Is this the Greatest On-The-Go Workout Ever?
It’s the same thing daily, and, as crazy as it seems, it just might work for you.*
*Results may vary. Per our legal department’s urging, we feel inclined to say that, like most gimmicky workouts, it could be great in moderation.
Is this the Greatest On-The-Go Workout Ever?
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 029, December 2020
by Liam Boylan-Pett
One day when I was 11, I was eating greasy pizza around a table with my basketball-crazed cousins and telling them all of the stuff I was going to have to do if I was going to become one of the best runners in Michigan.
My brother, Will, was already breaking school records at Bath High School as a sophomore, and I was planning on doing the same thing. My mom had recently gotten us a book on running. I was more likely to scan Sports Illustrated for pictures rather than read the feature story in the back of the magazine, but Daniels’ Running Formula piqued my interest. Sure, there were photos of runners, but it was the text that grabbed me.
It also terrified me. It was full of training plans for things that, as a 5 minute, 20 second miler, seemed quite unbelievable. How could someone run something like 10 x 400 meters at 60-second pace? And how could they do it while running more than 30 miles per week?
Even though I had no business running many of the workouts Daniels prescribed, I pored over the book and looked at tips and strategies that could help my own running. Which was why I was explaining to my cousins my new training philosophy.
“I’ve got to get my mileage up,” I said between bites of globby cheese. “So I’m going to be doing stuff like 400 repeats one day, then a 12-mile run the next.”
“Dude,” my cousin said, “if you’re trying to run a mile as fast as you can, why wouldn’t you just run a mile as fast as you can every day?”
I stared at him, wondering if he was joking, but also shocked that he did not understand. “I mean,” I tried to argue, “you have to do the long stuff for endurance and the faster stuff for speed.”
“Yeah, but why not practice running as fast as you can for a mile if that’s the point of this whole thing?”
We both made the same argument for the next ten minutes, with neither one of us budging on our theory. Needless to say, I did not run one mile as hard as I could every day from there on out. I trained like a lot of successful runners thanks to some great high school coaches and was fortunate to become one of the best runners in the state in high school.
Today, that cousin has made coaching stops at multiple N.B.A. franchises. Needless to say, he has not stuck with the one-track method of coaching. In fact, he takes a very holistic approach to the game—he even created a basketball mindfulness program for the masses.
Me? I no longer run high—by my standards—mileage or do many workouts. As I’ve grown older, those things like a job and age and motivation have made it tougher to do much in terms of high-quality running.
My brother, Will, however, might have created a workout that could change all that.
Oddly enough, it’s akin to that idea of running a mile as hard as you can each day. The Will is a 1-mile warmup jog followed by 1 mile hard.
He does it nearly every day.
And as crazy as it sounds, it’s gotten him into damn good shape.
Even crazier, according to a recent study, those quick bursts of high-intensity training may be the secret to longevity.
Thanksgiving 2009. We had just finished dinner. Turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pie. Plenty of beer and wine. Someone asked Will how fast he could run a mile if he went out the door right then. He said sub-6 minutes, and Delilah, his then-girlfriend-now-wife, laughed. There was no way, she said, reminding him that he had eaten too much and had too much drink.
Which was why, a few minutes later, I was in a car with Bill Verge, who was kind enough to host my brother, Delilah, and I for Thanksgiving, measuring out a mile on his odometer around his neighborhood for Will to run. Shortly after that, Will was sprinting alone in the cold and dark on his way to a mile in 5 minutes, 20 seconds. He fell asleep on a couch shortly after.
The post-Thanksgiving mile turned into an annual event. After dinner—and often after a Turkey Trot in the morning—Will would run a mile. We mapped out some steep downhills, and the Thanksgiving record stands at 4 minutes, 37 seconds (it might have also been closer to 1,550 meters).
Will’s entire running career has not always been so gimmicky.
He was a four-time state champion in the 1,600, 3,200 and cross-country in Michigan and ran at Columbia University in college, co-captaining the school’s Heptagonal Cross-Country Championship team in 2004—its first win since 1979. Post collegiately, he ran a marathon in 2 hours, 28 minutes in 2009, and completed multiple marathons. Plus, he took up coaching. He was an assistant at Columbia from 2009 to 2014 before taking over the director position at New York University from 2014 to 2016. He now works a corporate job in the northeast while loosely coaching a handful of athletes of all levels for fun.
