Top coaches reveal their best 5K race tips

Block out time

Once you’ve been running for a while – and especially if you’ve raced longer distances – it’s easy to feel dismissive of a mere 3.1 miles. But truly conquering a 5K demands the same degree of preparation as a half or full marathon, says Kaitlin Gregg Goodman, an elite runner and coach, with a best 5K time of 15:29.

Related: How to run your perfect 5K 

‘It’s a different kind of hard compared with a marathon – it’s shorter, but it’s not easier,’ says Matt Thull, a running coach with a 14:07 PB for 5K. So to achieve your 5K potential, you’ll want to set aside your half- and full-marathon ambitions and dedicate at least one three-month training block to the effort.

Set a benchmark

Try what Thull calls a ‘rust-busting’ 5K race or time trial at the beginning of your training cycle: run it as fast as you can and use it to set workout paces and race goals. You might find you’re capable of covering it faster than you think, says coach Alan Culpepper, a two-time Olympian and author of Run Like a Champion.

If you’re injury-prone, however, prepare with six weeks of 5K training before that first race, says Culpepper. You’ll prime your muscles and joints for faster running, decreasing your odds of getting hurt.

Another option: run a benchmark workout. After a one-to-two-mile warm-up, Goodman prescribes three hard one-mile repeats with four to five minutes’ walking or jogging between each. By the end of 5K training, you should be able to race a 5K at the same pace you averaged for those reps.

Follow a plan

A training plan works like a syllabus, guiding you step by step through unfamiliar terrain toward your goals. You’ll log fewer miles than you would prepping for a half or full marathon – but you’ll do more fast running to build muscular strength, increase your efficiency and improve your running mechanics, says Culpepper.

In fact, a well-crafted plan is almost more critical for the 5K than for longer distances, says Thull. Short, intense workouts demand precision in their execution; if you shift days around or run faster than prescribed paces, you may injure yourself or hamper your recovery.

A good plan usually involves two hard workouts per week, including one with several repeats at around 5K pace and another that features short, fast intervals, hill repeats or tempo runs. You’ll also do a long run of between five and 12 miles, plus one or more easy runs.

Cross-train on off days, if you like, but keep it easy – gentle yoga or a moderate swim instead of a high-intensity boot camp. Keeping your hard days hard and your easy days easy allows you to crush your 5K workouts, says Goodman.

Rehearse your warm-up

Forget the marathon mindset of using early miles to ease into race effort. ‘You’re asking your body and legs and mind to do so much in that first mile of a 5K,’ says Thull. ‘When that gun goes off, it’s like, “Here we go.’’’

Plan to spend at least 15-30 minutes warming up before both speed workouts and races. Practising your entire pre-run ritual during training increases the chance that each workout will go well – and also helps you nail race day, says Thull.

Beginners should start with one easy mile, jogging more slowly than on a regular easy run. More advanced runners can do up to three, picking up the pace slightly during the last mile, says Goodman. Then spend at least five minutes – more if you have time – doing drills such as leg swings, arm circles and skipping. Follow that with about a minute of hard running.

Immediately before your race, do four to six strides – 50-100m pick-ups at an effort level of about nine on a scale of one to 10. Run tall with a fluid stride, says Goodman. Recover between efforts. Though it’s ideal to replicate your pre-workout routine on race day, don’t freak out if race officials demand you line up before you’ve finished your strides. Even if you skip them, the minute of hard running still preps you for your starting pace, says Goodman.

Pace yourself (a little)

On race day, you want to hit goal pace right away – which doesn’t mean running all out, because you’ll blow up and slow down, warns Culpepper. Breaking the race into thirds provides a good framework for proper pacing. Goodman uses the mantra ‘calm and controlled’ for the first mile. Remember that you’ve trained for speed and your legs are well rested. Combine that with adrenaline and goal pace may feel like you’re not running fast enough.

The second mile should also come in close to your goal pace, but your effort level will be higher: about eight on a scale of one to 10, says Thull. Don’t panic if it feels hard. ‘Instead, do a body scan and think, “All right, where am I at? It’s hurting, but it’s supposed to if I’m on track to reach that ambitious goal,”’ says Goodman. Then bring the last 1.1 miles home at an effort level of 10 out of 10.

Your exact pace at a given effort level may vary based on the course: study the profile of your goal 5K and memorise when you’ll turn corners and encounter hills, says Culpepper. That way, you won’t sweat a slightly slower pace on uphills – or miss the chance to make up time charging downhill.


RUN YOUR FASTEST 5K

This plan is for runners who’ve logged at least 20 miles per week for a few months. On days with options, intermediate runners should choose the lower end; advanced runners, the higher.

Week 1

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 4-6 x 400 metres

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: 6 x 10-sec hill sprints, 90 sec recoveries

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 3-5 miles

Sun: Long: 5-8 miles

Week 2

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 4-6 x 400 metres

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Easy 3-5 miles + 6-8 strides

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 3-5 miles

Sun: Long: 5-8 miles, including 1 mile at tempo, 1 min recovery, 1 mile at tempo

Week 3

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 8-10 x 400 metres

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Tempo: 3 miles

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 3-5 miles

Sun: Long: 5-8 miles

Week 4

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 200, 400, 600, 800 metres (advanced: add 1,000 and 1,200)

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Easy 3-5 miles + 6-8 strides

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 3-5 miles

Sun: Long: 5-7 miles including 2 miles at tempo

Week 5

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 200, 400, 800, 400, 200 metres (advanced: 400, 800, 1,200, 800, 400)

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: 8 x 10-sec hill sprints, 90-sec recoveries

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 4-6 miles

Sun: Long: 6-10 miles

Week 6

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 4 x 800 metres (advanced: add a 400 before and after)

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Easy 3-5 miles + 6-8 strides

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 4-6 miles

Sun: Long: 6-10 miles, with 2 miles at tempo

Week 7

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 5 x 800 metres (advanced: add a 400 before and after)

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Tempo: 3 miles

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 4-6 miles

Sun: Long: 8-12 miles

Week 8

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 6 x 800 metres (advanced: add a 400 before and after)

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Easy 3-5 miles + 6-8 strides

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 4-6 miles

Sun: Long: 8-12 miles, including 3 miles at tempo

Week 9

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 200, 400, 800, 400, 200 metres (advanced: 400, 800, 1,200, 800, 400)

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: 6 x 20-sec hill sprints, 90-sec recoveries

Fri: Rest or cross train

Sat: Easy 3-5 miles

Sun: Long: 5-8 miles

Week 10

Mon: Rest or cross train

Tue: Speed: 4-6 x 200 metres

Wed: Easy 3 miles or cross train

Thu: Easy 3-5 miles

Fri: Rest

Sat: Easy 3 miles

Sun: 5K RACE


TRAINING KEY

CROSS-TRAIN: Cycle, swim, do a fitness class or strength-train.

SPEED: Add 1-2 miles warm-up (plus strides and dynamic stretches), 1-2 miles cool-down. Do reps at close to 5K goal pace. To recover, jog half the distance of the previous repeat.

HILLS: Add 1-2 miles warm-up (plus strides and dynamic stretches), 1-2 miles cool-down.

STRIDES: Roughly 100m pickups, peaking around 5K pace. Recover fully between each so you can give your best to every effort.

LONG: Intermediate runners run shorter; advanced go longer.

TEMPO: Start after 1-2 miles jogging. Run at a ‘comfortably hard’ pace (slightly faster than your half-marathon pace).