In the latest in our series of training articles, we’re going to look at how to train for a 10K.
So far in this series of articles on how to improve your running we’ve looked at long runs, intervals and tempo runs (plus how to approach training for a 5K). These three kinds of run are the building blocks of a successful training programme and it is helpful to understand what these types of run are, what they do, and how to integrate them into your training.
While it’s not essential that you’ve read the other articles to understand this one, it might be helpful to refer back to them if you find you’re not sure of some of the terminology used. You may also like to read our article on training for a 5K.
The challenges of running a 10K
Compared to the really long distances (marathons, ultramarathons, etc.), which seem to get most of the attention, 10K events can sometimes be thought of as a stepping stone on the way to greater things. This is unfair. Running a 10K is hard and a fantastic achievement in its own right.
The fact they’re mid-way between the faster, shorter 5Ks and the longer, slower marathons does mean they can be seen as an easier option. For example, they can be seen as a slower option for short-distance specialists. Likewise, they can be seen as a shorter option for endurance specialists.
The 10K specialists, however, know that a fast 10K is tough. It is going to feel slightly-too-far at a pace that is slightly-too-quick.
Whether you’re a beginner looking to double up the distance from 5K, who is faced with the prospect of running for an hour or more; or an experienced runner who wants to set a personal best and is going to have to sustain a relatively fast pace for longer than is going to feel comfortable, this article will provide an overview for how to go about training for this tricky distance.
The history of the event
6.2 miles might seem an odd choice of distance in a country that uses the Imperial measurement system. Historically, 5 mile road races were more commonplace than they are now, but they seem to have been replaced by their close metric cousin – which matches the distance of the 10,000m track race contested in track and field athletics.
Like other events, the 10K (or 5 miles) has always been run by ‘serious’ runners, but it has become more popular with all runners in recent years. In part, this is due to the phenomenal success of Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life series, which has introduced thousands of first-time runners to the distance.
It is also popular as a next step for people who have completed Couch to 5K, or can comfortably complete a parkrun, and want a new challenge. Beginners, or those who don’t have the time or inclination to do longer events (which is a perfectly valid choice – you should run whichever events you enjoy the most) can fit the training into their lives and still get their long-distance running fix.
It’s also a popular option with race organisers as shorter courses (compared to half marathons or marathons) require fewer road closures and marshals; don’t involve as many land owners to negotiate with; don’t take as long to run; and have fewer costs as a result.
A personal challenge
Remember, just because a race is shorter, doesn’t necessarily mean it is easier. For many runners, completing a 10K may involve running for an hour or more, perhaps two. It is therefore a serious endurance challenge. And for those able to cover the distance more comfortably, the challenge becomes one of speed and how to keep pushing when you’re at your limit.
To compare the approaches for runners of different experience levels, let’s introduce two example runners, Elvira and Fergal.
Elvira want to finish a 10K
Elvira is a new runner who has signed up to a local 10K to try and raise some money for charity. She already does some exercise, attending a mix of classes in the gym and swimming occasionally, but she hasn’t run since school. The challenge for her is to build up her body’s resistance to running so she can keep going until the finish.
Start off with Couch to 5K
Her event is around 5 months away, giving her 20 weeks to prepare. With this much time to train, she decides to start off by completing Couch to 5K (C25K). This is likely to take Elvira 9 weeks, but it doesn’t matter too much if she has to take a couple of extra weeks if she gets ill, wants to rest a niggle, or if life gets in the way of running. She keeps one gym class a week, as she enjoys it and catches up with friends, but drops the other sessions to focus on running.
Going from running 0 km to 5 km can feel harder than building from 5 km to 10 km. This is because your body isn’t used to what you’re doing and it takes a while to adapt to the new activity and way of using your muscles. It also takes time for the training habit to form. Once you’ve completed C25K, running isn’t such an unusual thing for your body to be doing, so all you need to worry about is extending the distance.
