Five Ways to Improve Your 5K Run Time


, by Nick Bester

Photography by: IZF / Shutterstock

There’s just something so beautiful about the 5K. Is it because we get to practise it regularly at Parkruns worldwide? Or is it because there are so many different ways and strategies to run a 5K? Whatever the reason, here are some of my top tips can help you improve your performance over the 5K distance.

Add structure to your training

If you do the same loop day in and day out at the same pace, then you will improve, but at a much slower rate than if you had to add structure and variety to your training. What I mean by this is incorporating harder days and easy days. I would recommend two- to two-and-a-half harder days in a week, with the rest all easy, maintenance running.  The hard days could include things like track / interval, tempo, hill sessions or incorporating faster sections within your longer runs.
On these harder days, you really want to snap out of your comfort zone and feel like you’re pushing your body to almost your max. And why I say almost, is because you want to save that extra little percentage for race day. You should be pushing your body to between 85% and 95% on these harder days. Save that extra 5% for race day.
A common mistake I see a lot of runners make is pushing to 100% on these harder days, every single time. It’s definitely not the most productive way to train and there is no need to absolutely max during the sessions.

There’s just something about feeling good that translates into running good. Race day is YOUR day!

Now onto the easy runs. It’s simple: easy runs should feel easy. You should be working within a heart rate zone of 1 or 2, with a maximum heart rate of 72% of your HR max. The point of these runs is to allow the body to recover, while still maintaining fitness. If you push too hard in these easier runs, then you run the risk of being fatigued and might not be able to reach the levels you want to within harder sessions.
Lastly, try and avoid back-to-back hard sessions. Allow at least one to 2 easier days between these.
 Do runs at a target race pace
Come race day, your body should have a good idea of exactly what your goal race pace should feel like. We need to practise this within training. A good way to run at goal race pace within training is to break the run up into shorter, sharper intervals. If you never train at target race pace, it might be a complete shock to the system come race day. We want to be as best prepared as possible.
Below are a couple of my favourite sessions I do that give you a good indicator of what your current 5K shape is:

  • 5×1km repeats. (With 75 seconds static recovery between). Or;

  • 3×1mile repeats. (With 90 seconds static recovery between)

You then add your cumulative time up for the sessions. That will give you a good indicator of what your 5K shape should be. For example, if you did 5×1 km in five minutes for each rep, then your indicative 5K time is 25 minutes.

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Another great progression track/interval session that I love doing in prep for 5K is the following;

  • 8 x 400m repeats. (With 60 seconds static recovery between) at goal 5K pace - followed by;

  • 8 x 200m repeats. (Also with 60 seconds static recovery between) at slightly faster than goal 5K pace.

The point of all of this is to train the body to get as comfortable as possible at goal 5K pace.

Parkruns are a great way to practise the 5K distance. Photography by: Archer Photo / Shutterstock

Feel the part to run the part
There’s just something about feeling good that translates into running good.

Race day is YOUR day! It’s what you’ve been preparing for. You want to feel confident within yourself and in your kit in order to execute the best race possible.

Whether it be matching kit, or your favourite vest, or snazzy socks, or anything else that you think might contribute to bringing your mojo out, wear whatever it is that will make you feel good.

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We live in a day and age where shoes have progressed significantly over the recent years with carbon fibre shoes changing the game! These most certainly give you an advantage compared to running in the pre-carbon days. All the top brands in running have got super shoes. You never want to try anything new on race day, so make sure you practise doing some of your sessions with your race day shoe. You should notice an instant pop and bounce when running in carbon plated shoes. This small advantage might just be what you need in order to get that PB.
On race day I always ensure I feel the part prior to the start gun going off. I know as soon as the gun goes off that I’m probably going to get all sweaty. But once again, feeling prepared at the start line is giving yourself the best chance at a good race.

Remember at the start of these 5K races, we often tend to have a lot of adrenaline and nerves. Don’t get carried away in this first kilometre as you could pay for it later on.

Pace the race correctly
A race strategy that works for one might not work for another. The beautiful thing about the 5K distance is that we can recover fairly quickly and go again in a short space of time, unlike a marathon or ultra.
I’ve done hundreds of 5K races and in my experience the following pacing strategy seems to work best:

Run the first 4K consistently, as closely grouped together as possible, and pick the pace up in the last km, by giving your absolute all towards the end!.

Remember at the start of these 5K races, we often tend to have a lot of adrenaline and nerves. Don’t get carried away in this first kilometre as you could pay for it later on. Instead try and channel that energy for the last third of the race, which is when the going gets tough and that’s the part that truly counts.

Often, I find kilometre three tends to be the slowest for most runners, including myself. So, it’s important not to lose concentration during this section. It’s by far the hardest part of the 5K race as you’re past halfway, fatigued, but can’t smell the finish line just yet. Hang in there with all you’ve got, because you can always find something when you can see the finish line.

Remain consistent
Probably the most important tip of all is to remain consistent and keep showing up. There’s going to be hard patches and easy patches. Running is like a heartbeat. There’s always ups and downs. Motivation comes and goes. But getting out the door on those tougher days where the motivation levels are at their lowest, are the ones that truly count. Most of us can train hard when we’re feeling good and motivation levels are high. But when life tests you and you’re still able to get out for a run, those are the small wins that all add up.
I find that a great way to remain motivated which helps with consistency is to follow friends and other athletes who inspire you on Strava. Often seeing the training that others are doing gives you that extra kick we need in order to get out the door.

If you’re able to meet other people or run with groups, even better. Teamwork makes the dream work!
I really hope these tips help you. Train hard, and smart, and go smash that 5K time of yours!

Onwards and upwards,

Coach Nick