How to handle the middle miles of a 5K or 10K

Illustration by Rui Ricardo

The 5K and 10K races are Trojan horses. They seem safe from the outside, but they’re filled with danger – waiting to inflict pain on those who let their guard down. ‘It’s the worst feeling in all of running,’ says running coach Ben Rosario, describing the pain of oxygen debt in these seemingly simple races. The distances are relatively short compared with the half or marathon, but because of the extra speed required they represent a long time for runners to spend on the edge of the red line. Here’s how to approach the meat of the race.

Related: How to run your perfect 5K 

Related: How to run your perfect 10K 

Start at the beginning

First off, don’t go out too fast. Cross-country coach Eric Heintz says he sees the slow-down in the middle miles from those who go out too hard, then try to recover and get back into their comfort zones. Christo Landry, the 2014 US road 10K champion, says staying controlled early sets you up to get negative splits and gives you the best chance of a fast time. ‘There’s a reason the world records at the mile and above have been run that way,’ he says. He recommends focusing on your effort to gauge if you’re going out too hard. This also helps on a course with significant hills or inaccurate distance markers.

The effort at the beginning of a 5K or 10K race should feel similar to a tempo run, says Rosario. ‘You’re very amped up, so even though the pace will probably be faster than your tempo run pace, the feeling is pretty similar,’ he says. Heintz also recommends being realistic about where you line up for the start – if you are in the appropriate place, it’s more likely you’ll begin at a sustainable pace.

Related: Run your first (or fastest) 5K

Practise the pain

Even with a smart start to the race, the middle miles will be difficult. Scott Simmons, coach of the American Distance Project, says the challenge in the middle section is maintaining pace after fatigue has set in. Your training has to be designed in a way that helps you meet that challenge. Danny Mackey, coach of the Brooks Beasts, says most adult runners are not prepared for the intensity of an all-out 5K. He says your brain and nervous system need to be prepared ‘to be OK with that intensity and know it’s safe to go that hard’. That training can take a variety of forms (see left), but the common thread is workouts that simulate aspects of the race. ‘In theory, the more specific the workout is to the race, the more prepared the athlete should be come race time,’ says Mackey.

A workout doesn’t need to be at race pace to be race-specific, says Rosario. Although a three-mile tempo run isn’t as tough as a race, the lack of rest means the workout will test you at roughly the same point at which the race begins to feel hard.

Aiming for race-specific workouts also doesn’t mean that each one needs to feel as hard as a race. Mackey says you should only do this once every 14-18 days and warns that doing too many workouts of this type can wear you down.

READ: Does learning to suffer make you a better runner?

Think tough

Although practising pain in hard workouts can help build mental toughness, the race itself is a difficult psychological experience. When the pace starts to lag in the middle miles, Ben True, who has won US road championships at 5K and 10K, says it’s usually a psychological rather than a physical issue. ‘Most people pick it up at the end of the race,’ he says. ‘And if you can do this, it means you could have gone harder in the middle.’

It’s the challenge of competing – can you keep pushing when the finish is far away? Thinking about the finish in the middle of the race is ‘way too daunting’, says Mackey, and can cause you to become distracted. ‘I tell my athletes to think about what they are doing right at that moment,’ he says.

Landry’s coach, Alex Gibby, tells him to ‘go dumb’ during the race – to not overthink things and just focus on racing. Other coaches recommend finding positive energy to keep your thinking upbeat. Mackey says using cues that work for you in hard workouts is helpful, giving you a feeling of familiarity on race day. Finally, Heintz says you need to accept that the race will be hard. He recommends reminding yourself that your toughest workouts have prepared you for the challenges in the middle of the race; this will take the mystique away from the event.

READ: 10 key tips on how to run a 10K

Workouts to master the middle miles

The start pace settler

Goal: To practise settling into an appropriate race pace after a quick start

Workout: Run 200m-400m at ‘starting effort’ (untimed), then move directly into one mile at your 5K race pace per mile plus 10 seconds (so if you were aiming for a 20-minute finishing time, this would be 6:26 + 10s = 6:36). Repeat three times, taking three minutes of rest between efforts.

Coach notes: ‘It’s a chance to settle back in and find that pace,’ says Eric Heintz. ‘You don’t need to do it often, but you need to do it a little bit to know how to turn it down after that quick start and settle in so you’re not putting in too much effort too early.’

Ride the line

Goal: To focus on maintaining pace throughout the race

Workout: 10-12 x 500m at goal 5K race pace, with 45 seconds’ rest

Coach notes: ‘I usually want the athletes to go out at goal pace straight away,’ says Danny Mackey. ‘I want them to ride that line as much as possible during the workout – versus being too conservative early on – and not have to focus in the middle and end reps.’

The hammer

Goal: To better simulate late-race pain and fatigue

Workout: 12 x 400m at goal 5K pace or slightly faster, with 60 seconds, rest; ‘hammer’ rep 11 at faster than race pace

Coach notes: We inject a ‘hammer’ or two in the last part of this workout to mirror what the challenge of the race will be,’ says Scott Simmons. ‘The hammer is faster than race pace. The athlete really pushes and crosses into the anaerobic area. Coming into the last interval with a higher level of fatigue, the athlete tries to get back to race pace, practicing increasing the effort to maintain pace.’