Ask Stew: Workouts to Improve Your Three-Mile Run Time

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Marines do their 3-mile PFT run
Recruits of Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, begin a three-mile run during an inventory physical fitness test at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. (Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Angelica I. Annastas)

The Marine Corps' three-mile run is the toughest running event of military fitness testing, challenging Marines to push themselves cardiovascularly more than those tackling any other service branch's PT test. While getting a passing score is acceptable to some Marines, maxing the standard is what most want, no matter the age group.

But crushing this test is tough and requires significant time building an aerobic base as well as maintaining the speed and pace needed to be in the max zone of 6-7 minute miles for men and women, respectively. Here is a question from a female Marine seeking to get her time down below 20 minutes (well above maximum points) for her next PFT:

Stew, I have slowly become a better runner over the years. I started out at 24 minutes for three miles, and I am getting closer to the 22 minutes flat with my last test. My goal for the next test is to be under 21 minutes and eventually even break 20 minutes. The upper body PT is not an issue and the CFT is good as well, but getting this last minute to be faster is my toughest challenge physically so far. I am at 35 miles per week now. Any advice on training focus? Thanks, K

K -- that is a great attitude of not just meeting the standard but exceeding the standard. That's the mindset we all need in military service.

It sounds like you have natural upper-body strength to be handling the other events of the PFT and CFT so well, but getting that extra weight moving faster can be a challenge. There are a few schools of thought out there that may recommend more running volume than 35 miles per week to build a broader aerobic base. While that is an option, my personal recommendation would be to run fewer total miles per week, but do them faster.

Instead of literally running your butt off, run faster and mix in some non-impact cardio if you also need to work on aerobic base training. That will help you maintain the strengths you have as well when it comes to the other events of the PT tests, since you will not be spending all your time running and neglecting other tactical fitness skills that are needed for the job. Some people tend to overdo their total volume, thinking more is better, when running quality miles with a purpose will work without the risk of overuse and impact injuries from running too much.

Here is what I would do:

Three times a week (Monday/Wednesday/Saturday): Focus on interval runs of 1 mile and 1.5 miles at the 7-minute mile pace primarily. For instance:

Repeat 4-5 times (1:1 work-to-rest ratio)

Run 1 mile at goal pace (7-minute mile)

Rest with calisthenics exercises of the day or walking for the same run time (7 minutes)

Or, try your split time distance (50% of your timed distance):

Repeat 3-4 times (1:1 work-to-rest ratio)

Run 1.5 miles at goal pace (7-minute mile or 10:30)

Rest with calisthenics exercises of the day or walking for the same run time (7 minutes)

Either one of these workouts will give you four to six miles total for the day and 12-18 miles per week.

Go faster two times a week (Tuesday and Friday) but mix in some faster-than-goal pace as well at the 6-minute to 6:30-minute mile pace.

These are shorter but faster workouts that will reduce the overall total miles of the week but test you just the same. I like to mix in some fast 20- to 30-minute bike or elliptical workouts and spin classes before doing these workouts to challenge and thoroughly warm up the legs prior to running faster paces. These are still not sprints but will feel like it as you push the 800- to 1,200-meter mark (2-3 times around a 400-meter track):

Repeat 3-4 times

Run 800 meters at faster-than-goal pace

Rest is still 1:1 ratio, so however long it takes you to run 800 meters, that is your rest time.

Repeat 2-3 times

Run 1,200 meters at faster-than-goal pace

Rest is still 1:1 ratio, so however long it takes you to run 1,200 meters, that is your rest time.

For an additional challenge to these faster paces, try doing them on leg days when you train, though I would not focus on lifting heavy, but doing more calisthenics-based leg workouts to focus on muscle stamina with the cardio endurance and speed workouts.

Either one of these workouts will give you 1.5 to 4.5 miles total for the day and three to nine miles per week.

Total miles of running in a week will put you at 15 to 27 total miles, depending on the low or high end of the above workouts. That is less than your current volume but with a faster focus, which sounds like what you need the most as your aerobic base is solid.

Pull Back or Make-Up Day (Thursday and Saturday or Sunday) as floating mobility days, non-impact cardio events, rest days or make-up days if you missed a workout during the week.

Focus on a few non-impact cardio days and just bike, row or swim for your cardio activity. But you also should rest from running two days a week as well. I prefer a mobility day, which is more non-impact cardio and stretching and foam rolling in the middle of the week. More is not better, and quite often "less is more" for hard-charging military members. Seriously, try this model of training for six weeks and see what happens to your three-mile timed run.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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