How to run your fastest 5km, according to run coaches and athletes

·11-min read
Photo credit: Derek Call
Photo credit: Derek Call

After you get a few 5kms under your belt, the focus tends to shift from simply crossing the finish line to doing it in record time. But things don’t usually end there, as each race becomes another opportunity to do better and finish faster.

So if you’re ready to run your fastest 5km yet, follow this advice from seasoned running coaches and pro athletes so you cross the line with a shiny new medal that shows off your PB.

1. Prioritise aerobic Runs

No matter how much experience you have as a runner, you’ll never outgrow aerobic workouts. And easy runs may not be the sexiest workouts on paper, they’re essential for running a fast 5K.

'It’s easy to overlook "running slow" or aerobic running when training to run fast, but it’s just as important as your speed workouts,' says Meg Takacs, C.P.T., a USATF- and RRCA-certified run coach and founder of the Run With Meg app.

Aerobic-focused runs prepare your cardiovascular system for the demands of running longer distances. While the 5km may be on the shorter end of the race-distance spectrum, it's still long enough to qualify as mostly aerobic.

In fact, runners typically use their aerobic energy system for 85 to 90 percent of a 5km race, says Briana Williams, C.P.T., a USATF-certified run coach in New York City. 'The same percentage of your training should be spent here,' she adds.

To make sure you’re getting in enough aerobic runs, aim for about four to six per week. Pay attention to your heart rate during these runs to make sure you’re sticking to an appropriate intensity – you should aim to keep your heart rate within 60 to 70 percent of its maximum (that’s zone 2), or a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) that falls between a 5 to 7 on a scale of 0 to 10, Williams says. That means you should be able to talk while you run.

Williams' Aerobic Workout:

Run for 10 minutes, walk for five minutes. Repeat two to three times. As you gain fitness, increase the time spent running and cut back on walking, making sure you can stick to zone 2 of heart rate or an RPE of 5 to 7—that conversation pace.

2. Sprinkle in Speed

Now for the fun part of training or the part people love to hate, depending on your mindset: speedwork.

Training at a higher intensity gives you the opportunity to practise the mechanics of running at faster speeds, as well as improve your body’s ability to process lactate, Williams says.

Lactate is a byproduct of intense exercise that’s associated with that burning sensation in your muscles, according to UC Davis Health. Toward the beginning of a tough exercise bout, your body is able to clear the lactate away before it builds up. As the work progresses, however, it becomes harder and harder for your body to get rid of the lactate fast enough. Once lactate builds up in the bloodstream faster than your body can absorb it, you’ve gone past your lactate threshold. At this point, your muscles burn too much to continue firing.

By training at intensities that challenge your body to process lactate more quickly, you’ll be able to run fast for longer before your muscles give out.

'In addition, speed-focused workouts are an excellent way to physically and mentally prepare for the end of your 5km, when you really start pushing the pace,' Williams says.

Do one to two faster-paced workouts per week. 'Hill repeats, track repeats, tempo runs, and Fartleks are all effective strategies to work on speed and power,' Williams says.

Williams' Anaerobic Workout:

Warm up with around a 1km jog and dynamic stretches like skips, bound, and walking on your tip-toes. A warm-up for a workout like this should take about 10 to 15 minutes, Williams says.

Run 400m at your goal 5km pace, then walk 200m to recover. Start with four to six sets; add one to two sets weekly.

To cool down, simply walk it off with one to two easy laps around the track (or for five to 10 minutes). Follow this up with 10 minutes of stretching.

3. Build your muscles

If you haven’t included strength training in your workout schedule yet, now is the time to start. 'I like to look at strength training as building a protective layer of muscle for your bones and joints,' Takacs says.

Every time your foot lands while running, the impact on your bones and joints is much greater than your actual body weight, Takacs says. 'You want your muscles to absorb this impact, not your bones and joints.'

By targeting muscles that play an essential role in running, you can help these muscles do their job effectively, preventing other muscles, joints and connective tissues from taking on too much of the load. In this way, strength training can reduce sports injuries by one-third and overuse injuries by one-half, per findings from a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014.

Key muscles to hit include the glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus), hamstrings, quadriceps and calves. 'Strengthening these muscles will improve your ability to absorb and produce force when running, making you capable of running faster for longer,' Williams says.

Performing heavy and explosive lifts, in particular, may help you run faster and make you more fatigue-resistant, according to a review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports in 2014.

When planning out your workouts, balance your lower body work with upper body, as well as core exercises. Strong arms contribute to a powerful arm swing that drives the legs, while a well-built core stabilises the spine and improves running mechanics, Williams says.

She recommends lifting three days a week if you have at least 12 weeks to prepare for your race. After four to six weeks, cut back to two strength workouts per week. If you have less than 12 weeks to train for your race, stick to two strength workouts per week. Give yourself at least one day to recover before doing another lifting workout.