That’s why Elvira is focusing on reaching 5km first, before aiming for the full 10km. After 10 weeks Elvira is able to complete her local parkrun in a time of 30 minutes. With this in mind, an expected time of 70 minutes for the 10K is reasonable, but this is just an indicator of what to expect, not a goal. The goal is just to get round, regardless of the time.
Taking a break
After the parkrun, Elvira takes a week off to enjoy a holiday with her family. This is perfectly fine from a training point of view, as she could probably do with a break after building up her running from scratch over the past 10 weeks.
Once she returns, she has 9 weeks before her 10K. This works out as 7 weeks to train and build the distance up, followed by a fortnight of tapering, which is when she’ll ease back on the training so that she reaches the start line feeling fit and fresh.
From 5K to 10K
Elvira adapts the C25K routine, gradually increasing the duration of her runs over the 7 weeks. Her running week consists of one long run, done at the weekend, plus two shorter runs. She adds 5 minutes to her weekend long run each week, hitting 60 minutes for her longest run a fortnight before her event. This is a nice, steady progression.
- Week 11: 30 mins;
- Week 12: 35 mins;
- Week 13: 35 mins;
- Week 14: 40 mins;
- Week 15: 45 mins;
- Week 16: 50 mins;
- Week 17: 55 mins;
- Week 18: 60 mins;
- Week 19: 40 mins (taper);
- Week 20: 10K event day.
If she has to walk during a run, then she will do, as getting the ‘time on feet’ is the most important thing. A target of 30 minutes per mid-week run is fine. 40 minutes might be better, but Elvira needs to be wary of being too tired and not getting enough rest to adapt to the training and get the full benefit of her hard work.
With this in mind, she chooses to do her mid-week runs by ‘feel’, pushing the distance when she feels good, and easing back if tired. She always leaves a rest day between her running days so she can recover as much as possible.
Add in a little bit of speed
Almost all of Elivira’s running should be done at an easy pace, as she is still fairly new to running and getting used to the extra distance is challenge enough. However, adding in a few ‘strides’ once a week will help give her a little bit of speed. ‘Strides’ are short periods of running at a pace that is almost a sprint. Ease up to something approaching your top speed, hold it for 10 seconds, then ease back down. It shouldn’t feel hard, but will get your legs moving.
After 18 weeks of training, Elvira has gone from not running a single step, to being able to run for an hour. This is a great achievement and has given her the fitness she’ll need to complete the 10K. For the final two weeks of her training, she tapers her running down.
This involves easing back, so that she reaches the start line feeling rested and ready to go. She’ll reduce her runs by a third, to a 40 minute long run a week before the 10K and 20 minute shorter runs – with the last run before the event being a 15 minute ‘leg loosener’ a couple days before the big day.
Getting it right on the day
Given the probable time of 70 minutes to complete the 10K, all she’ll need to do, compared to her longest training run, is find another 10 minutes of running on the day itself. This should be possible as she’ll be rested after tapering and will have the excitement of the event to carry her round the course.
That said, there is the very real possibility that her body will adapt so well to all the training she has been doing, that she ‘accidentally’ runs 10km on her 60 minute long run in training. This is most definitely not a problem, provided she remembers not to push too hard trying to hit the distance in training, and then leaving herself tired or injured for the main event.
The other possibility is that the training doesn’t go as well as hoped and Elvira struggles to extend the duration of her runs. If this happens, she might have to reassess her chances of completing her 10K and make a decision to insert walk breaks, slow down her pace, or even pick a later event instead.
Working out what your body is capable of on any given day is all part of the challenge of running. By following the above plan – gradually increasing the distance without wrecking her body by trying to do too much too soon – Elvira should get to race day feeling confident of covering the distance and feeling good while doing so.
Fergal wants to get a PB
Fergal is a more experienced runner. He has been running for a few years and done some 10K events already, plus a marathon, some half marathons, and the occasional parkrun. His 10K time has hovered at around the same level for a while now, and he really wants to run a big personal best.
