Crush Your Next 5-K!

With these training and racing tips, you will fly through your next 5-K race.

Cindy Kuzma |

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 5 kays. However, truly conquering a 5-K demands the same degree of preparation as a half or full marathon, says Kaitlin Gregg Goodman, an elite runner and coach with a best 5-K time of 15.29.

“It’s a different kind of hard compared to a marathon – it’s shorter, but it’s not easier,” says Matt Thull, a coach at ThunderDome Running and holder of a 14.07 5-K PB. So to achieve your 5-K 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

Hop into what Thull calls a ‘rust-busting’ 5-K 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 more swiftly than you think, says coach Alan Culpepper, a two-time Olympian and author of Run Like a Champion (who’s completed a 5-K in 13.25.6).

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

Another option: run a benchmark workout. After a 1.5km to 5km warm-up, Goodman prescribes three hard 1.5km repeats with four to five minutes’ walking or jogging in between. By the end of 5-K training, you should be able to race a full 5-K at the same pace you averaged for those reps.

< Click here to download our free 5-K Training Programme! >

Follow a Plan

A training plan works like a syllabus, guiding you step by step through unfamiliar terrain towards your goals. You’ll probably log fewer kays 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, Culpepper says.

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

A good plan – like the one on the next page – usually involves two hard workouts per week, including one with repeats around 5-K pace and another that alternates short, fast intervals or hill repeats with tempo runs. You’ll also do a long run of between 8km and 20km, 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 5-K workouts, Goodman says.

Chris Hinkle
Chris Hinkle

Rehearse Your Warm-up

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

Plan to spend at least 30 to 45 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, Thull says.

Beginners should start with 1.5km easy, jogging more slowly than on a usual easy run. More advanced runners can do up to five, picking up the pace slightly during the last 1.5km, Goodman says. Then spend at least five minutes – more, if you have time – doing drills like leg swings, arm circles, and skipping. Follow that with about one minute of hard running.

< Click here to download our free 5-K Training Programme! >

Immediately before your race or workout, do four to six strides – 100-metre pick-ups at an effort level of about 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. Focus on running tall with a fluid stride, Goodman says. Allow yourself to recover completely in between.

Though it’s ideal to replicate your pre-workout routine on race day, don’t freak out if the race officials at your event demand you line up before you’ve finished your strides. Even if you skip them entirely, the minute of hard running still preps you for your starting pace, Goodman says.

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, Culpepper says. Breaking the race into thirds provides a good framework for proper pacing. Goodman uses the mantra ‘calm and controlled’ for the first kilometre. 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 and third kilometres should also come in close to your goal pace, but your effort level will be higher: about 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, Thull says. Don’t panic if it feels hard. “Instead, do a body scan, and say, All right, where am I at? It’s hurting, but it’s supposed to, if I’m on track to reach that ambitious goal,” Goodman says. Then bring the last 2km 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 5-K and memorise when you’ll turn corners and encounter hills, Culpepper says. That way, you won’t sweat a slightly slower pace on uphills – or miss the chance to make up time charging downhill.

< Click here to download our free 5-K Training Programme! >

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