We were so lucky to have accomplished (read: speedy) runner and incredibly knowledgeable run coach Mike Olzinski drop in for a guest post. He’s got a wealth of knowledge, and today he’s giving us his best tips for 5k training. Let’s dive in!
As a runner and a coach, it’s been my lifelong pursuit to dabble in and out of all types, distances, and styles of running events. From racing 800 meters on the track, to training all the trails and verts for a 50-mile trail ultramarathon, my experience is vast.
However, out of all of the different race lengths and race styles, there will always be one distance near and dear to my heart, my favorite racing distance, the 5k.
It was a 5k race that sparked my competitive running goals. I’ll never forget the Lee Barta 5k in my hometown of Endicott, NY. I signed up for it because they were advertising it at my local ice rink, and I did the race with a friend of mine.
We trained by running the exact course as hard as we could 2 times and then did our best. Not exactly a proper training program. But hey, I was only 16 years old.
Whether you are signing up for your first race, or looking to shave 5 seconds to earn that final slot in the Olympic trials, the 5k is a pure running race and can be a wonderful trigger to reach your best running.
Since that first race in 2001, I’ve learned a lot about how to train and prepare for a 5k, and I’ve also learned that there are hundreds of different ways to approach it.
What I would like to do in this article is simply highlight some of the non-negotiables for running a fast (or faster) 5k. I’ve spent time with many athletes over the past few years, and from that experienced I’ve nailed down four core concepts that will set you up for 5k success no matter your running experience
Let’s start by acknowledging that if your goal is to run a faster 5k, it is not an easy jog in the park. It is an incredibly challenging distance that, for most athletes, is well above their lactate threshold.
To prepare for those efforts, you need to be able to handle the forces that will inevitably be applied to your body. If you can’t, you run a high risk of injury. And getting to the starting line injured or at limited potential is not a great way to run a fast 5k. This is where your training schedule comes in.
Before you start a targeted 5k training program, give yourself two months of solid, regular training before you take on a heavy 5k program. Those two months would involve some of the pure basics.
These include: strength training 2-3 times a week, doing some light and frequent aerobic runs, having a few harder runs on varied terrain like hills or trails, and practicing some light technique work like skipping drills, high knees, or balance exercises.
It would be a mistake to come from some very minimal training or little preparation and dive right into 5k interval runs.
In fact, in those two months of preparatory training, consider choosing a practice race to gauge where you’re at physically before diving into your training program.
Now that we’re ready to dive into true 5k training, we need to set realistic goals. There is no doubt that the 5k race will test your ability to withstand your top speeds, so it is important at the outset to understand your abilities and pinpoint areas where you can grow.
Give yourself a session or two to figure out what a realistic 5k pace is for you. Once you understand what pace you can currently handle, you can set realistic goals that then push your pace in a doable way.
My recommendation: go with some 1000m repeats. A 5k is 5 x 1000m with no recovery, so understanding your 1000m-pace at a race effort will help you manage your effort and pace in the full 5k. You can learn how you should start the race, and where you might be able to push it.
This is a great workout to do on a track or on a flat, measured-out 1km stretch of trail or hard-pack dirt.
For an easy, follow-along warm-up, check out this video:
Your runs should be smooth and repeatable. The effort recommended here would be about 80%, or 8 out of 10 in Perceived Effort.
You’re not necessarily going for a personal best here. You’re just trying to get a sense of what you are capable of. If you execute well on the first few reps, then you know you can push yourself a bit faster on reps #4 and #5 and drop your times a bit.
Next, take the averages of your times for the 1000m repeats and note that as your first benchmark kilometer pace. Our goal from there is to work at that pace and make it a bit easier, allowing you to run faster on race day.
From there, we need to continue to train speed, and ensure we have the strength and endurance to maintain that pace for all 5 kilometers.
Realistically, give yourself a full 10-12 weeks to train for the race specifically; you want to play the long-game. That way, you can push your 1km pace by about 4-5%, making that your training pace two weeks before we race (for you data geeks out there).
