10 Steps to 5K Success

The 5K is a perfect distance for the beginner looking to run their first race. But, given that it's halfway between middle and long distance, it's also a notoriously difficult distance for the experienced runner to master. Whichever camp you fall into, the following tips should prove invaluable.

For Beginners

Have patience
A 2003 study by the University of Houston in the USA found that the top three reasons for quitting exercise programs are lack of time, lack of motivation and lack of progress. The key to beating all three is patience: don't try and run too fast or too far too soon. It's a common mistake to believe you should feel exhausted after every training session – this isn't true and will only cause you to give up your schedule. Start by alternating walking and running and only go as far as feels comfortable, then stop. That way you won't dread your next outing and knowing that you could push yourself harder will keep you motivated.

Plan and monitor your progress
An experiment by the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, USA, revealed that turning your training program into a formal contract, either with yourself or a third party, significantly increases the likelihood of you sticking to it. So, enter your 5K well in advance and mark the date clearly on your calendar. Commit yourself to the event and to a regular training schedule by making a pact with yourself or, preferably, another person. Research from Berlin University in Germany looking at recovering heart-attack patients found that those who kept an exercise diary increased their levels of physical activity by about 16 per cent. So monitor your progress, because seeing all the sessions you've done can be great for building confidence and keeping you going.

Watch your BPM
You can pick up a heart-rate monitor for about £30 these days (such as the Polar FS1 for £29.50 from Argos) and keeping a close eye on your heart rate is a great way to ensure you're not pushing too hard. First you need to calculate your maximum heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) – 220 minus your age is a good rule of thumb. Then try and make sure you don't go above 75 per cent of that maximum while you're training – this will ensure you don't exhaust yourself and dread the next session. The heart-rate monitor will also be useful on race day. With the crowd cheering and adrenaline pumping there's a big temptation to go off too fast at the start of the race – but keeping an eye on your heart rate should keep you in check.

Get some group therapy
One of the best ways to keep motivation levels high is to plan your 5K in conjunction with others. Whether they're friends, work colleagues or members of the local running club, having a group all pushing for the same goal helps enormously. Also, chatting while you're running has a double benefit: it makes the miles go by faster and it ensures you run at a comfortable pace (as, if you run too fast, you won't be able to keep up the conversation). To prove the point, a study at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA, found that exercising alone makes animals more prone to negative effects of stress that can offset the physical benefits of running, whereas those that trained in a social environment had no such problems.

Go the distance
Confidence is a big factor in all sports and running is no different. Proving to yourself that you can cover the distance in advance is likely to make the whole event seem far more manageable. So, one day early in your training schedule, measure out 5K using your car or Google Earth on your computer and walk it at a leisurely pace. You should find the distance isn't so frightening any more, plus you'll have the confidence to know that you'll be able to finish the race even if you can't run all of it.

For Improvers

Personalise your training program
Remember that training schedules are designed as a guide for the ‘average' runner. But each of us has our own particular running strengths and weakness, so it's vitally important to work out what sort of runner you are and therefore what to emphasise in your training. A good way to do this is to note your personal best times from 1500m to marathon and compare them with equivalent times for different races using this race time calculator. If your PBs are comparatively better over the longer distances, then your training for the 5K needs to emphasise speedwork, whereas if it's the other way round then a slower, aerobic base will be more important for you.

Conquer the fourth kilometre
Once you hit 4K the end is in sight, but maintaining pace between 3K and 4K is notoriously hard. Even Craig Mottram, Australia's 2005 World 5,000m Bronze Medallist, admits he struggled with it early in his career. So how do you go about conquering this tricky phase? There are certain training sessions that'll help, but a little visualisation may work too. First calculate what pace that fourth kilometre needs to be run in. Then, towards the end of longer runs or interval work throw in a 1K rep at exactly that pace and each time visualise it being the fourth kilometre of your race. By the time the race comes around you'll feel like you've done the difficult part umpteen times before.

Get explosive!
If you've been running for a while and your 5K time has plateaued, try adding a bit of explosive work into your schedule for more speed. A team of Finnish researchers took a number of experienced cross-country runners and divided them into two groups. The first group continued to train as normal while the second group replaced a third of their regular training load with a series of explosive exercises including sprints of 20-100m, jumping, bounding and rapidly repeated leg presses with low weights. In a subsequent 5K time trial, the explosive training group improved by five per cent on average, whereas the control group saw virtually no improvement.

Go out hard
"For me, setting the right pace is the hardest part," says Commonwealth Games silver medallist Jo Pavey. "You can't go too fast at the start and risk blowing up, but you don't want to start too slowly as the race is less than 15 minutes long." So how do you get it right? Surprisingly, it might be best to err on the side of aggression. A recent study by the University of New Hampshire, USA found that runners who cover the first mile six per cent faster than goal pace achieved better results than those who set out to run evenly. Unlike in a marathon, where attempting a positive split can be catastrophic, a 5K just isn't long enough for a late dropping off in pace to outweigh the gains made early on.

Taper
Even experienced runners can sometimes believe tapering is only necessary for long events like the marathon and that for a 5K it's unwarranted. In fact, the reverse may be closer to the truth. New research by a team at Ball State University in Indiana, USA, reveals that during a three-week taper, the benefits of rest are felt more in the fast-twitch muscles required for shorter events like the 5K than the slow-twitch muscles paramount in a marathon. Their results also contradict the received wisdom that tapering should involve cutting mileage but upping the intensity of the sessions you do run, as this would result in breaking down the very fibres that benefit from a taper. So to run a great 5K make sure you taper properly, and that means easing up on intensity as well as mileage.