5 Steps to Improve Your 5k

improve your 5k
Aiming to run a faster 5k? Maybe you feel a bit stuck in a rut with trying to improve your time?

Here are five steps you can take to try to chip away at your time and cross that finish line a little sooner…

1. Boost your strength

Stronger core abdominal, leg and arm muscles will help to support your running, making you more efficient and economical… meaning you can go faster for the same level of effort.

Results from a recent research study showed that strength and conditioning may significantly improve 5k race times for runners. After a six-week programme of doing a tailored strength workout twice a week, a group of runners of 21-minute pace improved their times by an average of 45 seconds.

Little and often is an effective approach for making sure you include strength exercises. Adding a few exercises after each run could make a huge difference to your running strength. Of course, it takes time to build up strength, so be patient with your progress, but if you are persistent the effort will start to pay off.

Some good exercises for runners include:

  • Squats
  • Single leg lunges
  • Plank
  • Calf raises/lowers
  • Clams
  • Single/double leg abdominal crunches

An excellent resource for step-by-step instructions for running-specific strength exercises is Paula Radcliffe’s book, How to Run. There is also a selection of exercises with video instruction in this article from The Flying Runner, with personal trainer Grant Ford.

Work up from what you can manage fairly easily, adding more reps or weight/resistance as you get stronger.

2. Train fast to race fast

Think about how you include faster running into your weekly training schedule. Focus on quality rather than quantity. How much you do will depend on your experience and training load, but one or two faster sessions per week is probably fine.

Speedwork can be varied, and it’s often fun and motivating to keep it that way, throwing in different types of sessions each week. Again, what you do will depend quite a bit on your experience and on what you’re already used to doing.

Fartlek
If you’re new to speedwork, a great place to start is with “fartlek” (a Swedish word meaning “speed play”) which are fairly unstructured sessions involving reps and recoveries of varied length. Fartlek training is also a great way to improve your pace judgement.

  • Try: 30-60 mins of fartlek, with reps of 2 mins, 3 mins, 5 mins and 30 seconds (as many as you like of each!) with jog recoveries of around 2 minutes.

Intervals
As a more structured speed session, intervals help to build speed endurance, pushing up your ability to run faster, as well as improving your running form and economy.

It can work really well to join a group or running club, particularly one with runners who are similar to you but just a little bit quicker so that you gain a bit of a built in challenge. Many clubs will usually have some sort of structured speed session as a main focus on its training night.

If you prefer to do structured intervals on your own, there are plenty of ways to do it. Tailor the number of reps and length of recoveries to be appropriate to your current level. As a couple of ideas, you could try (or adapt) these…

  • 3-6 reps of 3 mins fast, with 90 secs walk/jog recovery between each rep.
    Or
  • 8 reps of 2 mins fast, picking up the pace towards the end of each rep, with 90 secs walk/jog recoverybetween each rep.

Always start and finish with a jog of about 1 mile or 10 mins.

Tempo run
As another speed session (either instead of, or as well as, intervals/fartlek), a tempo run is highly effective for improving your ability to hold a fast pace for a sustained period.

For 5k training, try holding target 5k race pace for three kilometres (or 2 x 2k) as the middle section of one of your weekly training runs.

3. Nail steady runs for cardio fitness

Your steady runs (i.e. running at your conversational pace, about 6/10 effort) should form the majority of your weekly training.

These runs are essential for developing your cardiovascular and aerobic fitness, and are the most important and fundamental training element for improving your time over any race distance longer than 800m. Although a 5k race may feel fast, particularly when you’re into the last kilometre, it is primarily run using your aerobic energy system. Therefore you need steady aerobic training, at “steady” pace, as the main building block to develop the fitness that will help you to get faster.

Another consideration here is weight management. If you’re honest with yourself and know that you could do with losing a couple of kilograms (or more), steady running is an excellent way to burn calories quickly. Just be wary of not eating more after exercise than you have used during training. Getting yourself a little lighter may just be the key to a faster time too – you’ll have less weight to carry around the distance, enabling your heart and muscles to work more efficiently. (NB please DO be responsible about your weight – if you are already at the lower end of the scale and risk being underweight, we are certainly not advocating you lose more weight. Healthy, stable weight should be the priority.)

4. Practise your 5k pacing

The more 5ks you run, the better you’ll become at judging how to pace yourself over the distance.

Trying to run your fastest 5k is hard work! Don’t be afraid to push into discomfort towards the end of the race. BUT if you go out too fast, that discomfort will come too early, and you’ll be slowing down in the last 1-2k. So it’s all about judging your effort correctly.

Running a few parkruns is a great way to learn this craft and improve your pacing skill.

5. Pick a target race and work towards it

We’re so lucky to have parkrun as a regular chance to run a 5k each week. However, it can turn into a mixed blessing if you end up trying to crank out a 5k PB every week and wonder why it’s not working.

Mostly when runners enter other race distances – maybe a 10k, half marathon or marathon – we approach it as a target race with a training plan for maybe 8-12 weeks or more, focused on hitting that single event in peak form. We work towards it with more anticipation and therefore with better preparation.

If you feel you’re in a rut with trying to improve a 5k time, try working towards a single target race on a specific date. Pick a good course, preferably flat and not too crowded where you can run your own pace. It’s fine to use a parkrun for this of course, but try choosing a specific date as your goal race.

Then put together a specific training plan for 6-8 weeks, working towards your target race. Include:

  • Planned weekly speed sessions.
  • A build up of training to peak 1-2 weeks before your race.
  • A taper (reduction of training load) in the last week before your race.
  • Strength workouts 2-4 times a week.

By all means include parkruns during the 6-8 week training plan if you want to, but don’t treat these as PB-attempts. They won’t be your “A-race” priority focus, but can be thought of as training efforts, or tempo runs.

Try this race-date approach, and don’t be disheartened if you don’t smash your target time in the first attempt. You’ve almost certainly learned something about yourself as a runner. So just as you would do with a 10k, take away the valuable learning points, pick a new race date, set yourself a new 6 week plan… then rinse and repeat!

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