There are many different types and styles of training programs, and there are many different types of runners. Whether you are an 80-mile/week workhorse on the run, or a busy 25-mile efficiency runner, training for the 5k requires strong aerobic abilities to be comfortable on your run.
Therefore, the easy, low-stress, aerobic run is equally important no matter what type of athlete you are.
Often, when we are trying to get faster, our brains and goals twist our training to only include the hard. We train at max effort every day because we think it is the only way to get faster. However, our bodies and systems actually need time to recover from the hard training sessions.
While it’s true that those hard runs are the ones that will really move the dial on your speed, they can only do that if you have time to recover properly.
As runners, we are lucky that we can go out and practice our sport during a light recovery session. We can go out for a light, low-stress run and it is still helping us adapt to our ultimate goal of being a stronger runner.
On average, a runner will make anywhere from 75-95 strides per minute. This means that if you go for an easy, aerobic run for 45 minutes, you could be taking up to 4,275 strides.
Your ankles, knees, muscles, hips, core, shoulders, and nervous system recognize all of those strides and that is plenty to keep the stimulus moving forwards.
The problem many athletes face is that they push too hard on every run, leaving them fatigued for future key training sessions. This accumulation of stress is bad for your race speed, and could ultimately lead to injury.
In the 5k, we don’t need these massive long aerobic runs like marathon training might require. If we get comfortable with a light, 45-60 minute run 2-3 times a week, and then include two key training sessions where we push the pace, that is plenty to allow progress in effort and speed. And this version of training allows recuperation time to keep moving forward.
In sum on this point: don’t mess with the easy, aerobic run. If you treat it well, then it will treat you well.
I mentioned a practice race above in the context of initial training. But also consider a practice race or simulation once you are into your 5k training plan.
Running a “fast” race, whatever that means for you, is an incredible athletic achievement. So it is important to make sure ahead of time that you have the capacity to achieve your desired race time. This requires intense preparation.
What’s more, you must take into account the effects of stress and adrenaline on your body. The dynamic of a big race start, the course, the weather, your pacing, your breakfast, and other factors could all affect on how you run on race day.
If you are unprepared to handle the emotions that come from those factors on race day, your race might not turn out as planned. It is possible that you will go out faster than your body can handle because of the adrenaline, which makes a 95% effort feel like an 85% effort.
This can have a negative impact on your overall time, because if you go out at a pace way too fast for your fitness, you will decline and slow down later in the race.
So despite all of your preparation, these exterior factors may cause you to miss the race time you thought you were prepared for.
What is the answer to that? Prepare, practice, and then perform. That is the best way to show up on race day at your best. 5k races are generally pretty easy to come by in most towns, so the ideal situation is having one or two practice races before the big day.
The best practice would be to have a nice 3000m, 2-mile, or 5k race race three weeks before your target race. You don’t need to PR in this preparatory race. You can relax and practice your pacing and your morning prep routine, just so that you know what works come race day.
If you cannot find a local race to practice with, then you can do a race simulation on your own, or with some support from friends! Here is a good race simulation workout to hit.
Pre-Workout Note: This run should ideally be done on a surface similar to your race surface. If your race is on a road, try to find a similar road with minimal traffic stops or interruptions. If it is on a track, then run it on a track. Do your best to mimic race terrain.
To run a fast 5k takes a dedicated athlete. It is a devastating mix of strength, aerobic capacity, speed, and simple overarching mental grit. You have to be comfortable within the terribly uncomfortable paces, and you have to have the mental tenacity to push yourself even deeper from there.
It’s not natural to go out and drive yourself through your best 5k run. But if you train, recover, and practice, then you can do it. You can feel that incredible elation of crossing the finish line, knowing that you left everything you have on the running course that day.
I am happy to say that running a 5k is one of the hardest and yet most rewarding pursuits of my athletic career. It is a never-ending pursuit. Don’t get caught in the trap of chasing times or miles.
Stick with the process and integrate the tricky concepts that I’ve outlined in this article. You will get there. Let us know how it goes, and let’s see some fast 5k’s this season!