When Army Maj. Dan Browne was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, he was West Point's first to break the 4-minute-mile barrier.
Before graduating in 1997, he earned three All-American honors in distance running while racking up six school speed records — all of which still stand today. In the years since, he’s claimed several national running titles, earned a berth to the 2004 Olympics competing in both the 10,000-meter race and the marathon, and is now in Rio as the long-distance coach for several Team USA athletes.
All that to say, Browne knows a thing or two about running. And more importantly, for those in the military, he knows exactly how to help troops improve their times for the dreaded annual fitness tests.
Whether it's about the timed 2-miler for those in the Army and Navy, Marines' 3-mile run or the 1.5-mile test for Air Force personnel, “I get this question all the time,” Browne says.
The good news is that “for average runners, it’s actually pretty easy to shave some significant time off your run.”
OK, so he means the kind of “easy” that comes with a fair amount of hard work and dedicated training. “But you’d be amazed at how far people can come in just two months.”
So, how far is far?
A typical middle-of-the-PT-pack runner with, say, a 16-minute 2-mile run, shouldn’t have any problem dropping two minutes off their time in two months, Browne says.
Your mileage, of course, will vary with age and overall fitness, but “generally speaking, for regular runners, adaptions can happen really quickly. You can make dramatic gains in just a couple of months. It’s really remarkable.”
To be sure, the faster you already are, the harder that gets, he says. For Olympians and other elite runners, shaving just a few seconds — even tenths of a second — can make a medal-winning difference. But for many military runners, dropping two minutes in two months from a 2-mile run “is not an unrealistic goal at all,” Browne says. “It’s completely possible.”
Some of his go-to tips to help make it happen.
1. Start running three times a week
It sounds obvious, but it’s critical to get specific about what it means to run more, Browne says — especially if you’re going to do this in two months.
“You’ll need to be increasing your total mileage every week. So, if you run 10 miles a week now and over time you can double that to 20 or 25 miles a week, your time will get better. It’s just going to happen,” he says.
To do that, Browne recommends starting with three runs a week and gradually increasing up to five per week by the start of the second month.
“Your body is designed to physically adapt to stress. Part of that adaptation process takes place when you run. It's your body signaling itself saying, ‘Hey, this is hard, let’s try to make it a little better so it makes it a little easier.' So, you get fitter, you lose some weight, you gain lean muscle mass. And a bunch of other little adaptions start to take place that will start to improve your time.”
2. Do interval training
At least once a week, hit the track for interval training.
“Do eight quarter miles — one lap around most tracks — with 1- to 1.5-minute recovery breaks between each lap,” Browne says. “With each lap, try to be faster than your normal pace. So, someone with a 16-minute 2-mile [run] is running an average of two minutes per lap. That person doing the intervals should try to average 1 minute, 40 seconds in at least the first four laps.”
This is one of the single most effective methods of improving run times, he says.
3. Hit your lactic threshold
This may sound like the stuff reserved only for elite runners, but the science works for everyone, Browne says. And it should be part of your run plan at least once a week.
“As you run, your body starts to produce lactic acid in your muscles at a certain pace,” he says. “By training close to your lactic threshold pace, your body naturally becomes more comfortable at it and, in your muscles, it actually become easier.”
So, how do you know what that threshold is? “For elite runners it truly is an exact science working with exercise physiologists and getting blood tests done, but for most people, getting in at least the right ballpark is a lot easier.”
To find it, Browne's advice is simple: “Get to a pace that feels uncomfortable, but manageable.” That pace should be for at least 2 miles at first, but you’ll want to go longer as your tolerance improves.
You can use heart rate monitors on fitness watches to help you zero in on your threshold as well.
Again, it will vary by age and fitness level, but “when I was running, for example, I knew I was in my lactic threshold zone when my heart rate was between 157 to 160 beats per minute.”
4. Progressive running
This is a technique in which you gradually increase your pace throughout the run.
“It’s also a wonderfully natural way of running that I think minimizes your risk of injury, because you’re allowing your muscles to warm up as you get faster.”
But when done correctly, this is also much harder than a regular run.
“It teaches your body how to run fast when you’re tired. That’s a similar kind of feeling you have when you're putting everything you have into that 2-mile test.”
If time is limited on any given run day, says Browne, “this is one of the best ways to maximize your training in the shortest amount of time.”
5. Build in recovery
“This is the same thing I teach my Olympic athletes,” Browne says. “Training is only beneficial if you allow your body to adapt to it, recover and then get stronger.”
Elite runners “get better and better at finding ways to recover faster and faster, which allows them to do harder and harder work.”
But the principle, he says, is the same for everyone in “getting to new levels of fitness.”
Starting with a three-run-per-week schedule — running, for example, Monday, Wednesday, Friday — ensures that recovery time is built in.
That's also why on the last week of his two-month plan, Browne recommends running only two or three times, with a few days' break, before the actual test run. So, if the test is on a Monday, your last training run should be on Friday. That’s going to give your body the chance to bounce back and give you that peak performance.”
Jon Anderson covers all that’s fun, fascinating, and formidable about military life, from off-duty travel and entertainment to family and fitness. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.