He also—like many adults with a lot on their plates—attempts to get in some kind of exercise each day.
In mid-May in the midst of the pandemic, Will was looking for a quick workout. Delilah was eight months pregnant with their second child, and even though they were both working from home, they were struggling to find the time to get outside by themselves. He needed something fast where he could still get a sweat going.
Kevin Verge, son of Bill who hosted us for Thanksgiving in 2009, had an idea. “How many days in a row do you think you could run a sub-6 minute mile?” He asked.
Will wanted to find out. So on May 15, he ran a mile out on a bike path from his house in Glastonbury, Connecticut, in 7 minutes, 1 second as a “warm-up.” He stopped and walked and did some light stretching for about a minute. Then, he ran back home in 5 minutes, 43 seconds, going lactic early and feeling like “crap” the entire way.
He did the same thing the next day, running 7 minutes, 13 seconds out and 5 minutes, 45 seconds back—once again feeling a stitch in his stomach and cramps in his calves as he powered through the second mile. But it was kind of fun. And he was certainly getting a sweat.
On Strava, where he posted his results each day, his modest following started noticing the consistency.
Will was creating another running gimmick.
A quick-fix workout is nothing new. Ever since Jack LaLanne and his buff figure convinced people everywhere that they needed fitness, the market has been ripe for crazes and fads. Whether it was 5-Minute Abs or 10-Minute Abs or articles explaining “The Only 5 Workouts You’ll Ever Need” that appear every few years, the desire for that one, perfect workout seems evergreen. And in the year COVID-19, many have looked for ways to stay fit while staying home.
Companies like Peloton were ready, already providing an in-home gym service. Others adapted. Yoga studios offered live classes on Instagram and other social media feeds. Road Races went virtual, or had widely staggered starts so people could still get that “race” feel.
The 2-mile workout was Will’s answer to the pandemic and watching one (two, once his daughter was born in June) kid while working from home. When I visited Will this August, I jumped straight into the workout, too.
The first time, we jogged out a mile in 7 minutes, 19 seconds with his 2-year-old son in a jogging stroller, then turned around and bombed back in 5 minutes, 47 seconds, with Will making me take over on stroller duty over the last 400 meters. (Incidentally, running with a stroller is darn-near impossible—no arm use whatsoever.)
The next day, we ran 7 minutes, 9 seconds on the way out and 5 minutes, 13 seconds coming home.
Both days, I felt awful. Jogging a mile, walking around and doing some fake stretching does not prepare you for a mile at sub-tempo pace. My stomach ached, my plantar on each foot felt stiff. I got a side-stitch both days. I kept sweating for what seemed like hours after. There was not much pleasant about it.
But the workout was quick. And finishing it gave me a sense of accomplishment. It reminded me that running fast is fun, even if it does hurt.
It was a crazy workout, but I told quite a few people about Will’s streak. He had started in May, taken a slight break when his daughter was born, then was doing it again. In 2020, he ran his workout 146 times, breaking 6 minutes for the second mile each time. On average, his first mile was 7 minutes, 8 seconds, and his “hard” mile was 5 minutes, 30 seconds. He even claimed he was getting fit.
This December, I asked a handful of current and former editors at Runner’s World and Women’s Running what they thought of the workout. Somewhat to my surprise, they did not laugh it off. The general consensus was that the quick workout was appealing. The problem, nearly everyone agreed, was only doing the workout.
As I argued with my cousin in the early 2000s, the body needs variety. Insanity is often described as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result—this workout without anything else mixed in, it’s fair to say, is a little crazy.
“Over the long haul,” Steve Magness told me, “doing the same thing over and over again, you’re going to get diminishing returns.” Magness is a performance coach and author of Peak Performance, The Passion Paradox, and The Science of Running.
