Training – 5K

So far in this series of articles on training to improve your running, we’ve looked at long runs, intervals and tempo runs. These 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. Now, in the second part of this series, we are going to move from the different kinds of run, to take an in depth look at training approaches for the key events that we, as runners, are likely to participate in. First up, it’s the 5K.

About the event

Compared to longer events, the 5K is sometimes overlooked as a serious pursuit. But, like all running events, it can be a considerable challenge in its own right. After all, any distance is difficult if you run it flat out.

At 5km in length, or 3.1 miles, it is a distance that is fairly easy to get your head around and visualise. In the world of track and field athletics, the distance features in the Olympics as the 5,000m track race, and as a result there have long been road races of the same distance. With the rise of ‘mass participation’ 5K series over the past decade or so – with Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life series, and hundreds of parkruns taking place every weekend – there are more people running 5K events regularly than ever before.

The accessibility of these events – free or cheap entry, convenient locations, regular fixtures, and a friendly atmosphere – has undoubtedly contributed to the current running boom that has encouraged so many people to lace up their trainers for the first time.

Training for the event

Just because it is short, relatively speaking, 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 runners: First, we focus on a complete beginner, Balthazar. Then, we examine the 5K from the point of view of an experienced runner looking to set a new 5K personal best (PB), Donna. If you’re already an old hand at 5K running, you could scroll straight down to Donna’s section, but it still might be worth reading through Balthazar’s first.

Balthazar the beginner

Let us return to Balthazar who featured in the earlier articles on long runs, intervals and tempo runs. Balthazar 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 (much like interval runs), through to running with no walking at all. This is tried and tested and has worked for so many runners, that it may seem daft to tweak it.

That said, by looking at the plan, we can understand what it is trying to achieve and potentially identify areas in which it can be adapted to suit the individual (in this case, Balthazar).

The first 4 weeks consist of running interspersed with walking breaks. Over the course of those 4 weeks, the amount of running goes up and the walking comes down. Regardless of the combination of running and walking, 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 is important and 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. The three runs in week 7 being a 5 minute walk followed by a 25 minute run. The run portion increases to 28 minutes in week 8, followed by 30 in week 9.

Adapting the plan

Looking at this, it is sensible for Balthazar to keep the first 4 weeks as they are. Just going for a run is a big enough change for him, without making things even more difficult. Weeks 5 and 6 are also worth keeping the same, as they already offer a good mix of runs, plenty of variety, and help progress Balthazar’s fitness.

It is the last 3 weeks that Balthazar may opt to tweak. He knows that he struggles to maintain his motivation and the thought of doing what is effectively 9 long runs in 3 weeks is concerning him.

Taking what we learnt in the previous articles, Balthazar opts to reorganise the last three weeks as follows:

  • The first run of each week is an interval session. Rather than run continually for 25, 28 or 30 minutes, he opts to do a 10 minute easy run, followed by half a dozen very short hill sprints with walk-back recoveries, then a final 10 minutes of running. He’s still getting in 20+ minutes of running, but he also gains the benefit of working his muscles in a different way during the sprints.
  • The second run of the week becomes a semi-tempo run. He chooses to run for 5 minutes less than planned (potentially losing some of his endurance), but opts to do the last 10 minutes at a slightly quicker pace than usual. This helps him learn how to keep pushing should the going gets tough at the end of his first non-stop 5K run.
  • The third run of the week effectively becomes a long run. It is the one where Balthazar pushes his endurance capability by running for 25 minutes (week 7), then 28 (week 8) and finally 30 (week 9). As Balthazar is training himself to complete a 5K and run further than he ever has before, he keeps this run as stated in the plan and treats it as the most important run of the week – which, arguably, it is.

Balthazar would be absolutely fine doing the NHS Couch to 5K plan with no changes whatsoever, but with these minor tweaks in the last 3 weeks he maintains his interest and motivation, and may gain additional fitness benefits.

Then what?