The limiting factor for Fergal has been his lack of consistency. He’ll get excited by an event and train for it, then his running drops off again afterwards. If he can train consistently, then he has a good chance of reaching his goal.
How to approach the challenge
Step one for Fergal is to look at the requirements of the event. To get a PB he is going to need to run for 10km at a hard pace that will be slightly quicker than his threshold pace. Therefore, three things need to be balanced:
- Specific event speed – as he’ll have to be comfortable at 10K race pace;
- Endurance – so that running 10km isn’t a problem;
- Speed – to make race pace feel easier.
10K race pace for Fergal is likely to be no more than 20 seconds per mile slower than his 5K race pace, so it’s still fairly swift, but he’ll have to hold it for twice as far. This is tough, so to run a 10K PB he is going to have to train to deal with this.
To do this, tempo runs will be important. The endurance aspect can be covered by his long runs and general overall mileage. He knows he can cover the distance, but will need to maintain that ability. Speed will be developed through sprints and interval sessions. By including a decent amount of faster running, race pace should feel slightly easier.
In addition to these three components (tempo runs, long runs, and speed sessions), Fergal will include a couple of shorter, easy runs a week to help condition his body to running and improve his general fitness.
Fergal’s recent training has been a bit sporadic, but he has a weekly mileage figure in mind that he knows he can achieve fairly comfortably based on what he’s done before. This will be his starting point and he’ll aim to increase that gradually as the plan goes on, but only as much as feels manageable without getting tired or injured. After all, he’s doing more speedwork than he’s done before, so that will take some getting used to. More is not necessarily better.
10 miles is a good minimum long run distance for someone looking to break a 10K PB. Hitting a maximum of 13 miles would be helpful, if possible, just to make sure that running 10km on race day isn’t a problem. It’s OK if Fergal has to slow his long runs right down to hit the distance.
Once the long runs become comfortable, Fergal should make them a little trickier either by adding some strides, running on a hilly route, or turning them into a ‘progression’ run with a fast finish. A half marathon race, no later than 4 weeks before the 10K, can make for a good, hard long run. Fergal will have to make sure that he doesn’t push so hard that he injures himself and jeopardises his chances of running well in the 10K though.
Fergal’s speed work will look very similar to Donna’s, which we looked at in our article on training for 5K. Except, where the speed sessions were the main session for Donna, they’re more of a ‘support’ session for Fergal. He’ll run at 5K race pace or quicker, over a total distance of at least 5km, with rest periods as required to complete the session. Examples of suitable interval sessions are:
- 6x 1200m at 5K pace or quicker, with 200m jogging recovery inbetween;
- 12x 400m at quicker than 5K pace, with 1 minute standing rest inbetween;
- 2000m, 1600, 1200, 800m, 400m, 200m, starting at 5K pace for the first rep, then getting slightly quicker with each rep. 200m jogging recovery inbetween.
- These are tough sessions and are beyond Fergal’s current fitness at the start of the plan. Keeping the reps fast is important, so he has two options available to him: Either start off with fewer reps, or take longer recovery periods. He can then build up with more reps or shorter recoveries as he gets fitter.
- The sessions as described above are based on distance and would be best run on an athletics track or on a fairly flat loop in a park. If you don’t have access to a track (alternatively, a lap of a full-size football pitch should be about 400m long) or a watch that tells you how far you’ve run, you can run these reps by time instead. Just work out how long it will take you to cover certain distances at 5K pace and base your session on that.
Occasional ‘pure speed’ sprints will help, too. These can be standalone sessions that replace other speed sessions, or as simple as adding up to three 150m flat-out sprints on to the end of his other sessions. They can be great substitutes to the interval sessions above if Fergal is feeling sluggish from building up his mileage and needs to get some spring back into his step.
Hill sprints are always good in the early stages of a training plan, to build strength and encourage good running form, and could replace another session in the first few weeks.
