How To Turn A Poor 5k Into A Fast Time

Had a disaster of a 5k race? Find out how to learn from your 5k shocker and make sure your next race is a major performance improvement.

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Most runners of all distances will tell you that they’ve had ‘those’ races, where you stagger across the finish line, silently furious with your time and yourself. A poor performance can occur for so many reasons - poor health, poor planning, poor execution, lack of training, too much training, the list is virtually endless. That said when you have run badly, it’s important to analyse what went wrong and learn from any mistakes, especially when it comes to 5k races.

The 5k challenge

One of the first things to recognise if you are trying to break a particular time barrier for the 5k is that it is a uniquely challenging race distance because of the demands it requires. It certainly couldn’t be categorised as a sprint but definitely falls within the category of endurance race, yet people expect to be able to run it quickly, no matter what distance they normally specialise in. Understanding that a 5k isn’t as straightforward as it might seem and will require specialist training, is definitely one of the first steps to success.

To run a fast 5k you have to train specifically for the distance and improve your speed and anaerobic capacity.

To run a fast 5k you have to train specifically for the distance and improve your speed and anaerobic capacity. To achieve that requires a training plan which should always include endurance, tempo and speed workouts.

The next step will involve an analysis of your race performance and what went wrong. There are always reasons for any kind of underperformance and sometimes it stems from an unrealistic expectation and inappropriate training. Be honest with yourself in an appraisal of what training you did and all the things you did in preparation for the race. Write it all down and then evaluate each aspect of your preparation and ask whether it can be improved. The answer is invariably yes!

Speed work and tempo runs

Sometimes the simple unavoidable answer is that you just have to get used to running fast, a lot. Speed sessions and intervals are the only way to improve your overall speed and they will work, as long as they are combined with long runs to improve endurance and tempo runs to improve your lactate threshold and increase your VO2Max (oxygen consumption).

Expert advice differs in terms of what kind of speed you need to be running in your interval sessions. The intervals themselves can be anything from 400m, 800m, 1km or even a mile (1.6km) with recovery periods built in. The length of the interval depends on what kind of time you’re aiming for and how much running you’ve previously done, so choose a training plan that is appropriate for your aims and training requirements.

You definitely need to be running intervals at your 5k race pace, or even some experts suggest, faster than race pace.

In terms of the speed, you definitely need to be running intervals at your 5k race pace, or even some experts suggest, faster than race pace. The theory behind running faster than your usual pace is simple. If you want a PB/PR you need to get used to running at a pace that you just aren’t used to. The 5k is an event that is hard and will hurt, but if you train properly, you will run it so quickly, you won’t notice the pain…

Hill running

A lot of experts talk about the need for stride efficiency and that is something that will need work if you are to record a new PB/PR. This is where hill running comes in. Hills are fantastic intervals in themselves and the benefits they bring in terms of strengthening and stride efficiency are huge. You don’t need to sprinting up them, but you do need to maintain a steady pace throughout. This will bring strength to your glutes, thighs, ankles, calves and hamstrings and remember, additional strength will also help prevent injury.

With stronger major muscle groups and increased leg power, your ability to run explosively and quickly for a sustained period is enhanced. You should also see an improvement in your running form and stride length, because to run up a hill successfully you have to lengthen your stride. The theory is that all of these factors should combine beautifully to make you a faster runner on the flat.

Long runs

The long run is still an important part of training because endurance is vital. Running longer distances also helps with concentration and physiological improvements which all feed into successful 5k running. A body that is more effective in pumping blood and oxygen to the muscles is more likely to produce faster times.

Pace yourself

The right pace at the start of the race is essential. No-one is advocating a sprint straight off the start line, but a lot of runners break their best times by setting off at a quicker pace than normal. If you are bold with your approach it can pay dividends. A study at the University of New Hampshire found that runners who ran a faster first mile (1.6km) than their usual pace, were much more likely to record a PB/PR than those who ran at their usual consistent pace throughout. It is something that is worth experimenting with in training to see how it affects you. Unlike longer distances like the half and full marathon which is all about aerobic ability and a consistent pace, the 5k is a test of anaerobic capacity and speed, which is why it hurts so much and is so difficult to get right.