It is quite likely that once Balthazar has done one 5K, that he will have caught the bug and will 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, Balthazar might start chasing PBs and trying to lower this time even further.

How will he do this? At this stage – no longer a pure beginner, but not yet an experienced runner – business as usual 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 Balthazar’s pace naturally get quicker.

How will this happen? Because Balthazar 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.

Running 5Ks often is the best way for Balthazar to learn how to run 5K well.

Progressing further

After a time, however, Balthazar may well reach a plateau. He has got into a regular routine with his running, but the PBs are harder to come by. This happens to all runners.

At this point, Balthazar will need to start looking more closely at his training plan and identify the areas where he can improve. He may decide to make his long runs longer, do more speedwork, or try and run his tempo runs a bit quicker. Any of these tweaks is likely to have a positive benefit.

To explore how an experienced runner might try to change their training to get a PB, we will switch our attention to Donna, who has been running for some time, considers herself an experienced runner, and is looking to set a new PB. You may not be in quite the same situation as Donna, but the general principles will apply to most runners, so offer an insight as to how experienced runners can continue to improve their 5K times.

Brian Emms, Gill Robson, Julie Canning and Kim Giles at parkrun

Donna the PB chaser

We’ve seen how a beginner may approach the 5K; when building up your ability from 0 to 30 minutes is the priority. For an experienced runner, the challenge is more one of increasing speed rather than endurance. This is true of our next example runner, Donna. She 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 win a corporate 5K her work has signed her up for, which she reckons will require a sub-18 minute run.

The demands of a fast 5K

The world record for the 5,000m track race is 12’37” for men and 14’11” for women. Unless you are as fast as Kenenisa Bekele or Tirunesh Dibaba in their prime, you will be slower than this; but regardless of how much slower you are, there are some principles that are true for every experienced runner trying to run 5K as quick as they can. The next few sections assume you’ve read the articles on long runs, intervals and tempo runs, or are familiar with those ideas. If not, have a quick read then pop back here. They also assume you will be doing one long run, one interval session, and one tempo run a week. If you operate to a different timetable, then you can always play around with this to suit your own circumstances – nothing is set in stone.

Long runs for short events

If 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 hold your long run at this distance. The only goal of this 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) can help if you find you struggle to hold it together at the end of a race.
  • Alternatively, if you find slow long runs make you feel sluggish, pop a few short hill sprints in part-way through to keep some speed in your legs.
  • Or, if you want to improve leg strength, do your long runs on tricky terrain such as hills or trails.

There’s no right or wrong approach, as these are just examples, but think about what you want to achieve and how best you can do this. It may well be best to try a combination of all the above, with a different focus on your long runs each week. 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 really fast is really hard, sticking to just one hard interval session a week allows enough time for adequate recovery. 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 might be a good starting point.

For the below, the fast bits (the ‘reps’, short for repetitions) are run at or faster than 5km race pace at a pace, at a pace you can sustain for the whole session. The recovery periods consist of easy running. If you don’t have access to a running track (most people don’t), then use a loop you know the distance of, or set a GPS watch up to beep at the appropriate intervals.

  • Week one: 10x 400m (200 m recovery).
  • Week two: 12x 400m (200 m recovery).
  • Week three: 4x 1000m (400 m recovery).
  • Week four: 8x 600m (400 m recovery).
  • Week five: 14x 400m (200 m recovery).
  • Week six: 5x 1000m (400 m recovery).
  • Week seven: 7x 800m (400 m recovery).
  • Week eight: 3x 1600m (400m recovery).
  • Week nine: 6x 1000m (400 m recovery).
  • Week ten: 16x 400m (200m recovery).
  • Week eleven: 3x 1600m (400m recovery), then 1x 400 flat out.
  • Week twelve: 5x 400m (200 m 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.

Alternatively, if you don’t have an accurate means of measuring distance, you could construct an interval sessions programme based on time spent running hard. The measurement of paces and distances isn’t going to be as precise, but the physiological benefit will be similar. Just work out how long it would take you to cover the rep distance at race pace, and run for that length of time. For example, Donna will cover 400m in about 90 seconds at her race pace. Should your target be faster or slower, you can adjust accordingly.

