Looking to improve your 5k running speed? In this article we’ll take a look at what it takes to run a fast 5k.
Whilst 5k running is on the shorter end of the endurance running spectrum, it’s not an easy option. The combination of running at a speed that’s above your lactate threshold, and very close to your aerobic capacity (VO2 max), makes it a challenging race distance.
Having said that, it’s a great distance to race, and unlike with longer race distances, racing a 5km won’t disrupt your usual training. It’s also a great distance to train for.
What does it takes to run a fast 5k?
Firstly, a high level of aerobic conditioning is vital, since you will be racing near the upper limits of your aerobic capacity – what’s referred to as your VO2 max. So, the higher your aerobic capacity the greater your potential to run a fast time.
That being said, a large aerobic capacity isn’t enough on its own. You also need a good level of speed endurance and the physical conditioning and mental strength, to maintain a fast running speed when fatigue sets in.
And while being mainly aerobic, running a fast 5k requires a good level of anaerobic conditioning. So on top of training to improve aerobic capacity, you also need to work on developing both your speed endurance and a level of anaerobic conditioning.
Running efficiency is also important – although slightly less so than over longer race distances – so training to improve your run efficiency at race pace, will help to shave a few more seconds of your 5k race time.
Taken together, this can make 5k training seem complicated. Luckily, it’s actually less complicated than it appears.
In this article we’ll take a look at the best training approaches you can use to improve your 5k running speed.
How to train for a 5k
5 ways to improve your 5k running
- Develop aerobic endurance
- Interval training for 5k running
- Hill training
- Tempo and Lactate threshold training
- Strength training
Let’s start with developing aerobic endurance
#1 Developing Aerobic Endurance
Developing aerobic endurance is a key part of any successful endurance training program. And this holds true whether your focus is on Marathons, Half Marathons, 10km running or 5km races.
Whilst it’s easy to overlook the importance of low intensity training, in favour of faster intervals, and tempo running. If you really want to fulfil your your potential over 5k, then you need to build that base fitness. And to achieve this, the most important factor is consistency.
The key factors for maintaining consistency:
- Maintain a good training volume
- Include a weekly longer run
- Maintain a balance between more intense running, lower intensity training and recovery workouts.
So, why is training volume important for 5k running? And why not just focus on run faster intervals?
Why training volume is important for 5k runners
- Develops aerobic capacity – training volume is vital to maximising your aerobic capacity. Yes, high intensity training plays a key role, but without developing that base level of fitness you’re limiting progression.
- Builds resilience by conditioning your muscles and cardiovascular system. Helping to improve post exercise recovery and protecting you against the risk of injury and overtraining.
- Improves running efficiency – a consistent volume of low/moderate intensity training is one of the best ways to progressively improve running efficiency. You won’t get the same quick improvements, seen with strength and interval training. But if you want a consistent ‘long-term’ progression then developing an aerobic base is key.
- Greater conditioning allows increased volume of HIIT and threshold workouts. Your volume of aerobic training, has a direct effect on how much interval training you can safely include, in your weekly training program. By improving your aerobic conditioning, you recover more quickly and are able to complete greater volumes of interval training.
So, how much low intensity training should you complete?
There’s no hard and fast rule, and it depends on your conditioning, and training history. As a general rule I like to keep a minimum of 75% of my training at lower intensity. And most current research, looking at optimum training intensities and the training data of elite endurance athletes, has found that low/moderate intensity training should typically makes up 75-80% of total training time.
Clearly, the large volumes of aerobic miles, used by elite athletes, is unrealistic for most runners. Having said that, developing a consistent volume of aerobic training is important, and this should make up a significant proportion of your total training time.
In this regard, research looking at the training schedules of elite athletes tells us that the most effective endurance training programs focus on large volumes of low intensity training. As I’ve just mentioned, around 75-80% of their total training is completed at these low/moderate intensities. A further 5-10% is then completes at tempo/sub-threshold, with the remaining 10-20% consisting of high intensity intervals and threshold training.
Whilst the proportion of tempo, threshold and interval training can vary – depending on your target race distance – the percentage of low intensity training shouldn’t change significantly.
How to achieve a high proportion of low intensity training?
To achieve this, low/moderate intensity training can be made up through a combination of:
- A weekly longer run (typically 60-90mins),
- 1 or more (depending on training volume), shorter duration runs (30-60mins).
- Cross training can also be used as part of your aerobic base training.
- Your warm up and cool down will also form part of your weekly volume of low intensity aerobic training.
Now, let’s look at interval training.
#2 Interval Training for 5k Running
If you want to run your fastest 5k, then interval training is a must. Research is clear that interval training is one of the most effective ways to improving endurance running.
So, what’s the best interval training for 5ks? Research looking into interval training, shows that running intervals at close to VO2max intensity is one of the most effective ways to improve running performance.