Williams’s Strength Workout 1:

Perform the exercises in each superset back-to-back and rest 90 seconds to two minutes before repeating. Do the exercises in each superset for the suggested number of sets before moving on to the next superset

  • A1. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift, 4 sets of 6-8 reps

  • A2. Single-arm dumbbell push press (shoulder press, using your legs to drive the weight straight up), 4 sets of 6-8 reps per arm

  • B1. Bulgarian split squat, 3 sets of 8-10 reps per leg

  • B2. Single-arm bent-over row, 3 sets of 8-10 reps per side

  • C1. Hollow body hold, 3 sets of 30-60 seconds

  • C2. Seated calf raises (sit in a chair and hold a dumbbell on top of each knee; lift heels), 3 sets of 12-15 reps.

Williams’s Strength Workout 2:

Perform the exercises in each superset back-to-back and rest 90 seconds to two minutes before repeating. Do the exercises in each superset for the suggested number of sets before moving on to the next superset.

4. Reinforce strong running form

Practising running drills can help you strengthen your running form and mechanics, making you a more efficient runner. Williams’ favourite drills include A-skips and pogos.

'A-skips reinforce efficient running technique: tall posture, quick arm swing, and full foot contact,' Williams says. If done at an effort between 7 and 8 on a scale of 0 to 10, they can also strengthen the hip flexors and improve hip mobility, she adds.

Meanwhile, pogos are a plyometric (read: jump) exercise that prepare the body for the explosiveness of running, Williams says.

Incorporate these drills into speed run warm-ups or after easy runs.

How to do A-skips:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.

  • Lift left knee to hip-height while skipping on the ball of right foot.

  • Drop left foot to the ground and drive right knee up to skip with left foot.

  • Continue moving forward by alternating legs, swinging opposite arm simultaneously with lead leg.

  • Do 1 to 3 sets of 30 to 40 meters.

How to do pogos:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.

  • With a slight bend in knees, jump off the ground with both feet.

  • Land softly on the balls of feet and immediately jump again; aim to bounce off the ground as quickly as possible on each jump.

  • Perform 1 to 4 sets of 15 to 30 seconds.

In addition, exercises that build single-leg stability, as well as core and hip strength will help you maintain your form when fatigue kicks in during the late stages of the race.

The runner pull is one of Brooks Beasts Track Club athlete Allie Buchalski’s go-to exercises to help improve form. Use it pre run to help activate the muscles you’ll be using, or incorporate it into an existing strength routine twice a week.

How to do a runner pull:

  • Anchor a resistance band to a sturdy fixture about hip-height.

  • Hold one handle in left hand and step back until you feel tension in the band. Then, lift left knee about 90 degrees, keeping the right leg straight. This is the starting position.

  • With left arm straight, lean torso toward the anchor point. As you lean forward, let left leg kick back behind you, similar to a single-leg deadlift. Allow right knee to bend slightly, but keep it tracking over toes – don’t allow it to cave inward.

  • Once you can’t lean forward any further, drive left elbow back to pull the handle toward hip, returning torso to an upright position. As you pull the handle, bring left knee forward and up to 90 degrees.

  • From this position, squeeze left shoulder inward and rotate torso to the left to pull the handle even further back. Keep spine long and chest up to avoid leaning back.

  • Repeat. Do 2 sets of 8 reps per side.

5. Fuel right

'After every run throughout training, it’s important to have some sort of recovery drink or snack,' Buchalski says. It’s also important to have enough fuel before a run to get you through the miles, which is especially true for longer runs.

Workouts break your muscles down – getting a little bit of protein and carbs immediately after your workout can help kickstart the recovery process, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 'This is extremely important for building back your muscles, which means I have a recovery snack even on my easy days,' Buchalski says.

Her recovery drink of choice includes 25 grams of carbohydrates and 14 grams of protein, but the amount of protein and carbs needed post workout varies per person.

Try this post-run recovery shake:

  • 236g skim milk

  • 128g frozen berries

  • 128g ice

  • ½ scoop of whey protein isolate

6. Get your mind primed for a PB

'Running is 99 percent mental,' Takacs says. If you don’t believe you can run a faster 5km, you’ll drag in your training runs, and your race performance will suffer.

There are many strategies you can use to get your mind aligned with your goal, but visualisation is Williams’s favourite. 'Runners can do it anywhere, and it only takes a few minutes,' she says.

Visualisation is the practice of imagining that whatever it is you want to achieve – in this case, your fastest 5km– as if it’s already happened. It’s a popular performance strategy among athletes, and research in Basic and Applied Social Psychology shows that it boosts confidence and overall wellbeing.

To do it, find a quiet, comfortable space to sit with your eyes closed. Visualise the race from start to finish, and get as detailed as possible. Imagine a race that goes exactly the way you want it to. Picture yourself warming up, toeing the starting line and running faster than expected. You can even imagine the smells, sounds and tastes involved in your ideal race experience. 'This moment is the perfect opportunity to abandon reality and doubt,' Williams says.

Practice visualisation before every training run or on days when you feel doubt creeping in – and make sure it’s a part of your routine in the days leading up to race day.

You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting