See that? No, it’s not pollen coating every bit of furniture and turning your black car a dingy yellow. It’s the 5K race calendar blossoming before your (possibly red and runny) eyes.
Yes, spring has finally sprung for the whole country, and that brings with it a series of shorter, faster races more conducive to the heat and humidity that loom. Whether you’ve just finished the Boston Marathon or spent winter hibernating on the couch, it’s time to find some races. In 2017, Americans registered to race a 5K almost 9 million times, making it the most popular distance in the country.
Showing up to a 5K—3.1 miles for those of you less metrically inclined—and really nailing one on the head are very different things.
Being the best version of yourself on race day means balancing runs at a variety of paces during your training. Think of it as multiple arrows in your quiver, each with a different duty. The more arrows you have, the better your fitness and the more prepared you’ll be for whatever race day throws at you.
Here's how to get started.
The Basic Components of Training for a 5K
To keep things as streamlined as possible, I’ve broken the basic training components for a 5K race into five categories. These are ranked in order of importance.
Component No. 1: Easy Endurance Runs
If you expected to see a vomit-inducing track session at the No. 1 position, my apologies in advance. Easy aerobic running – the kind where you can hold a fairly intelligible conversation with a buddy in between unstressed breaths – is absolutely the most essential piece to the 5K puzzle. At its heart, the 5K is an aerobic race, which means it’s based on your heart’s ability to pump blood and use oxygen to burn fuel. Nothing better enhances those abilities than relaxed runs at 60 to 70 percent of your max heart rate.
- Beginner example: 20-40 minutes at a conversational pace
- Advanced example: 30-75 minutes at a conversational pace
Component No. 2: The Long Run
Long runs take the goodness of endurance runs and push them into a more challenging (and beneficial) realm. During a long run, the duration of the run becomes a significant factor. Not only does this boost the cardiovascular gains, but your muscles, ligaments and tendons are all challenged by the length of time they’re being asked to work. Long runs can be at a conversational pace or they may have challenging segments added in. Their length demands your full attention, however, and should not be treated as a casual jog.
- Beginner example: 40-60 minutes at a conversational pace
- Advanced example: 90 minutes, starting conversational and increasing in intensity the last 30 minutes
Component No. 3: Tempo Runs
At long last we are approaching something close to 5K race pace. Tempo runs are performed at a pace that’s roughly what you could hold for an hour-long race (meaning half-marathon race pace for an elite male and 10K race pace for a recreational runner who averages 10-minute miles). Some tempos are performed as one continuous sessions. Others are broken into shorter cruise intervals. The goal is to work at a challenging but maintainable pace for an extended period of time. Doing so will increase your stamina and tolerance to the byproducts of using lactate as fuel (which is one reason tempos are also sometimes called “lactate threshold runs”).
- Beginner example: 3 x 5 minutes at a moderately hard effort (3-minute walk or slow jog in between)
- Advanced example: 3 miles at tempo pace
Component No. 4: Intervals
If you want to truly be good at something, you need to specifically prepare for it. Once you feel fit, it’s time to add in intervals. These repeats can be anywhere between a quarter-mile (400 meters) to a mile (1,600 meters) long and should allow adequate recovery in between each (roughly 50 to 90 percent of the time the interval took).
These sessions will be challenging, but they’ll let your body sense and adapt to the pace and fatigue you’ll encounter during a race while giving your cardiovascular system a huge return on investment. Please note that paces slightly slower and slightly faster than 5K pace are also highly beneficial.
- Beginner example: 4 x 3 minutes at goal 5K pace (2:30 walk after each interval)
- Advanced example: 5 x 1000m at goal 5K-10K pace (2:30 jog after each interval)
Component No. 5: Short Speed/Power
SPEED! Yes, the ALL-CAPS type of speed that makes you feel like Usain Bolt – or something like it. It may not play a huge role in 5K success, but raw speed helps you be more economical in using oxygen at slower speeds and gives you the ability to unleash a monster kick when the finish line comes into sight. Exaggerating your arm motion and pushing off harder against the ground also increase the training response. Just make sure you recover in between these shorter, faster reps, as they’re primarily anaerobic (read: not fueled by oxygen), meaning you can wear yourself out quickly.
- Beginner example: 10 x 25 seconds at 95 percent of maximum speed (walk for 1 minute)
- Advanced example: 12 x 200 at faster than mile pace (200m slow jog recovery)
Example 5K Training Plans
Now that we’ve analyzed the different types of runs that’ll be beneficial for training, it’s time to see how they work in concert with one another.
Because most people only have the time and energy to workout one or two times per week, consolidating training from different intensities is encouraged when possible. This could be an easy run paired with some sprints at the end or a workout that starts with a tempo and gradually works down to 5K-pace intervals.
A good rule of thumb is to work from the general to the specific, meaning you emphasize race-pace work as you get closer to race day. In the beginning, this means the easy runs and long runs taken precedence. Since it’s easier to maintain a fitness gain than it is to get fit in the first place, emphasis will decrease on those areas in favor of tempos and intervals as race day approaches.
To really make sense of this, I’ve included two mockups for a 5K race that’s six weeks away. This shouldn’t be considered a road map as much of a tutorial on how to blend work and recovery in the weeks leading up to a fun summer race. And with all those arrows you’re accumulating, you should have no trouble hitting the bullseye on this one.
By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).