We also know that to maximise performance, we need to be specific and include sufficient training at goal race pace. That being said, it’s important to use a range of interval intensities – some above and some below 5k pace – if we want to achieve peak performance.
Let’s start with 5k pace intervals.
5k Pace Intervals
It’s important to remember that the physiological demands of running a 5k are unique. And the main purpose of interval training is to train you to cope – physically and mentally – with the unique demands of racing a 5k. To achieve this you need to include sufficient 5k pace intervals within your training.
This isn’t to say faster intervals aren’t beneficial, but they should make up a smaller percentage of your total training time compared with race specific intervals.
Whilst it’s tempting to focus on running intervals as fast as possible, if you want to run a fast 5k then you really need to be comfortable at 5k pace. And to do that you need to invest time in training at that pace.
One of the best approaches to 5k interval training, is to run intervals at a pace that’s ‘slightly’ quicker than your current race pace. Each interval is then separated by a short recovery period. With the total volume of intervals, adding up to 5km, or sometimes slightly longer – depending on your level of fitness and conditioning.
A good approach here, is to start with shorter intervals, like 10-12 x 400m repeats. And as your conditioning improves, increase the interval length. Building towards longer intervals like 800m or 1km repeats at 5k pace.
One of the best 5k interval sessions, is to run 5-6 x 1km intervals at a pace that’s 3-5secs quicker (per km) than current 5k pace. This should be combined with a short active recovery. The length of the recovery will depend on your conditioning – so you might need to start with a longer recovery (400m), and reduce this as you conditioning at goal 5k pace improves.
To develop your 5k specific conditioning, aim to consistently include 5k pace interval workouts, in the build up to your target 5k race.
So, how many of these should you include in a training block? Whilst this depends on your conditioning, including one of these workouts every two weeks, will go a long way towards improving your 5km running pace. This can then be increased to once per week, during the key phases of training.
5k Interval Workouts
Below are 5k pace intervals, following a progression from easier (400m intervals) to harder (1600m intervals).
- 10-12 x 400m*, 200m jog recovery – can be progressed by reducing the recovery to 100m
- 8-10 x 600m*, 200m jog recovery
- 6-8 x 800m*, 200-400m jog recovery
- 5-6 x 1000m*, 200-400m jog recovery
- 4-5 x 1200m*, 400m jog recovery
- 3-4 x 1600m*, 400-600m jog recovery
*Goal 5k pace
3K Pace Intervals
Whilst 5k pace intervals build race specific conditioning, if you really want to take your 5k running to the next level then you should also include some faster intervals.
Including some 3k pace intervals is a great way to develop top end aerobic fitness, fatigue resistance, running speed and efficiency.
So, why 3k pace? Firstly, this is very close to your VO2 max intensity, so you’re developing the upper limits of aerobic capacity. Secondly, by running above 5k pace for sustained periods, you are improving fatigue resistance in slow and fast twitch muscle fibres. And running at this intensity also helps to improve your running efficiency, ability to tolerate increased muscle acidity and fatigue resistance.
So, how often should you include these? For most runners, these work well when included once every 2-3 weeks.
3k interval workouts
Below are some 3km intervals (similar to vVO2max intervals), following a progression from easier (200m intervals) to harder (1000m intervals).
- 12 x 200m*, 100m jog recovery
- 10-12 x 300m*, 100m jog recovery
- 8-10 x 400m*, 200m jog recovery
- 6 x 600m*, 300-400m jog recovery
- 5 x 800m*, 400-600m jog recovery
- 4-5 x 1000m*, 600m jog recovery
You can progress these further by upping the intensity slightly, so these fall between 3k and mile intensity.
Another important form of interval training for 5k running, is hill training.
#3 Hill Repeats for 5k Runners
Hill training has been shown to be a great way to improve 5k running performance.
Here’s some of the benefits of hill running:
- Improves efficiency and neuromuscular co-ordination
- Increased running cadence and stride length
- Lifts anaerobic and aerobic capacity
- Stronger, more powerful muscles
- Greater fatigue resistance
- Improves running speed
All of which contribute to improved 5km running performance.
So, what’s the best hill workout for 5k running?
Well, here’s the interesting thing….all types of hill running improves 5k running speed.
Whether you include hill sprints, hill repeats, longer hills, or threshold pace hills, they will all improve your 5k running performance. And, they all seem to have a similar performance benefit.
As, I’ve just mentioned any type of hill running is beneficial. Having said that, one important point to remember is….different types of hill workouts bring different benefits.
So, including a variety of different hill sessions is always a good idea.
My preference is to use a combination of hill sprints, short hill repeats, tempo hills and longer hill intervals.
You can read more in the hill running section.
Another important type of training is tempo and threshold training.
#4 Tempo and Threshold Running
Tempo running and lactate threshold training involves running sustained efforts, or longer intervals, at close to the speed/intensity of your lactate threshold.
