Can You Race a Fast 5k With Little Training?

I get questions all the time from runners and non-runners about how to hit a certain time or race well while only running a few days a week.  My favorite question came a few weeks ago: “I want to run a fast 5k but I hate running now.  How do I accomplish this with just three runs a week?”  This person had an accomplished running career but had only run twice a week for 5-6 miles for three years.  For him, it’s possible to get back in decent shape if he runs the right workouts.

It is absolutely possible to run PR’s and get faster with only 3 runs per week provided you haven’t been training at a high level already.  If you stop running 80 miles per week with two solid workouts and try this program, you will not improve.

But for those who have done some running and want to squeeze the most productivity from a few runs every week, you can still get fast.  If your workouts are structured correctly then a lot of fitness gains can be realized in a minimalist 5k training program.

I want to be clear that this type of training is not ideal.  Don’t do the bare minimum if you want long-term success or want to continue to improve at a high level.  This is not the best way to train for long races but it will allow someone who lacks time or commitment to run fairly well.

Let’s take a look at my minimal training recommendations for  a 5k race.  I chose a 5k distance because it’s an incredibly popular race and a benchmark for most runners.

5k Training – Three Training Days

If you want to be somewhat competitive in a 5k and only have three days to run, then you have to focus on quality.  A full running schedule would include several “maintenance runs” that would build your aerobic base but not be very specific to racing 5,000 meters.  All three runs in this schedule will be specific to prepping a runner for racing this distance successfully.

The Combination Workout

The first run of the week will focus on strength and will be my absolute favorite type of workout: a combination tempo and hill workout.  The key to making this successful is to dial down the length of your tempo so it is shorter than what you would normally do and cut the number of hill reps.

For example, I normally do 30 minute tempos and 8 hill reps of about 400 meters separately.  For a combination workout, I would only tempo 15 minutes and run 4 hill repetitions of 400m.  The workout will still take roughly the same amount of time as a full 30 minute tempo or 8 hills.

Run the hills at your current 5k race pace.  The incline will make this feel faster than race pace.

It’s important to do the tempo first otherwise your heart rate will be too high after the hills to run a successful threshold run.  A short tempo is also a great warm-up for a harder effort. The side benefit of this type of workout is that you can run it without a track (here are five more no track workouts).

5k Specific Intervals

The second workout of the week will put you on the track running intervals at slightly faster than your current 5k pace.  I prefer 800 or 1,000m intervals when training for the 5k simply because they are fairly short and allow you to more easily hit your goal times.  Confidence is important with these faster workouts.

It’s important to run between 4 – 5,000m in these workouts when training for a 5k.  This would mean 4-5 x 1k or 5-6 x 800m.  Covering the race distance or close in the workout will give you the strength necessary to race where you want to be.  Take 2-3 minutes between the intervals to ensure you’re properly recovered.

As you get more fit and your goal race gets closer, reduce your recovery time to two minutes or even 90 seconds.  Always make sure that you can get more out of  yourself.  In other words, don’t race during training.

The Long Run

Every training program for races longer than a mile need a long run in my perspective.  It’s vital to developing stamina that will allow you to out-sprint your competitors at the end of your race.  The total distance of your long run completely depends on your current fitness level and past training.

If your longest run in the past month has been five miles, then aim to complete 6 miles as your first long run.  But if you ran 15 miles last week, keep your long run at this level.  For this minimalist training program, there’s no need to run longer than 15 miles on your long day.

Your long run should be approximately 40 – 50% longer than your other two training days.  For example, if you want to run 15 miles on your long day then your other sessions should be 7-10 miles.  If your long day is 10 miles, your other days should be 4-5 miles.

Putting the Workouts Together

Let’s take a look at how this training program would look like in a sample week.  For simplicity reasons, I am not including any strength training, barefooting, core workouts, or supplemental aerobic work like biking or pool running.  I’m assuming this person has only 3 days per week to train.

Monday: OFF

Tuesday: Combination workout – 10 minute tempo and 3 x 300 hill reps.  Including a 15 min. warm-up and 10 min. warm-down.  About 6 miles total.

Wednesday: OFF

Thursday: Intervals – 5 x 800m with 400m jog recovery.  About 6 miles total including warm-up and warm-down.

Friday: OFF

Saturday: Long run – 12 miles.  Optional addition of speeding up during the last mile if you feel good.

Sunday: OFF

This program is intense.  It assumes the runner wants to improve and race well but simply doesn’t have the time to train every day.  It also assumes they have some running experience to be able to handle this volume and intensity.

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to training because different workouts affect runners in a variety of ways.  But by combining four types of workouts in three sessions in this week, this program allows a busy athlete to get the most bang for their time investment.

