In this training article, we look at how to train for a 10K, for beginners and PB hunters.
The challenges of running a 10K
Compared to the longer distances (half marathons, marathons, etc.), which seem to get more attention, 10K events can sometimes be thought of as a stepping stone on the way to greater things. This is perhaps unfair as running a 10K well is a fantastic achievement in its own right.
For a beginner, the challenge is running for up to an hour, or much longer. For an experienced runner, chasing a personal best (PB), the challenge is being able to push hard for the whole distance.
To compare the approaches for runners of different experience levels, let’s introduce two example runners, Eve and Fred.
Eve wants to finish a 10K
Eve is a new runner who has signed up to a local 10K. 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 Eve around 9 weeks, but it doesn’t matter too much if she has to take a couple of extra weeks for any reason. She keeps one gym class a week, as she enjoys it, 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 yet and it takes a while to adapt to the new activity. 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.
Her 5K time will give her an indication of what she might expect to achieve over 10K, but she’s not too focused on times. Just getting to the finish is the goal.
From 5K to 10K
Eve adapts the C25K routine, gradually increasing the duration of her runs each week. 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 or so, hitting 60 minutes for her longest run a fortnight before her event. This is a nice, steady progression.
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 only if it doesn’t take too much out of her to recover properly before the next run.
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 Eve’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 5 to 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.
She’ll reduce her final long run, a week before the event, to 30 minutes, with her mid week runs also cut in half.
Getting it right on the day
Depending on her pace, Eve’s final long run might be some way short of 10K, meaning she’ll have to dig deep and find that extra distance on race day. 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, if she’s able to run quick enough, there is the very real possibility that she ‘accidentally’ runs 10km on her 60 minute long run in training. This is most definitely not a problem as it means she can enjoy the event knowing she can cover the distance.
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 doing too much too soon – Eve should get to race day confident of covering the distance and feeling good while doing so.
Fred wants to get a PB
Fred 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 around the same level for a while now, and he really wants to run a big personal best.
The limiting factor for Fred 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 Fred is to look at the requirements of the event. To get a PB he is going to need to run for 10km at a sustained pace that will feel very hard by the end. Therefore, three things need to be balanced:
- Endurance – so that the distance isn’t a problem;
- Speed – so that running hard feels OK;
- ‘Race pace’ – getting used to the effort required to run a PB.
To achieve this, one run a week will be a long run (endurance), one will be an intervals session (speed), and one will be a tempo (race pace). These may be complemented by additional, short easy runs for general conditioning.
Fred’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, which will take some getting used to. More is not necessarily better.
Patient consistency over an extended period is better than a spectacular week or two of massive mileage followed by an injury.
10 miles is a good long run distance for someone looking to break a 10K PB, as it helps make sure that running 10km on race day isn’t a problem. Fred could do more, but shouldn’t need to exceed twice the race distance.
If the long runs become comfortable, Fred may make them a little trickier by adding some strides, running on a hilly route, or turning them into a ‘progression’ run with a fast finish.
Fred’s speed work will look very similar to Donna’s, which we looked at in our article on training for 5K. Except, whereas the speed sessions were the main course for Donna, they’re more of a side dish for Fred.
The total distance of the intervals will be around 5km, and he’ll run them at a hard pace that can be maintained throughout the session. Examples of suitable interval sessions are:
- 6x 5 mins, with 2 mins jogging recovery in-between;
- 12x 2 mins, with 1 minute standing rest in-between;
- 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 mins, with 2 mins jogging recovery in-between.
These are tough sessions and are beyond Fred’s current fitness at the start of the plan. Keeping the pace of the reps fast is important, so he has two options available to him: 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.
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 Fred is feeling sluggish from building up his mileage and needs to get some spring back into his step.
These are important for 10K runners as they closely resemble the demands of the event: Holding a fairly hard pace for longer than is comfortable.
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 with including enough rest to recover properly.
An example would be 1 mile easy, 4 miles “steady”*, 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.
(* “Steady” refers 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.)
Progression runs can make a good tempo run. Start off easy, then build up to a pace a bit slower than race pace, before finishing at race pace.
A parkrun at close to his maximum would also make for a good tempo run and would help practice running in a pack ahead of the target race.
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.
Like Eve, the final two or three weeks of Fred’s plan should be a tapering period where he gradually reduces the mileage, but retains a little bit of the faster running to keep his legs sharp.
Cross training for 10K
If, for some reason, Eve and Fred 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.
Hopefully the above gives you an idea of how you can train for your first 10K, or improve your PB.
- For Eve, 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 Fred, who can comfortably cover the distance, working on his ability to hold a hard pace for a sustained period is the priority.
For both, integrating their running into their lifestyles – so they are able to string together a consistent block of training – will help them achieve their goals.
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 think about 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 think about where improvements can be gained. Don’t be afraid to experiment. There’s more than one way to run a PB.
To explore different ways of training for a 10K, remember that there’s a large community of Lonely Goats who can help answer any questions you may have. Head over to our Facebook Chat Group or Strava Club and join the discussion.