats during interval workouts, and a good 10 seconds off my goal.
Not that I was disappointed. Reaching your potential in the mile requires adherence to an extended training program over the course of a few weeks, at minimum. (Check out Blue Benadum’s 28-day plan here.) Also, as with longer races, if you’re looking to run your best time, you should never do a hard workout the day before. Unlike with the marathon, where your final week should be all about tapering, you can probably get away with doing an intense workout three days before racing the mile. But after that, you want to save your legs for the race.
Of course, our trainers knew all this, but their mission was to provide as many pieces of the puzzle as they could in hyper-condensed time period. All of what we did—quick strides, high-knee lifting, fast quarter and half miles, longer runs, and extended dynamic warming-up—is necessary to build speed and endurance, the two key elements to racing the mile well.
It’s too soon to see if my mile will improve (or if I'll ever beat that 4:26 I posted at 17), but the short camp certainly succeeded in building enthusiasm for the distance by giving us the tools necessary to see measurable improvement. On the way back from Hayward, I spoke with a young woman who worked as a producer at Women’s Health. She was not a runner and wasn’t sure about what her time had been at the camp. (“Somewhere around ten minutes, I think.”) She had, however, in all probability set a PR, as the only other mile she’d ever run was in high school P.E. class. She’d prepared better for this one.
“I’ve never been so motivated,” she said. “I think now I understand why runners love running.”