What do you think?  If you train only a few days per week but have wildly different workouts, let’s hear it!

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  1. I got my best results by simply racing alot. (Mostly triathlons and duathlons. One every week or other week. (about 20-30 a year) I tried hill intervals and 400,600 and 800 intervals on the track but found that I couldn’t handle a lot of hard fast training running. The more I raced as i aged, the less i trained. (I used to train 25 hours a week for the Ironman though .) Hill intervals are safer than track work.Most of my biking was moderate pace w/lots of hill intervals, and swimming was drills or Masters. If I could i preferred running on trails. When I was just a runner I had more injuries even though my work load was far less and the races were only about 6-12 a year. I was the fastest at the end of my career in my 40’s
    I finally quit 15 years ago burned out. Thinking of trying again at 62. Hopes springs eternal.

    • Wow, it sounds like you really found what worked for you! Some people respond pretty well to racing frequently, for others it burns them out so it’s a careful balancing act. I think you should definitely get into running again but you should be very careful if you’re prone to injuries. At your age, it’s probably best to avoid any hard speed work. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I have run in the low 18 minute range on as little as 9 miles a week primarily on the treadmill. I run 3 miles x 3 days a week. Start out at 7 min pace and gradually increase the speed to 6 min pace. Throw in an outdoor tempo run, interval or easy 5 miles every couple of weeks to get the feel of the road. The treadmill is great for forcing your legs to go fast and build muscle memory. I’ve successfully done this from my mid 30s to my current age of 48. I never get injured as well.

    • I’m glad you found a training schedule that works for you Dean! That’s impressive despite the low volume.

    • Rick Phelps says:

      The running routine Dean talks about is something I am trying for myself. Up until 3 years ago I was an avid running, but sciatic problems ended that. I have now found I can tolerate runs of around 3 miles a few days per week. So instead of running far, I’ll try to run “fast”. I’m not up to the pace Dean talks about yet, but think I can probably reach it. It’s nice to see and “existence proof” for this type of training.

      • Thanks for the comment Rick. It’s definitely possible, but like I mentioned it’s not an ideal training program for long-term improvement (which is why you won’t see any elite runners doing similar programs). But if it works for you and fits your lifestyle, then that’s great! Finding something that personally melds with your life is key. Cheers.

  3. Rick,
    Sorry about the sciatic. I just want to add a few points to my routine. I lift weights 4-5 days a weeks for about 25 min. Then cardio is mainly elliptical for 22 min (hard) or 30 min bike followed by 3 -4 miles treadmill two days a week and just treadmill one or two days a week depending if I do a race. Very important is consistency and weight control. I’m 5′ 10 and try to maintain 155-160. Any heavier and my times really suffer. Also make sure to run on the track once every week or two during race season. Usually 8-12 400s in about 80 – 90 seconds. That’s about it! Best of luck!

  4. Rick Phelps says:

    Thanks for the details. I do something similar, weight training a few times a week. I can’t do elliptical or bike (it also irritates my nerve pain), but I swim for about an hour several days a week. I am still exploring how much running I can do without raising my level of pain. Again, thanks for the details.


  5. I am a runner who had 2 pretty serious knee injuries in 02. I ran 15’s for 5k back then on 40-50 mpw. I am now 41 and want to run races again after 10 years off. I am planning on implementing a plan like this as I find that I can’t run back to back days without some pain. I like the sample schedule and plan on giving it a go.

  6. Hey Fitz!

    I read your article and I have some questions as to what you would recommend for me. I am looking for a training schedule with 3 days a week training. I run around 10 miles a week now and have only been running for around 4-5 months. The first 2 months were around 5-7 miles a week. I used to be an avid weight-lifter but have recently got into running and I am now down around 155-158 at 5’8”. 27 years old. I have always been very active and in great shape, just as good as high school when I played football, basketball and ran track. A few years back without training, I ran a half marathon just to see if I could and I broke 2 hours and also I can still outsprint most people with around 11.8-12 second 100 meter dash. Not prone to injury but did struggle with ITBS a little at the begining because of extreme flat feet but was taken care of by shoes and proper running technique. Anyways, I have ran a couple small 5k’s around a 22 minute pace a couple of months ago, now I am wanting to break 20 minutes, but not with too much training so I dont lose all my muscle mass. I would like to keep the mileage under 15 if possible with 3-4 days of training is all I could commit. I know to get really good at the 5k, I probably need to train around 25+ miles per week and have seen tons of schedules how to do that and they also say lose 15 pounds. What would you recommend for me with my current goals?

  7. charles brown says:

    As a middle-aged male golfer I just do my treadmill- 5k runs twice a week to avoid injuries and sweat a lot… also a little weights and biking/swimming. Golf involves a lot of walking.