How to Train for a 5k (and set a new personal best)

by Jason Fitzgerald

Racing a 5k requires a smart combination of speed, endurance, and mental grit. Here’s how to train for a 5k and set a new personal best.

5k Training

The 5k distance used to be a long race for me. During high school cross country, I would tell myself “You’re in this for the long haul so stay tough.”

But then in college, cross country became 8k and during the spring season there was a 10k on the track (yes, that’s 25 mind-numbing laps!). After college I ran my first ten-mile race… then a half-marathon… then a marathon.

After a while, a measly 3.1 miles doesn’t seem very far.

And it’s not – most of us can run a 5k in 30 minutes or less. If you’re slower, your rate of improvement is going to be dramatic if you train smart. So hang in there – you’ll be much faster very soon!

It doesn’t matter if you’ve run 20 minutes or 35 minutes; the training principles that illustrate how to train for a 5k are the same.

How to Train for a 5k

Over the years of coaching hundreds of athletes to new personal bests from 1.5 mile military fitness tests up to the 50-mile ultramarathon distance, I’ve been given a “private look” inside how runners approach their training.

And most of the time, I’m horrified! There’s no progression. They avoid race-specific workouts. I see pacing mistake after pacing mistake.

If you want to run faster you need to take the next logical step in how you prepare and plan your training schedule. Even though you might think the 5k is short, it demands very specific workouts.

Good 5k training includes three distinct aspects of running fitness: speed, race-specific fitness, and endurance.

Over-emphasize endurance and you won’t have that “higher gear” to hammer the last mile.

Skip the specific 5k workouts and you’ll feel flat with no power.

Balancing all three ensures that you’ll feel powerful on race day and accomplish your race goals. So if you’re wondering how to train for a 5k, here’s how to execute each one (no matter what fitness level you’re at right now).

Get FAST

Have you ever watched a little kid play outside? They sprint everywhere. They don’t think about how to strike the ground with their foot, run tall, or stay relaxed – they just do it.

Watching a bunch of grade schoolers sprint around a playground can be instructive for all of us because as we get older, we inevitably lose the ability to run really fast.

It’s time to reclaim that skill.

There are two effective ways of developing speed that are appropriate for most of us (there are actually countless ways of formulating sprint workouts, but let’s stick to what works for 98% of most runners).

First, there are strides. Strides are about 100m accelerations. You start at an easy jog, build to about 95% of your max speed and then slow to a complete stop. A stride should take about 20-30 seconds.

Strides can be done 2-3 days per week after an easy run – for more, read my full article on how to run strides.

Once you’re comfortable running strides, you can progress to a more advanced type of speed training: hill sprints. These are 8-12 second maximum effort sprints up a steep hill with a full walking recovery in between.

Hill sprints are more advanced and should only be done by runners who are comfortable with running fast. But once you start them, they can help you build injury resistance, improve your neuromuscular control, and develop the ability to run at top speed.

Follow these principles when adding hill sprints to your training plan:

  • Run your first hill sprint of every session at a sub-maximal effort. Think of it like a warm-up.
  • Take at least a minute to walk down the hill, catch your breath, and ready yourself for the next sprint. You discount the benefits of hill sprints if you rush your recovery.
  • Start with eight second hill sprints and only three repetitions. Build to 6-10 reps of 10-12 seconds over 3-5 weeks.
  • Run hill sprints after an easy run 1-2 times per week.

It’s true that when you first start running hill sprints, there’s an inherent injury risk. You are running up a steep hill as fast as you can, after all. But after 2-3 sessions, they become protective from injury and help you gain tremendous strength and speed.

They’re a staple in the training plans included in Brad Hudson’s book Run Faster and I do them myself – they’re incredibly effective.

Plus, they’re a helluva lot of fun!

Develop Your Endurance

Train for a 5k

Every race demands a certain level of endurance – the 5k is no different. After all, if you can’t run 3.1 miles comfortably during training then how can you race the same distance fast?

It’s always better to be over-prepared so that’s why you run a consistent long run. For most runners, that should be in the 7-10 mile range depending on your ability. More competitive runners will want to do a significantly longer run.

And if you want to get really jacked up, you’ll do some fast running during your long run!

But is the long run the only way to build endurance? No way. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.

There are two others: weekly mileage and general consistency (which we know is the secret sauce of good training since 2013 is the Year of Consistency).

Your weekly mileage (or volume) is simply the number of miles you run every week. The more you run, the more endurance you’ll gain. I’m over-simplifying here, but most runners need to run more. Even a modest increase of 20% in mileage can produce big gains in fitness that will help you run faster.

So let’s say you’re running 25 miles per week and you increase that to 30 miles every week. That’s a 20% increase – not bad! But what if you ran that extra 5 miles for 15 weeks straight?

That’s an extra 75 miles – or three full weeks of training – condensed into the same training period. The power of consistency is that modest increases in mileage build over time and contribute to your fitness gradually. Like compound interest, the cumulative impact over time is powerful.

An extra mile or two added to your long run and a few more on your weekly schedule might not seem very difficult (and it’s usually not if you’re honest with yourself), but over time they dramatically improve your endurance.

