Running a marathon may be the ultimate fitness bucket list item, but the 5K is by far the most common race distance. And for obvious reasons: It's the shortest standard event and doesn't require an excessively long time to prepare for it. And more and more fun run 5Ks are popping up all over the place, which makes running a race more, well, fun!
Although the race takes most people 30 minutes or less to finish, you'll still need to prepare. This requires a sensible plan that addresses speed, endurance and proper recovery time.
While even running newbies can train to run a 5K, most of these recommendations are aimed at runners with a solid three to six months of consistent running under their belts, as well as one 5K race to serve as a benchmark. So if you need a beginner-friendly 5K training schedule, check out our Couch to 5K Program or join our Best 5K Ever Challenge.
Focus on rhythm and familiarity with target pace for mental reasons, as well as to achieve a workout.
— Brad Hudson, marathoner and running coach
1. Build Your Base
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. And 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.
"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 record holder 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 is an 8- to 12-week phase and should end eight weeks out from your goal race, so plan accordingly.
Read more: The Best Running Workouts for Beginners
2. Up the Tempo
In this next four-week phase, you'll begin adding high-end aerobic work in the form of tempo runs. Coined by professional coach Jack Daniels in the early 1990s, the term "tempo run" usually refers to a 20-minute run at the pace you could hold for about an hour in a race.
Tempo runs train the body to metabolize lactic acid more efficiently and promote 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 Marathon Performance, suggests runners focus on the feel of tempo runs and gradually increasing the pace from start to finish.
"Our athletes focus on rhythm and familiarity with target pace for mental reasons, as well as to achieve a workout," he says. "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 minutes of easy jogging before and after, as well as one longer tempo run of 20 to 25 minutes 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 run of 25 to 30 minutes at the end of a 45-minute midweek run and add another 10-minute one just a bit faster at the end of a second hour-long run 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.
Read more: 10 Exercises to Increase Your Running Speed
3. Turn 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 suggests 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 speed work 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.
Read more: What to Eat When Training for a 5K
4. Throw 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, a plain bagel or 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 and cardiovascular systems ready to go. Once the race starts, 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, 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.
How to Calculate Your Workout Paces
To figure out how to train most effectively, determine goal paces for various types of workouts. If you know your maximum heart rate (MHR) — which can be estimated by subtracting your age from 220 — and use a heart-rate monitor, you can use percentage of heart rate max as a primary guide. It's preferable, though, to work directly with paces.
Base-Building or Recovery Runs: These should be done at 65 to 75 percent of 5K race pace — which means you divide your pace in minutes per mile by 0.65 and 0.75 and run within the resulting range — or about 60 to 70 percent of MHR.
Tempo Runs: These are done at about 90 to 95 percent of 5K pace or 85 to 90 percent of MHR.
Race-Pace Intervals: Since by the end of the 5K you'll be above 95 percent of MHR, you should be hitting this in the last couple of repetitions in speed workouts. Your pace for these should be about 95 to 110 percent of 5K pace — at the slower end for longer intervals and at the higher end for shorter ones.
- Training on Empty: Lize Brittin
- Runner's World: What Are Tempo Runs?
- Brad Hudson, Founder of Marathon Performance
- Runner's World: Tapering for a Marathon
- Running in the USA: Upcoming Races
- Marathon Performance; A Better Way to Judge Your Race Goal Progress; April 2010
- DistanceCoach.com: The Pfitzinger Lab Report -- Race Preparation; Pete Pfitzinger