So, why include these? Including regular tempo or threshold running, you will improve your ability to sustain a fast pace. It can also help to push up your lactate threshold, allowing you to maintain faster running speeds for longer.
While, tempo and threshold training is slightly less important – when compared with longer race distances – it’s still an important intensity to include in your 5k training schedule. Not least because it’s great for developing your aerobic conditioning.
So, what’s the best approach to doing this? Here’s, four different approaches that work well:
- Tempo running
- Threshold Intervals
- 10k pace/threshold intervals
- Over-under training
1. Tempo Running
Tempo running involves continuous running (~20-40minutes) at an intensity that’s slightly lower than your threshold pace (see below). As an example, this would normally be run at a pace that’s approximately 30seconds slower per mile than 5k pace. Or, approximately 15 seconds/mile slower than 10k pace. For many runners this is close to their half marathon running pace.
Because the pace is slower, these are slightly less specific for 5k running, than threshold intervals (see below). Having said that, it’s still a useful training intensity and will improve your ability to sustain a faster running pace.
Example tempo run
- 25mins run at 30sec/mile slower than 5k pace
2. Threshold Intervals
Put simply, your lactate threshold refers to an intensity where there is an accelerated rise in blood lactate levels. For most runners, this is an intensity you could sustain for around 60minutes. Training at this intensity is more specific for 5k running than tempo running, but less specific than 10k pace intervals (see below).
Example threshold training intervals
- 3 x 8mins at Threshold intensity, 75-90 sec jog recovery
- 2-3 x 10mins at Threshold intensity, 2-3mins jog recovery
3. 10k pace intervals
Including 10k pace intervals, is a great way to lift your lactate threshold. They’re also more specific than threshold or tempo training, as they’re only one race distance below 5k.
A word of caution…the intensity is higher than threshold, or tempo running. For this reason, you’ll need to carefully factor these into your training.
Example 10k pace intervals
Progressing from easier to harder.
- 6-8 x 3mins at 10k pace, 60-75 sec jog recovery
- 4-5 x 5mins at 10k pace, 90-120 sec jog recovery
- 3 x 8mins at 10k pace, 3-5mins jog recovery
4. Over-under training
Another good training option is over-under training. Here, we combine running longer intervals at a steady (tempo) pace, with short periods run above this intensity.
It’s a great way to ramp up threshold training, making these more specific to 5k training.
Example Over-under interval
- 2 x 12mins (alternating between 2:30mins at half marathon pace and 30secs at 5k pace), separate each interval with 3-4mins of easy running
- 3 x 9mins (alternating between 2mins at half marathon pace and 1min at 5k pace), separate each interval with 3-4mins of easy running
#5 Strength Training for 5k running
As endurance runners, it’s easy to overlook strength training and plyometrics.
That’s a mistake as strength training has many benefits for endurance runners, including: improved running efficiency, fatigue resistance, lactate threshold running speed, the velocity at VO2max, time to exhaustion, maximum velocity and running performance.
All of which will help to improve your 5km running speed.
Most research has found that heavy resistance training and explosive strength training (sprint training and plyometric training) is be highly effective. Circuit training is also useful, albeit to a lesser extent.
The best ways to develop strength for 5k running
- Strength training using fundamental exercises: squats, straight leg deadlifts, lunges, calf raises, box jumps etc
- Hill sprints
- Sprint training
So, when and how should you include strength training?
Scheduling in strength training can seem difficult, especially if you already train on most days. One important consideration is the timing of strength training: how do you time strength training workouts so they won’t interfere with your running sessions? This can be difficult.
Here’s my preferred approaches to this:
How to include strength training workouts in your running schedule
After trying a number of different approaches, this is the approach that works best for me: complete strength training on the same day as a tougher running session.
But, here’s the thing: for this to work you need to complete the run session first, and then leave a few hours before doing your strength workout.
So, why do it this way?
It’s just a case of practicality – if you can fit in a strength session on the same day as a tougher run session, it’s less likely to affect future run sessions. Why is that? Well, if you’re following a structured plan, then your run sessions should be easier after a tougher run session. In this way, the strength workout will be less likely to interfere with subsequent run sessions.
Other ways to develop strength for running.
If you want to be more specific with developing strength, then both hill sprints and sprint training work well. When we talk about specificity of training, we’re considering how close an activity is to our goal activity – in this case running. In this way, both hill sprints, and sprint training, are highly specific as they both involve running.
Hill sprints can easily be incorporated within an easier run and shouldn’t interfere with subsequent training sessions. This can work well when fitted in the day before an aerobic interval session.
The best approach for fitting in sprint training is to include this as part of a planned interval workout. Here you would add in a few short sprints as part of the warm up to the main session.
The warm up is also a good opportunity to add in some regular strength exercises, like squats, lunges and plyometric type exercises such as running drills (A-skips, B-skips, high skips, high knees, straight leg drills etc).
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’ve included an example of an 8-week advanced 5k training plan.
Advanced 5k Training Plan
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