5k Training

Running media spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on training and racing techniques for the Marathon and Half Marathon distances. However, it is the 5k distance which sees more annual participants than any other distance. From Athens, Maine to Bothel, Washington a 5k can be had on virtually any given weekend. It is the distance in which most cross country and road runners began their journey in the sport. And while the Marathon, with its’ distinction as the longest Olympic running event, is seemingly more glamorous, spending time honing one’s abilities in the 5k provides a distance runner with greater power and efficiency as well as tools for the longer distances. Below are 4 effective 5k training techniques to improve your performance.

The ZAP team doing a long run with surging as part of their 5k training.

Long Runs with Gear Changing / Accelerations for Economy

To quote from the late great New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, “5k training isn’t terribly different than preparing for a marathon. You just need to move to economy a bit sooner.” Arthur’s words touch on two important areas to address when targeting your upcoming 5k events. The first is that a Base Phase, complete with copious amounts of controlled “conversation pace” aerobic running, is an important component of all distance running preparation. An aerobic Base gives distance runners a platform from which to build subsequent phases of training with a reduced injury risk. 

For those looking at 5k training, I recommend tossing in gear changing within your 1-2 longer efforts of the week. Two easily executed examples of this in early preparation are: surges within your longer runs and post run “strides” 1-2 times weekly. For surging I recommend a 1:00 or 2:00 surge every 8-10 minutes within your longest run each week.

We have discussed this long run training technique in past articles. As a reminder these surges are not meant to be terribly aggressive. The idea is roughly a 10-20 second tempo pick-up before returning to your pre surge pace. Additionally, for economy of movement and overall efficiency, conclude 1-2 runs each week with 8-10 x 100-120m at 5k effort. These “strides” are purely for form and will make the transition to harder efforts more natural. 

Strength Based Tempo or Fartlek  Running and/or Longer Intervals

After an initial 8-12 week Base period, begin to toss in some efforts closer to 80% – 85% of max HR. These tempo efforts provide 5k runners with the ability to maintain tempo over the middle portion of the race. I recommend either a bike path or an even grass field for these workouts. Examples include 3-7 x 1 mile repeats at roughly current 10k fitness. Or “tempo” efforts within which you are running extended periods at roughly 1 hour race pace. For a sustained tempo effort 1 hour race pace roughly corresponds with your anaerobic threshold. For these runs target a minimum 10-12 minutes in starting as a beginner. Advanced individuals can target as much as 35-45 minutes.

Unlike Half Marathon or Marathon prep, however, I recommend concluding these sessions with some economy. I recommend things such as 6-8 x 200m sprints or 6-8 x 20 second hill repeats. Once again, 5k training reflects many of the elements of marathon training with the added “icing” of economy. Finally, as I have recommended in many previous articles, strength based fartleks are extremely effective during the tempo based window of 5k training.

Try one of these two in the early (10-14 weeks out from peak) sequence of your 5k training. The first workout is 2 sets of pick-ups of 1:00 – 2:00 – 3:00 – 2:00 – 1:00. Take 1:30 recovery between pick-ups and 4:00 between sets. Set #1 should be more even with the pick-ups moderate and the recovery only 25-35 seconds per mile slower than the pickups. On set #2 make the fartlek pick-ups more aggressive and the recovery paired with it much easier than set #1.

The second workout I adore as a coach is the increasing tempo fartlek. The structure is pickups of 6:00 – 5:00 – 4:00 – 3:00 – 2:00 – 1:00. The recovery being half of the time just completed. Run the 6:00 & 5:00 pieces a touch slower than 10k rhythm. Run the 4:00 & 3:00 pieces a touch faster than 10k rhythm. And run the final two pieces (2:00 & 1:00) at 5k rhythm.

VO2 Max Development and Anaerobic Stimulus in 5k Training

The “icing” on any good 5k training schedule is work in and around your target pace. Some of this “feel for the pace” has been achieved biomechanically already with your strides. However, intervals ranging from 2:00 – 5:00 in length at race pace will actually improve the amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense exercise. (Hint: the 5k falls into this category).

One workout I recommend for this type of targeted fitness gains are “snowball 600s” on the track. A “snowball” means each 200m is faster than the previous. Execute 6-10 x 600m repeats with 2:00 recovery between each. Run the opening 200m of each one at 5-10 sec per mile slower than your targeted 5k pace. Run the middle 200m at your targeted 5k pace. And run the final 200m 5-10 sec per mile faster than your targeted 5k pace. In the end you will have a 600m repeat at your targeted race pace in a “forward and gear changing” format.

The second session is simple and easy to execute. The workout is 3 x 1 mile repeats with only 3:00 – 4:00 rest with the opening repeat 5-10 sec per mile slower than 5k pace, the middle at 5k target and the final 5-10 sec per mile FASTER than 5k target. 

Final Rapid Fire Final Thoughts on 5k Training

5k training will make you a more effective marathoner! For all of you marathon purists, know that spending a season working on shorter races such as the 5k / 10k (or even shorter track events such as the 1500m) will make you a more effective athlete at the Queen’s Distance.

Open your season with something longer. As you ramp into your competitive 5k targeted season I recommend opening your racing sequence with a “longer” race such as a 15k, 10 mile race or even a Half Marathon. This longer effort will accentuate your already increasing aerobic strength before you dip down toward your targeted. 

Practice racing strategies. Most of the best 5k races ever run have been done so in a negative split format. However, unlike the Half Marathon and Marathon distances, the 5k is a race short enough where you can approach different racing techniques. (Going out aggressively, running the middle hard, or the classic out conservatively and closing well.)

Be sure to allow yourself a significant pull back in the overall volume of your training in the final 6-8 weeks toward your targeted 5k races. A Base Phase and elevated volume is important in 5k training. However, the latter stages of shorter event racing require a more significant pull back to acquire fresh legs than typically seen in longer events. 

Train aggressively and intelligently.