5km has become one of the most popular running distances. From the athletics track to your local Parkrun, the 5K is a distance suited for all abilities. It is a short distance that can easily be covered by any runner, including beginners. However, shorter doesn’t mean easier. On the contrary, if you want to get a good time, you need to run at high levels of intensity during all of the race and, therefore, push your body to the limit. Whether you want to set your Personal Best (PB) under 18, 20, 25 or 30 minutes, these are some tips to improve your 5K running time and smash your PB. Warning: it hurts!
Ahead of the Race
First of all, set your goal. You may want to get, for example, under the 23 minutes after years stuck on your 23.13 PB. Calculate which is the average pace you need to set that time. For instance, if you plan to get a 22.50, your pace should be of 4.34 min/km (or 7.27 km/mile). Then, focus on a particular race. You may run a 5K every Saturday for fun, but if you want to set a new PB it’s better to set ‘the one’ and prepare for it. You will need to train hard. The goal is to feel comfortable enough running hard and below your normal 5K time. In this case, try to run below 4.25 min/km. The best method is to include high-intensity interval training once a week as part of your preparation. Speed workouts help you to absorb and use oxygen more efficiently and force your body to adapt to high levels of lactic acid, which is crucial to keep a fast pace for the duration of the event. There are many different interval workouts, but try to keep the length of the repetitions well below the mile and make sure to give yourself enough recovery time between intervals. You can alternate your interval training with tempo run or hill reps. In this way, the route of the 5K race will look for you flat as a pancake and you’ll be able to manage your average time better (well, if the 5K race is not the Cabinteely Parkrun! Dublin runners will know what I mean…).
Before the Race
Even if 5K is a short distance, recovery is important. Rest for two days before the race, although you may want to do a light run the day before to stretch your legs. On the day of the race, you should eat light and well ahead of the race; for example, a banana or an energy bar one hour before the starting time. It’s important to arrive well in advance to the place of the competition and jog for 10 to 15 minutes. Warming up is essential for a 5K race because you have to perform at high intensity from the very beginning. The last thing you want is to start cold. You need to start running at a high intensity from the start and, if you are not warm enough, you’re more likely to get an injury. To set a PB, you better know the route well. If it’s a Parkrun, you probably have run it other times and you know which are the hardest and the fastest bits. If not, study the route and, if you have the time, go for a reconnaissance lap.
During the Race
Stay focused. This is probably the most important, and most difficult part. If you are putting your body to the limit, you will feel pain. Think that this is only for around 20 minutes. Or, following on our example, 23 minutes. In fact, shorter if you reach your goal. The faster you run, the sooner you’ll finish. It’s that simple. Now, don’t start too fast. This is a common mistake that you must avoid at all costs. You have trained hard to keep a fast pace and feel comfortable enough with it. Experts recommend running a negative split, that is, running your second half faster than the first one. This, however, is not always easy nor the best strategy. I suggest that you keep your pace and monitor it from time to time, ideally after each kilometre. The toughest part is usually kilometre 3 to 4. There’ll be some point at which you’ll want to give up and slow down your pace. My tip: instead of slowing down, try to slightly accelerate your pace. You’ll see that you can actually run faster, even if your brain says the opposite. Leave, though, a bit of energy for the final sprint. In the last 200 metres, it’s when you can empty yourself out. The 5 to 10 seconds that you can win in the last metres can make the difference.
After the Race
Once you have crossed the finish line, the pain is over. You probably want to lay down on the grass and, after recovering your breath, chat with other runners. It’s however important to warm down and stretch in order to avoid injuries. It’s also recommended to eat some high-protein food. Especially if you haven’t reached your goal, you want to keep in shape to try again soon. Perhaps next Saturday?