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Training for a Faster 5K

Conquering Road Racing's Most Popular Event

author image L. T. Davidson
L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.
Training for a Faster 5K
Setting a personal record at the 5-kilometer, or 3.1-mile, distance is a goal for every competitive runner. Photo Credit John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images


Finishing a marathon may be the holy grail of the typical runner, but the 5K is by far the most common road race distance. And for obvious reasons: It's the shortest standard event and doesn't require an excessively long time to prepare for it. Furthermore, if you don't get the 5K run right on your goal day, you can always come back in a week or two and try again. This isn't an option in longer events, which require more recovery time.

Although the race takes most people less than a half-hour to finish, you will still need to prepare. This requires a sensible plan that addresses speed, endurance and proper recovery time. While even those who are new to the sport can train to run a 5K, most of the recommendations here are aimed at runners with a solid three to six months of consistent running under their belts, as well as one 5K race time to serve as a benchmark around which to design the various elements of preparation.

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Focus on rhythm and familiarity with target pace for mental reasons, as well as to achieve a workout.

- Brad Hudson, 2:13 marathoner and coach of numerous world-class athletes

Building Your Base

Training for a Faster 5K
Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

Before you launch into the 5K-specific training phases that involve fast, intense running, you need to build what coaches call an endurance base. This means running four to seven days a week, about 20 to 40 minutes at a time, over a span of two to three months. The pace of these runs isn't critical. They're simply about basic aerobic work at a conversational pace, developing the ability to cover five or six miles without undue effort and feeling adequately recovered between runs. As a general rule, aim to run on soft surfaces whenever you can.

While you should pick a flat course on which to take aim at a personal record, the base-building period ought to include a healthy dose of hills. These act as speedwork in disguise, because they work the cardiovascular system without forcing you to take long, quick strides, an endeavor you should reserve for the later race-specific preparatory phases.

"Keeping your heart rate up going up a hill is easier than on the flat, so it's naturally a harder workout," said Lize Brittin, a former course recordholder at the venerable 13.1-mile Pikes Peak Ascent and one-time runner-up at the U.S. Junior 5K National Cross-Country Championships. "If you then push the uphills, there's less risk of injury. And you're still training your heart and lungs, as well as your mind, to go hard,"

she says.

This part of the training, focusing on building endurance, is an 8- to 12-week phase. It should end eight weeks out from your goal race, so you'll need to plan accordingly.

Upping the Tempo

Learning to manage oxygen debt by running just on the friendly side of it, and then over, is an indispensable weapon in your training arsenal. So in this four-week phase, you'll begin adding high-end aerobic work in the form of tempo runs, or lactate-threshold runs.

Coined by professional coach Jack Daniels in the early 1990s, the term "tempo run" usually refers to a 20-minute effort at the pace you could hold for about an hour in a race. Because it corresponds to a level of work at which you skirt the edges of oxygen debt, it trains the body to more efficiently metabolize lactic acid and promotes efficiency and confidence at medium-hard paces. A tempo run should leave you just on the edge of not being able to hold a normal conversation but not gasping for breath.

Brad Hudson, coach of two U.S. Olympians and the founder of Hudson Training Systems, suggests runners focus on the feel of tempo runs more than anything else to become acquainted with the sensation. Additionally, he recommends the runner do them as progression runs, with the pace gradually increasing from start to finish.

"Our athletes focus on rhythm and familiarity with target pace for mental reasons, as well as to achieve a workout," Hudson said. "They're able to hit tempo pace without any specific heart-rate or pace feedback once they're used to doing them."

In the first two weeks of this phase, aim for one shorter tempo run of 15 to 20 minutes that includes 10 or so minutes of easy jogging before and after, as well as one longer tempo effort of 20 to 25 minutes set within one of the longest runs of the week. Your pace should be about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5K race pace.

Then, in the next two weeks, do one longer tempo effort of 25 to 30 minutes at the end of a midweek run of 40 to 45 minutes, and add another, just faster than tempo segment of 10 minutes at the end of a second, longer run of 45 to 60 minutes toward the end of the week. This allows you to become familiar with genuine oxygen debt, which you'll inevitably need to do.

By this point you should be hitting anywhere from 25 to 50 miles a week, with a longest run of five to nine miles, depending on your goals and experience.

Turning It Over

This phase, the sharpening and tapering phase -- which involves short, intense repetitions at planned race pace with short rests -- develops the leg turnover and anaerobic power needed to handle the rigors of the last half of a 3.1-mile race. This, too, is a four-week phase.

Here you'll keep a weekly 20-minute tempo run, but add an interval session on the road or on a track toward the end of the week. The basic scheme involves roughly three miles of slightly faster than race pace running per session, broken into reps of 400 to 1,600 meters, with a walking or jogging rest period of about 75 percent of the repetition time. For example, if you hope to run 7-minute miles in your 5K, you would do 3 reps of 1,600 in 6:55 with 5 minutes rest, 6 of 800 in 3:25 with 2 1/2 minutes rest, or 12 of 400 in 1:40 with 1 1/4 minutes rest.

Hudson advises that runners give a lot of attention to 400-meter reps with even shorter rests. This allows for close monitoring and modulation of the pace as well as an accurate assessment of fitness. He says that running faster than race pace repetitions of 600, 400 and 200 meters in a step-down fashion has special value "because it develops running economy. That's important because it's basically the ability to run faster while expending the same amount of energy."

These sessions should be hard, but not killer. If you're truly struggling before the halfway point of these workouts, consider adjusting your race goal accordingly. Two weeks before the race, your overall mileage should drop by about 25 percent from peak. It should drop by 50 percent in the last week to allow your legs to rest up for the big day. Don't do any speedwork or tempo running in the five days beforehand. But consider doing a 2-mile time trial at 95 percent effort the weekend before the race to gain an accurate assessment of your capabilities over 5K.

Throwing It Down

The training leading into the race is the rehearsal; the 5K itself is the production. Make sure you're ready in every way possible. Prepare a checklist the night before the race that includes everything from making sure you know the directions to the start to bringing an extra pair of shoelaces in case you break the ones you have. Don't do anything new or unusual on race morning. If you rarely drink coffee, for example, don't load up on caffeine. And don't skip breakfast. Eat something bland, like toast or a plain bagel or perhaps an energy bar.

Warm up very slowly for 15 to 20 minutes. Then do three to four 20-second "stride-outs" at what feels like race pace to get both your neuromuscular system and your cardiovascular apparatus ready to go. Once the gun goes off, be patient and don't let adrenalin propel you out to an overly fast pace.

"There's one way to learn proper pacing in competition," said Hudson. "And that's learning race pace in training and practicing strides at that pace, on very easy days as well as speed days."

When the effort inevitably gets tough at about 2K to halfway into the race, it's critical to have confidence in your fitness. Know the mile or kilometer splits you intend to reach and visualize nailing them in advance. But as the race unfolds, embrace the effort, the essence of striving, for its own sake. Try to keep your stride rate constant as fatigue starts to set in and remind yourself that this is what you've been preparing to do for months and how sweet it'll be to knock a chunk of time off your best.

Above all, when everything is said and done -- no matter the outcome -- congratulate yourself on making it to the finish. If things didn't go your way, assess what you did wrong and what you did right. And remind yourself that there are always other days and other races in which to show what you're made of.

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