Nothing beats the thrill of crossing your first finish line, but once you've been running for a while, you may start to set new goals. Some people choose to move up in distance, while others aim to improve their times at the same distance.
If you've run one or more 5K races, it's natural to wonder if you could go faster. For many people, aiming to run a 5K in 25 minutes or less is a challenging but achievable goal, says Mike Thomson, running coach at Fast & Fit Coaching in Chicago. Follow these steps to achieve your next 5K PR.
Step One: Do the Math
A 5K race is 3.1 miles. So, covering the distance in 25 minutes or less means running at a pace of about eight minutes per mile. For many runners, that represents a challenge — but it's certainly possible. At weekly track workouts for the Chicago Area Runners Association, the largest group of runners are people aiming to run at about this pace, says running coach Tim Bradley.
If you've run a 5K already, you can calculate about how much faster you'll need to run to achieve this goal. If not, you can do a time trial: warm up, then run a mile as fast as you can. Multiply by 3.1 to estimate your 5K time, keeping in mind that you may not be able to sustain your fastest mile three times over.
What if you'll have to make a huge leap? It might not mean this time is impossible for you — just that you need to give yourself time to achieve this goal. In the meantime, you can set smaller goals that help increase your speed.
"It's important to have dreams, but short-term goals should be reasonable and attainable," says Julie Sapper, a running coach at Run Farther and Faster just outside Washington, DC. "Not easy, but attainable."
Another factor to consider: How much time and effort are you willing to dedicate to training? Even though a 5K is only 3.1 miles, running it at a fast pace requires a good aerobic base and ideally four days of training per week, with a long run that might take more than an hour, says Lisa Reichmann, who coaches with Sapper at Run Farther and Faster. If that sounds like more time than you can or want to carve out of your schedule, now might not be the right time to set an ambitious goal.
Step Two: Structure Your Training Program
Once you've set your sights on the goal and committed to taking the steps needed to reach it, it's time to build your training plan. The average 5K program lasts about eight weeks, although you might need more time or less time depending on how much you're already running and your current pace.
Contrary to popular belief, the best way to improve your race time isn't to go out and run as fast as possible every day. To train to race a 5K in under 25 minutes, you'll want to spend some time running at slower than an 8-minute pace, some time running at about that pace and a little bit of time running even faster, Bradley says. That's the magic recipe: a healthy helping of endurance, plenty of practice at your race pace and a dash of speed.
Aim to run three to four times per week: one long run, one tempo run or interval workout and one or two easy, aerobic runs. Your long run might start at three to four miles and build up to as many as six or seven miles (aim to increase your total weekly mileage by no more than about 10 percent to decrease your risk of injury).
Keep your easy runs very easy, Bradley says — as slow as 10:30 or 11-minute pace, or 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate if you use a heart rate monitor (calculate an estimate for your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220). During these runs, your muscles and cardiovascular system become stronger and fitter with less stress on your body, reducing your risk of injury. You can also build even more endurance with less impact by biking for a few miles before your long run, Thomson says.
Your faster workouts might include tempo runs, extended efforts close to your race pace; this builds efficiency and helps you practice what it feels like to run 8-minute miles. Some weeks, you'll want to do shorter, faster repetitions to train your fast-twitch fibers. For instance, run 400 meters at about a 7:20 pace, jog for a few minutes, then repeat.
Expect tempo and interval runs to feel difficult. "You're essentially doing a practice race," says Bradley.
Strength training is also important if you want a powerful stride. Bradley recommends two to three dedicated sessions per week. Running some of your tempo runs or speed workouts on hills also helps build strength in your legs, Sapper says.
Step Three: Put It All Together on Race Day
"A 5K is a really hard race," says Bradley. Go through the same types of preparation on race day that you did for your hard workouts: warm up with slow jogging and some dynamic stretches, and try to get into the zone mentally.
Once the gun goes off, picture yourself running hard the entire way. You can mentally break the race down into thirds, aiming to run the first mile in around 8 minutes, the second in another 8 minutes and the third as fast as you can, Bradley recommends. You might even be able to sprint to the finish and beat your goal time by more than you think!