He said, “It’s interesting,” and let out a slight sigh over the phone when I asked him what he thought of Will’s workout. But he was not opposed to it, especially for an athlete or runner who had not been training much lately. “When you’re trying to get in shape, anything will work,” Magness said. “It’s kind of what I call a clean-slate phenomenon. If you’re not in peak shape, if you throw anything moderately hard at someone, it’s going to get them better.” The workout reminded him of the ability of some high school runners to do interval training six days a week and improve dramatically—because they weren’t in shape to begin with. He told me that doing the workout would get a runner in moderate shape and that continuing to do the workout would keep them in moderate shape, but it would fail to take someone to the next level of fitness. “Over time, your body is going to get really efficient at that workout,” he said, “but it’s bad because it’s just going through the motions once it’s used to it.”
By the time Will and I ran the workout together in August, Will was certain he was starting to feel more and more fit and even race-ready. “Honestly,” he told me one day after we finished our mile, “it’s that idea of learning how to run fast when you feel like crap. I never feel good on this run. Imagine what would happen if I did.”
He would soon get a chance to prove it.
In August, my cousin Shannon, like many during the pandemic, was sick of sitting around. So, she decided to put on a virtual 5K. She created a Facebook group, made up a t-shirt design, and invited family and friends to the Boylan Family 5K. Like most other races in 2020, it would be virtual. We were all going to run or walk or bike 3.1 miles, and then report back to Shannon with our times. As the family’s sole sub-4-minute miler, I was expected to win—even if that was nearly a decade ago. Will had other ideas.
The last time we had raced was in 2016. After my competitive running career ended that summer, we both signed up for the Detroit Marathon that fall. We made a whole thing of it, raising money for the Detroit Police Athletic League and making outlandish bets like the loser having to carry around a yoga mat for every errand they ran for a month—and getting way too much pre-race hype on social media in the process. It was our first time racing since a few random 5Ks we ran when I was still competing—all races I won. But with a few marathons under his belt, some people—Will included—thought he would get me.
Running across the Ambassador Bridge into Canada about 3 miles into the race, I looked over at Will and reminded him of a time we went to Canada when I was 19 and laughed. It was then—with my cheeriness and his discomfort—that Will knew it was over. I started pulling away from him at the 11-mile mark and never looked back, winning the battle in Detroit. I finished in 2 hours, 30 minutes. Will finished in 2 hours, 35 minutes.
We were on the cover of the Detroit Free-Press the next day, with a story headlined Fast Brothers Race to Settle Bet. (The reporter misunderstood one crucial detail in the bet: the loser had to listen to Creed, which was not my favorite band. So, because Free-Press readers could rightfully believe that I love Creed, please let the record state Pearl Jam is my favorite band of all time.)
The Boylan Family 5K would not have the pomp, but it would have some fireworks.
The rules were simple, get a 5K done sometime during the weekend of September 4 to 6.
That Friday night, my brother kept on texting asking when I was running my 5K. I had planned out a course in East Lansing that I thought would be flat and quick. I was going to run it the next morning. Will kept texting photos of him having beers in Connecticut, telling me he was going to be hurting for his the following morning, too. Verge, that buddy who gave Will the idea for the workout, was texting, too. Claiming he was going to bandit the race and give me a run for my money.
I should have known something was up.
The next morning, I took off on my 5K, and was disappointed that my course wasn’t flatter. I ran 5 minutes, 22 seconds for the first mile, then started hurting. When I was running competitively, I used to love the pain. I would run into it, wanting to make it hurt more. But nowadays, when things get hard, I sometimes wonder, “Is it worth it?” Then I often slow down to feel better. On this day, I slowed down and closed out the final 2 miles in 5 minutes, 43 seconds for both, running 17 minutes, 21 seconds—a far cry from my best of 14 minutes, 54 seconds when I was running seriously.
I jogged home somewhat dejected, knowing it was a bad run. But I figured Will couldn’t run much faster than that.
I texted my time to the group.
Then I checked Strava.
The plan had been hatched weeks earlier. The running in the Hartford area can be hilly. Going up long, slow climbs that last up to a mile or two can be excruciating. Going down, however, can obviously make for fast runs.
About a week before the Boylan Family 5K, Will asked Verge if he had a good downhill course—he needed something fast. Verge thought a stretch on one of his loops might be good. On the morning of August 28, he went out scouting. Running the first 1.5 miles of his planned course, he thought to himself he didn’t even need to run the second portion. “I was wildly confident in the last half,” he told me.
They had a course and, it turns out, a plan. Verge was going to be the “rabbit,” starting about 2 minutes ahead so that Will would have someone to chase. They had one more trick: Will was going to wear Verge’s Vaporflys. They were pulling out all the stops.
