Whether you’re looking to complete the distance, or run a PB, here’s our guide on how to train for a 5K.

About the event

At 5km in length, or 3.1 miles, it is a distance that is fairly easy to get your head around and visualise. With the rise of parkrun, there are more people running 5K events regularly than ever before.

Training for the event

Just because it is shorter than other events doesn’t mean a 5K should be underestimated. For beginner runners, it is often the first significant milestone. For experienced runners, it offers the challenge of running well beyond your comfort zone.

To consider the unique demands of the event, we will look at it from the point of view of two example runners:

  • Baz is a complete beginner.
  • Donna is an experienced runner looking to set a new 5K personal best (PB).
Baz the beginner

Baz is a new runner who has set himself the goal of running for 5K, non-stop.

To achieve this, he could do a lot worse than follow the NHS’ ‘Couch to 5K’ training programme or any of the other similar training plans available.

Couch to 5K

The key feature of the NHS plan is the gradual progression from walking with small amounts of running, through to running with no walking at all. This is tried and tested and has worked for so many runners, it should suit Baz perfectly.

The first 4 weeks consist of running interspersed with walking breaks. Over the course of those 4 weeks, the amount of running increases as the walking decreases. None of the training sessions take much more than 20 minutes. This can be thought of as a ‘base building’ phase, where the runner gradually gets used to the act of going out for a run. This is important, as adapting the body to get used to a new activity takes time.

Weeks 5 and 6 contain the most variety, as each of the three runs per week is different. They include both run-and-walk sessions, and sessions with up to 25 minutes of running. 25 minutes might seem like a long time if you’re new to running, but by building up gradually to this point it can be possible.

The last 3 weeks are more straightforward, easing up to 30 minutes of running in week 9.

Life after Couch to 5K

It is quite likely that once Baz has done one 5K, he will have caught the bug and want to do more. If he keeps training he should see improvements in his fitness and his 5K time may come down. Feeling enthused by this improvement, Baz might start chasing PBs and try to lower this time even further.

At this stage – no longer a pure beginner, but not yet an experienced runner – just running consistently should be enough to keep yielding improvements. Repeating the last few weeks of the Couch to 5K plan and running a parkrun every Saturday will see Baz’s pace naturally get quicker.

This is because Baz will be getting fitter, his ability to endure the discomfort of running hard will improve, and he will gain a better understanding of how best to pace himself over the distance.

Lonely Goats, Brian Emms, Gill Robson, Julie Canning and Kim Giles at parkrun
Donna the PB chaser

For an experienced runner, comfortable with the 5K distance, breaking PBs requires a focus on speed. Donna has been running for a number of years, talking in part in events ranging from 5K up to marathons. After focusing on the longer events for a while, Donna has opted to try and get a new 5K PB.

Long runs for short events

If, like Donna, you’re an experienced runner looking for a 5K PB, many of your runs are going to be longer than the 5K itself, with the weekly long run well exceeding the race distance. As such, covering the distance required is likely to be within your comfort zone. With this in mind, there are two approaches to consider.

Endurance only

You can treat the long run as something solely to build and maintain endurance. Build to 10 miles (you can do more or less, but this is likely to be enough) of easy running, then stick with that. The goal is to keep your endurance levels topped up, so that your muscles are conditioned for running and you are safely capable of running 5km hard.

Long run as a training session

You could choose to add an additional level of difficulty to your long run to prompt a different training response. For example:

  • Progression runs (where you start slowly and gradually increase the speed until you’re working hard at the end) help you finish fast at the end of a race.
  • Hill sprints mid-run can add some bounce to your legs.
  • Trails or hilly routes can build leg strength.

Think about what you want to achieve and how best you can do this. Try a combination of all the above, with a different focus on your long runs each week, to add variety. If adding some extra difficulty into your long runs leaves you too fatigued for your other runs, feel free to drop the distance down, or slow them down, to compensate.

Intervals

Speedwork is key to running a fast 5K. As running fast is hard, try to limit it to 20 per cent of your total weekly mileage. As a rule of thumb, a total interval volume of around 5km, run at a speed equal to or faster than your 5km race pace, is about right. How you structure these sessions is up to you, but the following 12 week progression, based on one interval session a week, might be a good starting point.

The fast bits (known as repetitions, or “reps”) are run as hard as you can sustain for the whole session. The recovery periods consist of easy running.

  • Week one: 10x 90 secs (90 secs recovery).
  • Week two: 12x 90 secs (90 secs recovery).
  • Week three: 4x 4 mins (3 mins recovery).
  • Week four: 8x 2 mins (3 mins recovery).
  • Week five: 14x 90 secs (90 secs recovery).
  • Week six: 5x 4 mins (3 mins recovery).
  • Week seven: 7x 3 mins (3 mins recovery).
  • Week eight: 3x 6 mins (3 mins recovery).
  • Week nine: 6x 4 mins (3 mins recovery).
  • Week ten: 16x 90 secs (90 secs recovery).
  • Week eleven: 3x 6 mins (3 mins recovery), then 60 secs flat out.
  • Week twelve: 5x 90 secs (90 secs recovery) – shorter to allow adequate recovery before your target event.

This 12 week progression is just an example, so consider how it might be adapted to suit your own running goals, taking into account your training history.

The exact composition of these sessions is less important than the result: A decent amount of running at a fast pace. The more work you do at or faster than 5K race pace, the better your chances of being able to achieve your goals – provided you allow enough time for your body to recover from the hard training sessions.

Being flexible

You’ll note that in the example above, over the course of the 12 weeks, the total amount of faster running increases slightly, as does the length of the intervals. This is designed to coincide with Donna’s improving fitness.

These sessions will be hard if you’re not used to them. If Donna was struggling to manage these sessions, there would be no harm in dropping a rep or extending the recovery – whatever it takes to maintain the speed. There’s a fine balance between pushing hard enough to improve and so hard that you injure yourself.

Tempo runs

One of Donna’s runs each week will be a tempo run. This could be done at anything from just slower than race pace, down to the sort of pace you might expect to run a marathon at. The aim is to get used to being comfortably uncomfortable. That is, Donna will be aware she’s pushing the pace compared to an easy run, but won’t be completely worn out by the end.

Again, the precise details are less important than the overall result: Working on pushing the pace over an extended distance.

It may well be the case that tempo runs of this nature are new to you. In which case, feel free to drop the distances down to whatever level you can currently manage and then build up gradually over the course of your training plan.

Putting it all together

Most runners will work to a week-long training cycle, but this may not suit you. If so, adjust your training days to fit your cycle. The examples given above will work well scheduled as intervals on Tuesday, tempo run on Thursday, and the long run at the weekend, for examplem, but this need not be set in stone.

It is better to tweak things to fit you – in a way that you can manage and maintain – than struggle with a plan you can’t manage

After all, the biggest improvements tend to come when we feel good about our running.

Overall mileage

Generally speaking, the more you run, the better at running you will be – provided you don’t break your body or get completely exhausted. We’ve deliberately not mentioned overall mileage, or training volume, above.

The reason for this is that it varies massively from runner to runner and depends on how much of that total is fast running or slow running. Some runners can cope with 100+ miles a week, others get injured at 10. Instead, try and think of it in the following way:

  • What have you done before?
  • What will help you to improve?

If 20 miles per week, for example, is comfortable, then 25 or 30 might lead to an improvement in your running.

On the other hand, if you’re consistently injured at 20 miles per week, then see if you feel better at 15.

Over the course of a training plan, it is usual to start off at a slightly reduced mileage, then gradually build up to your peak towards the end. It is sensible to include reduced mileage weeks at regular intervals (every 3 to 4 weeks works for many runners) to help stave off fatigue.

Tapering

This is the act of easing back on your training at the end of the plan, so that you feel fresh for race day.

For Baz, where following the Couch to 5K plan has kept him on the right side of injury and fatigue, not much of a taper will be required. It should be adequate for him to make sure he has a few good night’s sleep, eats well, remains hydrated and avoids doing anything too strenuous or risky in the few days before his target event.

For Donna, who has spent the best part of 3 months gradually pushing up to the limit of what she can manage, tapering becomes more important. After weeks of hard training, she is likely to feel very tired, but a period of reduced training will help get her to the start line in top condition.

The exact length of the taper will vary according to the runner and the intensity of the training plan, but 2 or 3 weeks is commonplace. Donna is going for a 2 week taper. Like Baz, she’ll eat well and rest properly, but she will also reduce the volume of her training in the final fortnight before her target race.

Alternatives

To run well, you need to run – but that doesn’t mean all your training has to be running. Donna might have commitments which limit her to running for 3 days a week. In which case, she should aim to keep her harder runs and replace her easy runs, where possible, with appropriate cross training, such as cycling, swimming, rowing or something else that is aerobic in nature.

Baz might find he’s only be able to run twice a week. In which case, he might want to consider extending his plan by a few weeks, rather than rush it, and also find some other form of exercise to do on some of the remaining days.

Lonely Goat, Tee Sodje at Beckenham Place parkrun
In summary

Hopefully the above gives you an idea of how you can improve your 5K running, whether you are a beginner like Baz, or more experienced like Donna.

  • For Baz, the goal is to get to the point where he can manage 5km of continual running. With this in mind, gradually extending his endurance is the aim.
  • For Donna, who can comfortably cover the distance, working on her speed is the priority, but her endurance should not be neglected.

For both, maintaining a consistent block of training will help them achieve their goals.

But what about you?

When considering how these examples might apply to you, think about your running history and what your goals are.

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.

To discuss different ways of training for a 5K, 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.