These are very important for 10K runners as they most closely resemble the demands of the event: maintaining a harder-than-preferred pace for a further-than-preferred distance. The key to planning tempo runs is not to completely match the demands of the race in training, as that would be exhausting, but balance getting close enough while still including enough rest to recover properly.
As such, an example would be 1 mile easy, 4 miles at a steady pace*, 1 mile easy. The 4 mile section should be run hard enough that you would like to slow down by the end, but could carry on at that pace if you absolutely had to.
(*A ‘comfortably hard’ pace where you can say no more than a short sentence before having to catch your breath. It’ll probably be about half-marathon race pace, but the precise pace is less important than the effort level.)
Rather than a run with the faster bit in the middle, a progression run can make a good tempo run. Start off easy, then ease up to a pace a bit slower than race pace, before finishing at race pace.
Another alternative would be to run an alternating pace run, where race pace sections are interspersed with easier sections. For example, half an hour of 1 minute pushing it followed by 1 minute easy. This could also be considered an interval session, but you’re never hitting top speed and the slower sections are short enough that you don’t fully get your breath back.
A parkrun at close to his maximum would make for a good tempo run and would help practice running in a pack ahead of the target race.
Finally, for a tough, final tempo session just before tapering for the race, Fergal could attempt 10km minutes at race pace, but split as 2x 5km, with 10 minutes or so of very easy running in the middle.
Whatever the format – and mixing them up is a good idea, to give a range of training stimulus – the idea is to finish the run feeling as though you’ve had to push yourself, but without having to give 100 per cent.
There is a general correlation between more miles and faster race times, but this comes with caveats. It only works if you don’t do too many miles and injure yourself, or end up fatigued and overtrained.
Fergal needs to do what he can manage. If he’s falling asleep at his desk, constantly achey, or keeps getting ill, then he’s probably doing too much. If this happens, he should ease back to a level he can manage and stay there for a week or two before having another attempt at building back up. Patient consistency over an extended period is better than a spectacular week or two of massive mileage followed by an extended injury layoff.
Like Elvira, the final two or three weeks of Fergal’s plan should be a tapering period where he gradually reduces the mileage, but keeps a little bit of the faster running to keep his legs sharp.
Cross training for 10K
If, for some reason, Elvira and Fergal find they need or want to cross train, then any activity with a strong endurance focus will be suitable. Swimming, elliptical trainers, and steady-paced rowing sessions can benefit overall fitness. HIIT classes, spinning, or similar high intensity activities can cover some of the speed requirements. Other sports such as tennis and football can help too, as they require a fairly high intensity level sustained over an extended period of time.
No matter how much cross training they do, Elvira and Fergal will need to do some running in order to stand a chance of reaching their goals.
Hopefully the above gives you an idea of how you can train for your first 10K, or improve your PB, whether you are a beginner like Elvira, or more experienced like Fergal.
For Elvira, the goal is to get to the point where she can manage 10km of continual running. Therefore, gradually extending her endurance is the aim. For Fergal, who can comfortably cover the distance, working on his ability to hold a hard pace for a sustained period is the priority. For both of them, integrating their running into their lifestyles, so that they are able to string together a consistent block of training will help them achieve their goals.
Just bear in mind that the examples given are just that – examples, meant to illustrate the different approaches. Every runner is different, so adapt the basic principles to suit you and your running.
But what about you?
It is important to consider yourself, your running history, and your goals when devising your training plan. Look at your current fitness, look at your goals, then consider what you need to get from one to the other.
- Do you need to work on your speed or your endurance?
- Are you good or bad at judging your effort and pacing?
- Are there any other factors (even non-running ones) that are holding your running back?
Look back at your previous training and then think about where improvements can be gained. Don’t be afraid to experiment. There’s more than one way to run a PB.
If you would like to know more, there is a wealth of experience among the Lonely Goat community. Feel free to continue the discussion on our social media channels – Facebook, Instagram and Strava – and let us know how you get on.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next article in the series, which will be on training for a half marathon.