Plus, Will was going to do a proper warmup. Instead of jogging a mile, turning around, and running back like he had done for four straight months, he was going to do some drills and strides this time around.
So, after a warmup jog and a few drills on September 4 at 5:36 p.m., Will stood at the start line of a virtual 5K on top of Huckleberry Hill in Avon, Connecticut, and waited for Verge to run 60 seconds ahead—they made a last-second decision to cut the rabbit’s head start in half. Then, he took off.
That course Verge had mapped out? It was downhill. Losing 108 feet of elevation over the first 1609 meters, Will came through in 5 minutes, 6 seconds. The second mile dropped even more. Going down 113 feet, Will clicked off a 5 minute, 11 second mile. The massive downhill helped, but there was something else. Will felt good.
Had he tried to run one mile under 5 minutes early in the year, he probably would have been hands to knees on the side of the road. But after months of running a mile around 5 minutes, 20 second pace while hurting the whole way, Will couldn’t believe that he actually felt decent on a run. So, with another 146 feet of elevation drop in front of him with 1.1 miles to go, he kept on chugging along right above 5-minute pace.
He passed Verge just after two miles, and felt great doing it. Everything that happened on the run buoyed his confidence. He hadn’t broken 16 minutes in a 5K since college—at least he thinks—and was going to give it a run in thanks, partly, to his stupid workout he ran each day. He ran the third mile in 5 minutes, 10 seconds, and then closed out the final tenth, running 15 minutes, 58 seconds. He ran down 367 feet over 5 kilometers and broke 16 minutes for the first time in over a decade.
Plus, he had likely won the Boylan Family 5K. He only needed to milk it a little more. Which was why, after he hid his run on Strava in order to hid the evidence of his time, he was having a few celebratory beers while texting me that night, asking when I was running my 5K. And it was why he sent me a photo of him chomping down on an Egg McMuffin before his race the next morning.
He got me.
I thought about finding a downhill course to give it one more try the next day, but Mid-Michigan topography is mundane. And there was no way I was running sub-16 without at least a little bit of help—especially not owning a pair of “the shoes.”
In the end, Will was the Boylan Family 5K champion. My wife won the women’s race.
Me? I was left wondering if I should be running 14 miles per week, with half of them being hard.
Just a few days after Christmas, one of my good friends texted me a link to a New York Times article about a recent study headlined “The Secret to Longevity? 4-Minute Bursts of Intense Exercise May Help.” The friend wrote, “Will was ahead of the science.”
The study in question followed 1,500 fairly healthy Norwegians over the age of 70 for about ten years. The conclusion? That it paid to do high-intensity interval training. The group that proved healthiest in the study were the ones who jogged or cycled at a hard pace for four minutes, followed by four minutes of rest. They did it four times per workout, and only twice per week. Not exactly the Will, but not far off.
A few other friends have attempted the workout—one of them doing it for about two weeks before he stopped. I’ve done it when I’m crunched for time, and honestly, it beats going out for a slow 20 minute run if that’s the window you have.
It is still working for Will. Just before Christmas, he jogged a mile on the treadmill. After stepping off for a minute or so, he cranked it up to 12 miles per hour (its max), hopped on, and ran a mile in 5 minutes flat.
This is the point, however, when I would like to say that The Will might not work for you—at least not if it is the only thing you would plan on doing.
My cousin used to argue that if your goal was to run one mile as fast as you can, you should try to do that every single day. That is not the case.
The Will works for Will because he has years of base in his legs. He has some endurance stored in his legs and lungs. Magness told me that running fast is like riding a bike in a sense. “If you’ve been there before,” he said, “it’s a hell of a lot easier to get back in shape.” Running hard each day for over five minutes is not impossible for Will. But for someone who has taken some time off running, jumping straight into high-intensity training is not advised. As with all things in training, be patient and work your way into higher intensities with intention.
No, The Will is not for everyone. But it is for someone who has about 20 to 30 minutes to get in some exercise who is sick of just going out for a slow jog on the treadmill or through the neighborhood.
The Will likely is not the greatest workout of all time, like the headline of this story might have led you to believe.
It just might, however, be worth a try.