That’s how you make a fast pace seem comfortable. And last year’s PR pace this year’s easy pace.

Race Specificity: 5k Training at its Best

Here is where we combine your speed with your endurance.

Both of those skills (Yes, speed and endurance are learned skills! Click here to tweet that!) help build your race specific fitness.

So what exactly is race specific fitness? Simple: the type of fitness you need to run your goal pace for an entire 5k.

If your 5k goal pace is 8:00 per mile, then your race specific fitness is the ability to hold that pace for 3.1 miles.

Getting in shape to do that requires a blend of speed and endurance. Both of those skills are more general, though. The specific nature of your race is what requires smarter workouts.

If you’re training for a 5k and get a custom training plan, you’ll see the exact progression of workouts that transition from general to specific. It’s always critical to recognize that any workout by itself means very little. It must come from another workout – and lead to another.

But just to show you what a 5k-specific workout looks like, here’s an example:

5k Workout

Or, it would be written like 6×800 @ 5k Goal Pace with 400m recovery.

You’ll see here that the total distance of interval running is 3 miles and it’s done exactly at your goal pace. Just like the race!

Depending on your ability and fitness level, you can modify the number of repetitions, total distance, and recovery running to make this slightly easier or more difficult.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a 33 minute 5k runner or a 20 minute 5k runner – these principles are universal and can help all of us train for a 5k – and set new personal bests.

To see how fast you could run a 5k with a training program built just for you, see more details about the PR Race Plan.

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{ 5 comments }

Stephen

Hello Fritz!
What’s missing in your article is the separation of elite/pro athletes and recreational athletes. You discuss ‘training like elite athletes’. The flaw here is pros & elite competitors are surrounded by chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, trainers, coaches, jacuzzis, saunas etc. They train to win races/games. For those of us who do not have a support team train for heath & fitness and incorporate training into our lifestyle, which is very different than a professional’s lifestyle. While Crossfit has its merist, it has its drawbacks as every training modality has. I’ve been training endurance athletes for 30+ years and I’m Crossfit certified. I have learned to take from any training system what works well for particular athletes. Some of Crossfit methods just do not apply to distance runners. I agree that specificity training is needed for specific events. When any training system tauts the ‘magic pill’ theory, we need to be aware. Specific conditioning and general conditioning are just as important and this is where a variety of training methods come into play whether it’s Crossfit or not, for a well rounded program. Again, it is important to take what is specific to an individual athlete while understanding his/her event’s specific/physical needs to support the event’s physical demands. After 30+ years of training recreational athletes, elite athletes, Olympic qualifiers and professionals, I have learned more from my mistakes rather than what I thought I was doing right. Thomas Edison said “I never made a mistake. I just learned 10,000 ways not to do something.” It’s nice to have these 3 decades of learning behind me!

Jason Fitzgerald

With all due respect, what are you talking about? Who is Fritz? What games? Elites are surrounded by Jacuzzi’s? What does this all have to do with CF?

Stephen

Hello Jason,

Typo calling you by the wrong name. My apologies.
What all this has to do with training is when elite/pro athletes have a 24/7 support system they can train endlessly as many do with multiple daily workouts and elevated levels intensity. Common folks do not have the ability to restore the body as rapidly on a daily basis without such a support group. All to often recreational athletes read about what the big players are doing and want to mimic their regimen. I’m not saying your telling your readers they need to train like world class athletes, however, you have made some comparisons and have eluded to that. Also, what 20 & 30 year olds are capable of handling on a weekly basis, is quite different than what someone in their 50′s or 60′s is capable of training per week. The older athlete needs more effective restoration/cross training. Restoration is the key point I was hoping to make, regardless, of what type of training is involved, including cross training.
“Games” I’m referring to are football, baseball, basketball etc (referring to professional athletes). Whether an elite runner or pro ball player, these individuals have support teams and advantanges such as Jacuzzis, saunas, etc., which enable them to recover and train at the levels they do. I was not negatively commenting on what you have said, but, rather commenting on presenting a more complete picture. A young high school can do Crossfit and it’ll improve their running, though you don’t think so. The reason is due to the high level of hormones and with such an abundance of hormones, any physical training will stimulate improvement. As athletes grow older, more specific cross training is needed for restoration and improved running, whether its Crossfit or not. Each athlete will have their specific needs. As you know, with maturing athletes come specificity and constant changes are needed as each athlete gets to the next level. I hope this helps explain better what I had commented on earlier.

laura harris

I am training high school cross country. I really need a start to finish training program. I
Our first race starts in 8 days we only started school 2 days ago. There was no running during the summer. So its gonna be a lit of work to get them race ready by then. This is my first year coaching and would love some week to week training that will help them peak in Oct. Any insight on a training routine would be greatly appreciated. Just a note I do have a few advanced runners. One 14 year old female was 4 in state last year. I would like to push those runners a little more than the others. Thank you so much for your quick response since the season has just started. Thanks again for any information. Laura

Jason Fitzgerald

Laura – not sure what you mean by “any insight.” That’s what this article is!

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