5k Training – running a faster 5k

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Running a fast 5k requires a blend of speed, endurance (both aerobic and anaerobic endurance), running efficiency, as well as both physical and mental strength. The vast majority of energy comes from aerobic energy, since to run a good 5k you need to be running at very close to the upper limit of your aerobic capacity (VO2max) throughout the 5k.

Whilst being mainly aerobic running a 5k requires a good level of anaerobic conditioning, and a finely tuned neuromuscular system, in order to maximise race performance. It is the required blend of speed and endurance, that can make the 5k seem like a difficult race distance to train for, with many athletes often overemphasizing either the speed or endurance components – typically overemphasizing their strengths. However, training for a 5k need not be difficult, and there are 5 key training areas that you can easily incorporate into your weekly training schedule that will help to ensure you maximize your potential, and hopefully achieve that 5k PB.

1) Developing good aerobic endurance through a sufficient amount of Base miles

Base miles are often overlooked when training for a 5k, however an adequate volume of low/moderate intensity training (Zone 1 and 2) is key to fulfilling your potential over 5k. There are a number of reasons why a good volume of base training is important but the three main reasons are:

1) Sufficient base miles helps to maximize a good base level of aerobic fitness and endurance, which we know are vital for running a good 5k;

2) A consistent volume of low/moderate intensity training is one of the best ways to progressively improve running efficiency – you may not see the more dramatic short term improvements that occur with both strength and interval training, however it provides a much more consistent progression over longer time periods;

3) A good volume of base training is vital for maximizing the benefits of high intensity interval training, in fact the volume of base miles should directly determine the quantity of interval training that you can include in your weekly training program. Most current research looking at optimum training intensities and training data of elite endurance athletes, has found that low/moderate intensity training typically makes up 75-80% of their total training time.

For most athletes the high volumes of low/moderate intensity training, completed by elite endurance athletes, are unrealistic. However, it should still make up a significant proportion of total training time. Current research suggests that the most effective endurance training programs are made up of approximately 75-80% low/moderate intensity (Zone 1 – 2), 5-10% Tempo/sub-threshold (Zone 3), and 10-20% high intensity training (Zone 4 – 5).

The volume of low/moderate intensity training should be made up through a combination of 1 weekly longer run (typically 70-90mins) and a number of shorter duration runs (30-60mins).

Time in heart rate zones

2) Improving 5k race pace with 5k specific intervals

Research is clear that high intensity intervals are a highly effective means of improving endurance running race performance. The greatest effects appear to occur when intervals are in the region of 90-100%VO2max (equivalent to 10k-3k race pace). However, it’s important to remember that in order to maximize performance you need to be specific and do as much training at goal race pace as possible i.e. a 10k runner should do the majority of their intervals at around 10k pace and a 5k runner at around 5k pace. This is one of the reasons why a 10k or 1500m specialist would generally lose to a 5k specialist in a 5k race.

It’s important to remember that the physiological demands of running a 3k, 5k or 10k are all different – including different percentages of VO2max, %HRmax, concentration of lactate levels etc – and the whole point of interval training is to train your body to deal with the specific physiological demands that it will encounter in a given race distance. Therefore in order to gain the best benefit from interval training, a 5k specialist needs to do the majority of their interval training at 5k race pace. This is not to say that faster intervals aren’t beneficial but they should make up a smaller percentage of total training time than race specific intervals. This is where most people make the biggest mistake when running intervals – they a run their intervals too fast, and consequently have too long a recovery between intervals. A typical example is to run 12 x 400m, at well above 5k pace, with an easy 400m jog. Not only are the 400m simulating a different race situation (1500m-3km) but the recoveries are too long. It’s quite common to hear athletes complaining that they have been getting quicker and quicker in this type of interval session but not seeing this translate to an improvement in 5k race performance. This is not surprising when you consider the importance of specificity of training, basically these athletes have trained themselves to run faster 400m intervals of a 400m recovery – unfortunately you do not get this 400m recovery in a race.

Time to get specific: One of the best interval sessions for improving 5k race performance is to run intervals at just slightly above goal race pace, off a short active recovery. A good example is to run 5 x 1000m 3-5secs quicker than goal 5k pace (so only around 1 sec a lap quicker than race pace), off a short recovery e.g. 200m easy jog. Run this session over a period of 6 weeks in the build up to an important 5k and you’ll be surprised just how much easier that 5k race will feel and hopefully you’ll come away with a pb. As the session begins to feel easier, you should reduce the length of the recovery or run the recoveries quicker – remember you’re trying to replicate the physiological conditions that occur during a 5k race, so only increase the pace of the intervals when your 5k time has improved. The other option is to start with shorter intervals and increase the interval length over a period of weeks whilst maintaining the same length of recovery.

Examples of 5k specific sessions

Intervals Interval Target Pace Recovery
10-12 x 400m 1 sec quicker than 5k pace 100m jog
6-8 x 800m 2-3 secs quicker than 5k pace 200m jog
5-6 x 1000m 3-5 secs quicker than 5k pace 200m jog
4 x 1200m 4-6 secs quicker than 5k pace 200m jog
3 x 1600m 4-6 secs quicker than 5k pace 200m jog

3) Improve fatigue resistance, running economy and 5k performance with strength training

The benefits of strength training/explosive strength training are often overlooked by endurance athletes. However, strength training has been shown to be highly effective at improving running economy, fatigue resistance, lactate threshold, time to exhaustion, and race performance.

