How to run a Parkrun PB (according to the British women's record holder)

how to improve running speed
How to improve your 5K running speedSteve Christo - Corbis

When GB athlete Samantha Harrison lined the start of her local Parkrun – Long Eaton, in Derbyshire – last year, she wasn’t chasing Parkrun records. She simply needed to tick off a session prescribed by her coach, albeit a rather brutal one: an all-out 5K, followed by a set of even-quicker four-minute intervals. ‘Afterwards, the volunteers and people I knew there all informed me that I got the British record and a couple of people said they thought it was the world record, but they’d have to double-check. At that moment in time, I was like, “okay, but I really need to finish the rest of my session!”.’

Harrison, who lives in Arnold, Nottinghamshire, averaged 5:02 min/miles to clock an off-track PB of 15:37 – breaking the Parkrun British record by 12 seconds. ‘It’s really exciting,’ she said afterwards. ‘And nice to have support and for people to be inspired by you. I mean, I’m pretty sure the speedy GB girls will probably come and take it away from me one day but it’s nice to just have the moment and enjoy it for as long as it lasts!’

The pro-long-distance runner and Adidas athlete, who works part-time as a dental nurse, has had a stellar year. She placed sixth in the 10,000m at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games this summer – and, last Sunday, she won the Telford 10K in a road PB and course record of 31.10.

how to improve running speed
Harrison running in the women’s 10,000m final at the 2022 Commonwealth GamesSteve Christo - Corbis

So, what can the 27-year-old teach us about running, and training for, a lightning-fast 5K? We caught up with Harrison to find out how she did – and get her tips on nabbing that elusive Parkrun PB…

Warm up well beforehand

Despite warming up before the Parkrun, Harrison says she felt better during the second half of her session. ‘I felt better on the four-minute reps afterwards, which is strange as I had to run quicker on those reps,’ she says. ‘I think sometimes it’s about warming your body up. It was so cold that morning and to get straight into a fast 5K is hard.’

So, if you think you can get away with rocking up at the start line just in time to catch the end of the briefing and expect to PB, you can think again...

‘I don't think I could ever go into a fast run without a good warm-up,’ says Harrison. ‘It warms your lungs up, it warms your body up and I think you feel more psyched and ready to run. I always do a minimum of two miles. And if I can do more, I'll do more. Then I’ll do strides at the end – where you run flat out for 10 seconds or so – just to get the legs warmed up.’

But, before that, you need to eat breakfast…

Do you Like to set your alarm at approximately 8.10 am with only enough time to neck a cuppa and hunt down your barcode? Then put your PB hopes aside. ‘I would advise going to bed a bit earlier, so you can get up earlier,’ says Harrison. ‘I know some people can’t stomach breakfast so early, but when I want to run quick times like that, I think I’d struggle on nothing.’

Harrison had set her alarm for 5.30 am to fit in her go-to breakfast. ‘I had porridge with blueberries and a tiny bit of Nutella and a coffee,’ she said. ‘I like to leave it at least one and a half to two hours to give it all time to digest.'

Position yourself front and wide at the start

Being tactical about where you position yourself on a Parkrun course can make all the difference when it comes to saving precious seconds, says Harrison, who had to dodge buggies and dog walkers at Long Eaton. ‘Position yourself sort of near the front because then you’re less likely to overtake so many people. When you’re overtaking that can be a few extra seconds and it can really hold you back. But then be disciplined not to go too quick and blow yourself out. Also, go wide, so you’re on the corner, so you can get around people.’

…and take the inside line so you’re not running more distance than you need to

‘It can be difficult in a Parkrun because sometimes the public can be where you want to run. But I tried – when it was in the quieter sections – to run on the inside because if you’re on the outside, you’re running wide and you’re actually running more distance.’

Remember that the pain is short-lived

There’s no escaping that a Parkrun PB attempt is going to hurt, says Harrison, so grit your teeth – and remember the pain won’t last forever. ‘I had quite a few talks to myself during those five kilometres!’ says Harrison. ‘When you’re putting yourself into a situation like a fast 5K or 10K, it’s going be painful. But just think: it’s short-lived pain, it’s not going to be for the whole day, it’s only going to be for a short space of time – say 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes.’

If you own a pair of carbon shoes, wear them

Harrison laced up in a pair of Adidas’ premium carbon race shoes – the Adios Pro 2 – for her run, and says runners shouldn’t just save carbon shoes for races. ‘I do a lot of my interval training and speed training in carbons because that’s what I race in. I like to get my legs familiar with them, and I feel like when I'm training in carbon running shoes, they actually save my legs so I feel like I can recover a lot quicker.’

Consider a shake-out run the night before

The night before, Harrison had run nine miles – and hadn’t taken a rest day all week. While she says it’s completely individual, Harrison suggests doing a short run on the Friday before. ‘I wouldn’t have tapered for Parkrun anyway but sometimes doing something helps me more than nothing, even it’s just getting out for 15 minutes. It just helps to get the legs going, so in the morning when I’m running super fast, it’s not so much of a shock!’

Be consistent in training – week in, week out

When it comes to training for a fast 5K, Harrison’s key piece of advice is to be consistent. ‘I’ll always give that advice to anyone,’ says Harrison. ‘It’s just about keeping that consistency of running – keep doing interval training once a week and get out for some easy recovery runs, and maybe a longer run as well. If you can, do a bit of everything. And be consistent with it because then you will achieve that PB – or that first-ever 5K and in the future build up and go into a 10K.’

Try this training session

One session I particularly benefit from at the moment is mile reps and 400m reps – it’s both anaerobic and aerobic. You do your mile reps at around 5K pace and then your 400m reps are flat out – as fast as your legs will go:

1 mile @5K pace /60-90 seconds rest

4 x 400m flat out / 30-45 seconds rest

Repeat according to your current fitness/ability

Get used to running at your target pace

Want to run a sub-20 5K? Get used to running 06:27/miles, advises Harrison. ‘It’s about making sure that, in training, you are running at that pace or quicker,’ she says, ‘so the body’s adapting and getting familiar with running that quick. And then when you get into that 5K, you know you’ve done, say, 6-12 weeks of work trying to run at that pace in interval training – maybe over 800m or mile on reps – so you can slip into it.'

Upping the volume may help

Harrison is currently training for the London Marathon in April and says the volume – around 100 miles a week – is really benefiting her 5K fitness. Doing marathons will benefit you in the 5K – whether that’s due to the extra endurance so you just feel strong... it does all benefit each other. I have got some 10K and half marathons before London, so I’m still doing a lot of interval training, but when I’m in a marathon block, I benefit really well and, actually, my 5K times do improve.’

But be patient…

Harrison says it’s taken her a long time to be able to build up to running this volume, but by being patient, she's been able to maintain her consistency. ‘With me, my coach would say, it might take me a bit longer to get where I want to be… but by avoiding constant injury, we’re able to consistently improve.’

And the same goes when targeting faster speeds. ‘It took me a year to PB my 10K at one point,’ she says. ‘And it gets frustrating, but you have to accept that you can’t do your best all the time –it’d be a lot to ask of your body. Keep that motivation and don’t give up, you will PB again, you might just have to wait a bit longer.’

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