Being flexible

You’ll note that in the examples 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.

If you have to cut a session short due to tiredness, then do so, but make sure you recover properly (a decent meal and getting enough sleep is always good) so you can continue with the rest of the plan. There’s a fine balance between pushing hard enough to improve and so hard that you injure yourself.

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 5km 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.

Also worth including are some occasional hill sprints (a handful, done weekly or fortnightly will be enough) to keep your leg strength and help you develop a blazing sprint finish. These can be incorporated into other runs or done as stand-alone sessions, but make sure you are well warmed up beforehand if you choose to add these in.

As mentioned, Donna is an experienced runner and has done interval sessions before, so her body is used to them. If, however, you haven’t done a large amount of fast running, then feel free to reduce the distance or number of intervals to a level you can manage. After all, even a little bit of faster running is better than nothing.

Tempo runs

Whereas the interval sessions are being done faster than 5km race pace, the tempo runs will be done at a slower speed. Depending on the distance, this could be anywhere from just slower than race pace, down to the sort of pace you might expect to run a marathon in. As mentioned in the article on tempo runs, the aim is to get used to being comfortably uncomfortable. That is, you will be aware that you’re pushing the pace compared to an easy run, but you’re not going to be completely worn out by the end.

One approach to consider is rotating through three different types of tempo run.

  • Race distance at a speed slightly slower than target pace. For example, Donna (who wants to break 18 minutes), might do a parkrun in 19 to 21 minutes as a training run.
  • Long intervals. For example, a total of 6 miles of running, with every other mile at half-marathon race pace.
  • Progression runs. For example, running for 45 minutes, but gradually picking up the pace every 15 minutes, with the last 15 at around 10km race pace.

This 3 week cycle can be repeated over the course of a training plan, or modified slightly to maintain interest from week to week. As always, the precise details are less important than the overall result: feeling like you’ve slightly improved or maintained your ability to push the pace over an extended period of time.

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.

Also worth considering, is running longer races as training sessions. For example, a 10K run at half-marathon race, is still a good, decent workout, but won’t leave Donna so tired that she is unable to train properly in the following days. This can be a fun way of keeping training interesting – just don’t neglect your shorter, faster running.

If tempo runs are new to you, ease into them. This can be done by reducing the length of time you spend at your tempo pace, or by slowing the runs down slightly. Just make sure they are still slightly harder than your easy runs though. In time, as you get used to them, you can add in some distance or speed to make them more difficult.

When deciding how long your interval sessions and tempo runs should be, try to limit the total amount of faster running to no more than 20% of your total weekly mileage. This is just a rule of thumb, and as we’ve discussed, all runners are different, but it’s a good starting point as it should ensure adequate recovery.

Putting it all together

As mentioned in the Introduction article, 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 (with hill sprints the day before if you’re opting for an ‘endurance only’ long run), but this need not be set in stone if it doesn’t suit you. It is better to tweak things to fit you – in a way that you can manage and maintain – than struggle with a plan that you can’t manage and get disheartened because you can’t get the training in.

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

  • You are more likely to keep on top of your training if you’re feeling motivated and enjoying your running;
  • Starting your target race with a positive mindset will help you keep pushing hard when the pain and doubts start to creep in.

Training plan length

The examples given above are based on a 12 week long training plan. This isn’t a magic number – It was simply chosen as it’s a length of time that works for many runners and is comparable with other training plans you may see.

12 weeks, or three months, is long enough that you can develop your ability to run a particular event well, but isn’t so long that you get bored! If you have fewer than 12  weeks between now and your target event, then compress the plan accordingly, but bear in mind that you might not have enough time to achieve all the training you want to do.

If you have longer before your target event, then you can extend the plan out. The safest way to do this is by repeating the early weeks when the training load is less strenuous, rather than repeat the final few weeks when the intensity of your training can be high. However you do it, listen to your body: If you need to rest, do so; If you can push things up a notch, then try it.

