Leveling up in video games is such a common mechanic that by now it seems only natural for the player character to become stronger over the course of the game. It’s taken for granted that not only will the player’s skills improve, but the character they embody will also become commensurately more powerful. This, like many aspects of games, reflects some of the most satisfying parts of real life. Just as games tick the human brain’s need for creative problem solving, they also reflect expectation that the more people do something, the more they will physically improve.
How much training would it take to “level up” in the real world, though? To test this question, Skyrim is a good standard. Bethesda’s hit 2011 fantasy RPG is an iconic representation of a genre defined by character improvement, and is likely what most gamers picture in their minds when they hear the term “RPG.” There are no dumbbells to lift in Skyrim, but the running mile time of the Dragonborn, the character players control, is one test of physical fitness that can measurably improve with each level up, and can easily be compared to the real-life effort of training to improve running speed. There are a few steps to go through first, though.
While the canonical size of the Skyrim region in Elder Scrolls lore is massive, in game it is compressed down to a more easily-traversable size. Many fans already know Skyrim‘s in-game map is actually much smaller than it feels. There are no set dimensions of any object in Skyrim‘s game world, but by estimating the height of a high-elf player character at around 6’5″, and comparing that to a large door on the Prancing Mare tavern in Whiterun, estimated at 8’ tall, the size of the game world can be extrapolated out.
It works roughly like this: if the tavern door is about 8′ tall, then the length of the whole building can be estimated. The length of the tavern can be used to get the approximate length of a section of town wall, which is visible on the map. That section of wall can then be used as a ruler to determine the total size of the map. Using this method, the minimum dimensions of Skyrim are 1.9 miles tall by 3.2 across, and the upper limit is 2.4 by 4.0. The most likely dimensions, double checked with multiple methods, are 2.0 miles tall by 3.4 miles wide.
One real-world mile in Skyrim is just about half the height of the entire overworld, and with a map and a ruler, it’s possible to route a path. The road from Falkreath to Rorikstead is less than a mile, but with changes in elevation and bends in the path taken into account, it clocks in at a near-perfect mile.
To warm up, the Dragonborn must first speedrun the intro to the game, sprinting past all of Alduin’s dragonfire and through the enemy-filled caves of Helgen. Then, it’s a short jog over to Falkreath and Rorikstead to unlock fast travel points. Starting at Falkreath’s main gate, the Dragonborn must sprint out onto the cobbled pathway, head uphill to cross the bridge at Half-moon Mill, come back down the mountainside, then hang a left onto the main road towards Rorikstead.
At level 1, with the baseline 100 stamina, the Dragonborn can run a mile in 5 minutes, 37 seconds. That’s already a fantastic mile time, but it can still improve. For reference, a healthy adult with little training can be expected to run a 10-minute mile, while hardcore runners aim to get under 6 minutes. Only elite athletes can get down to 4 minutes, and the fastest mile run ever recorded was done by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999, clocking in at 3:43.1. If ‘world’s fastest man’ Usain Bolt could keep up his sprinting pace for a whole mile, he could do it in 2:10, but maintaining such speed for so long is impossible for any human being.
So, how much does one level up improve the Dragonborn’s mile time? After each level up in Skyrim, the player can choose to upgrade magic, health, or stamina by 10 points, but needless to say, this Dragonborn will always choose stamina. Having a bigger pool of stamina will translate to a faster mile time, since the strategy is to sprint out of the gate, continue jogging forward at normal pace once stamina is depleted, and then start sprinting again once it’s full- repeating all the way to Rorikstead. Right now, at level 1 and 100 stamina, 5:37 is the time to beat.
At level 2 and 110 stamina, the time is improved by six seconds, at 5:31. That’s not much, so the goal became bringing the Dragonborn’s mile time down below 5 minutes, a major milestone for serious runners. To make sure it was possible at all, console commands are helpful to give the Dragonborn 10,000 stamina, and sprinted all the way to Rorikstead, much like the earlier mentioned hypothetical Usain Bolt. At a full sprint the whole way, the Dragonborn managed a blistering 4:32 mile. If a player reached the base-game level cap of 81 and only upgraded stamina the whole time, they would have a pool of 900 stamina and could do the same run in 4:43.
It seems, though, that there are diminishing returns after a certain point, since the Dragonborn’s “sprint” isn’t that much faster than their normal jog. It only takes reaching level 21 and upgrading stamina to 200 to breach the magic threshold and run the mile in 4:59. That’s an average improvement of just under two seconds per level up. Only one question remains: what does that mean in real-world terms?
For most people, bringing their mile time down from 10 minutes to 8 is not too difficult a task if they have the motivation to try. It depends on how much running experience each person has, but for beginners, a few weeks of running, biking, or swimming almost every day is enough to significantly improve mile time. Biking and swimming is important though, since running alone carries the risk of seriously damaging new runners’ joints. Much as in Skyrim, the real goal is improving stamina to sustain a steady pace for as long as possible. Going from just under 6 minutes to breaking 5, as the Dragonborn did by level 21, is much harder.
Luckily, because breaking 5 minutes is a major goal for serious runners, there is plenty of information and advice on how to achieve it, and how much work it really takes. Assuming the person trying to break a 5-minute mile is already a pretty good runner starting at around 6 minutes, most coaches provide a four-week training program. One month of arduous training, broken up with plenty of time to rest, heal, and eat well seems to be the key to breaking personal records at a high level.
If it takes a 28 day program to achieve what our Dragonborn did in 20 levels, then each level is 1.4 days of training. Subtracting the rest days needed to heal and recover, and considering the fact that the level 1 Dragonborn is more fit (and thus needs more work to improve) than the average person, it’s safe to equate one Skyrim level up to one full day of serious physical training. A 1:1 ratio is uncanny, but it seems almost natural; it makes sense on an instinctual level.
Skyrim is available now on all major platforms.