Most research has found that both heavy resistance training and explosive strength training (sprint training and plyometric training) to be highly effective, whereas circuit training is still beneficial but to a lesser extent. In particular strength training appears to have a positive effect on running economy (with 5-8% improvements reported following short duration studies), as well as improvements in the speed at the lactate threshold, velocity at VO2max. Since running economy, the lactate threshold, and the velocity at VO2max, are key determinants of endurance running performance, it shouldn’t be surprising that researchers have also found that strength training significantly improves running performance.

Fitting strength training into a weekly schedule can be difficult especially if you already train on most days. Current research suggests that on days when you have completed high intensity training you should leave 3 or more hours before completing strength training. However, on days where you are only doing shorter duration, low intensity training, recent research shows that you can improve the endurance response to low intensity exercise, and improve strength at the same time, by immediately performing strength training after the endurance session.

You can read more about strength training for endurance athletes here: http://training4endurance.co.uk/improve-endurance/strength-training-for-endurance/

4) Hill training for 5k runners

Hill training has been shown to be a great way to improve 5k running performance. Hill training forces the athlete to apply more force with each foot strike, and therefore is a highly sport specific form of strength training.

It has a number of benefits for endurance runners including improved running economy, neuromuscular co-ordination, stride frequency and length, fatigue resistance, aerobic and anaerobic energy systems – all of which contribute to improved running performance. Research has shown that hill training is a great way to improve 5k race performance.

To gain the benefit from hill training it is important to get the intensity right, ideally you should be looking to run at an intensity equivalent to 90-100% of VO2max. On a flat road or track hitting this zone is fairly easy to achieve by simply running intervals at between 5 and 10k race pace, however with hills you obviously have to take account of the gradient and modify the pace accordingly in order to achieve the same intensity.

hill running training

As a general rule, the equivalent speed on a gradient should be approximately 5-6% slower, per 1% gradient, in order to maintain the same intensity, as on a flat stretch of road. For me this works out at a speed equivalent to around Zone 4, or just below threshold speed/half marathon pace, when running 2min hill intervals over a 2% gradient. Because of the gradient, this results in a heart rate typically around Zone 5b, so right in the aerobic capacity zone. When running shorter steeper intervals (~6% gradient) I find that a speed equivalent to upper zone 2/lower zone 3 is sufficient to get the heart rate, and consequently VO2, into the aerobic capacity zone.

5) Threshold training

Lactate threshold training involves running longer intervals, at or around, the speed/intensity of the lactate threshold (an intensity sustainable for ~1 hour in a race situation) and is a great way to improve the ability to sustain a fast running speed, over a prolonged period. Whilst slightly less beneficial for race distance of 5k and below, than races of 10k or more, it is still important and can make a significant improvement to 5k race performance. Lactate threshold training can be easily incorporated into a weekly training schedule by including one weekly run that involves continuous running or longer intervals, at or around, the lactate threshold running speed.

Threshold run training

Examples of lactate threshold training sessions, include:

Type of LT training Example LT run session
Continuous 20-30minute run at lactate threshold running speed 40 min run with middle 20mins at LT run speed
2-3 longer intervals at lactate threshold running speed 50-60 min run with 2-3 x 10mins, or 2 x 20mins, at LT run speed with 3-5min jog recoveries.
A number of shorter intervals run at lactate threshold speed 50 min run with 6 x 5mins at LT run speed, separated by 60 secs of easy running
Continuous run alternating between just above lactate threshold running speed and just below LT running speed 50 min run with 30mins alternating between 3mins at 5-10secs/km quicker than LT pace and 3mins at 5-10secs/km slower than LT pace.

Putting a 5k training plan together:

Putting this all together can seem difficult and will be affected by a number of factors including training experience, current running fitness level, and your training volume. Below I have included a couple of basic examples of how this could be put together. Over the coming weeks I plan to add in some more specific 5k training plans.

Example 5k training plan for someone training 5 days a week

Day: Training session:
Monday 5k specific session e.g. 5-6x1000m at 3-5secs quicker per 1000m than 5k pace, 200m jog recovery. 10mins warm up and cool down.
Tuesday Rest Day
Wednesday 50-60mins steady pace run
Thursday Hill tempo session e.g. 10-12 x hill tempos (40-45secs at 5k intensity on the uphill, run downhill in 50-55secs). 10mins warm up and cool down.
Friday Rest Day
Saturday AM: Threshold run e.g. 40mins run with 20mins at LT running pace
PM: 30-40mins of leg weights
Sunday 80-90min easy pace run

Example 5k training plan for someone training 6 days a week

Day: Training session:
Monday 5k specific session e.g. 5-6x1000m at 3-5secs quicker per 1000m than 5k pace, 200m jog recovery. 10mins warm up and cool down.
Tuesday 30mins easy run + 30mins leg weights/core strength exercises
Wednesday 60-70mins steady pace run
Thursday Hill tempo session e.g. 12-14 x hill tempos (40-45secs at 5k intensity on the uphill, run downhill in 50-55secs). 10mins warm up and cool down.
Friday Rest Day
Saturday AM: Threshold run e.g. 50mins run with 30mins at LT running pace
PM: 30-40mins of leg weights
Sunday 80-90min easy pace run