Some training plans will break the whole period up into distinct blocks, such as 4 weeks focusing on easy running and building mileage, 4 weeks focusing on speed, and 4 weeks fine-tuning before the race. If this is how you like to organise your running then you can do so. However the plans in this article work on a different, more linear basis, where each of those elements (easy running, speed, endurance, etc.) feature at some point every week. At the start of the plan the runs will be a little easier (as they will be based on your current fitness), and then you will gradually progress them to the point where you can manage harder runs (as you approach race fitness). Think of it as a chart with a steadily rising level of difficulty, rather than a bar chart with distinct blocks.

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 20+. Instead, try and think of it in the following way:

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

If you can comfortably average 50 miles a week (this is just an example, not a target or minimum that everyone should aim for), then aiming for 60 miles a week is likely to lead to an improvement in your running – provided you don’t get injured.

However, if you average 50 miles a week but are constantly battling niggles and injuries and feel your races suffered, then dropping down to 40 or less could be the key to getting a decent block of training in.

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 (3 to 4 weeks works for many runners) to help stave off fatigue.

When it comes to distributing your target miles throughout the week, take your total and then subtract the distance of your three key sessions (long run, intervals and tempo runs, including warm ups, etc.). Whatever you are left with, divide that among the remaining runs in your week and make sure you run them slowly. The aim is to provide a low level of stress to result in general running fitness (as your three key sessions are what prepare you for the specific demands of your event).

For example (please adapt to suit your circumstances):

  • Donna is aiming for 40 miles per week. Subtracting 10 for her long run, 6 for her interval session, and 6 for her tempo run, gives 18 miles remaining.
  • She runs on 6 days per week. Subtracting the long run, interval session and tempo run gives 3 runs remaining.
  • Dividing the 18 remaining miles among the 3 remaining runs gives 6 miles per run, to be done nice and slowly on her easy days.

This isn’t an exact science, but can help pad out the structure of your training week.

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 Balthazar, 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 10 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 Balthazar, she’ll eat well and rest properly, but she will also reduce the volume of her training. In practice, this means:

  • Her hardest long run will be 2 weeks before race day (her race is on a weekend).
  • Her hardest interval session will be on the following Tuesday (12 days before race day), but she’ll be prepared to cut the session short if an injury flares up.
  • The Thursday tempo will be at half the normal distance.
  • The other runs that week will be shortened by a quarter compared to what she is used to.
  • Her last long run, with a week to go, will be two thirds of her maximum.
  • The last interval session will be reduced to less than half the usual volume.
  • The Thursday tempo (3 days before the race) will be replaced with an easy run with a handful of short, casual sprints (not flat out) to keep a little bit of speed in her legs.
  • The other runs that week will be a third to half of what she is used to.
  • She’ll rest on Friday, and do an easy jog on the Saturday.
  • After a warm up on Sunday, she’ll be stood on the start line ready to race the 5K of her life.

There isn’t an exact science to tapering, but the approach above is one that Donna feels would work for her based on what she has done before. However you choose to structure your taper, remember that it is a question of balance: you want to maintain some intensity (with bouts of faster running), but reduce the volume enough to allow adequate recovery time.

Alternatives

If you want 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 to running only 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.

Balthazar might find that 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.

Of course, very serious runners with a high tolerance to mileage may run twice a day. Very high mileage is arguably of less use to a 5K runner than it would be a marathoner, so consider swapping some of those extra sessions for a gym session, yoga, bouldering or something else to improve your overall fitness. Or, make the most of the extra recovery time you would get from losing some of those miles.

In summary

Hopefully the above gives you an idea of how you can improve your 5K running, whether you are a beginner like Balthazar, or more experienced like Donna. The examples given are just that – examples, meant to illustrate the different approaches.

For Balthazar, 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.

But 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.

But what about you?

As mentioned, 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.

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