Want to improve your 5k time?

There is something special about your 5k personal best time, and tends to be the one number that most runners know. Perhaps it is because it is more attainable than focusing on marathon PB’s, maybe it’s because for many runners their journey started with Couch 2 5k, or perhaps it’s all about the mushroom growth…

There is something special about your 5k personal best time, and tends to be the one number that most runners know. Perhaps it is because it is more attainable than focusing on marathon PB’s, maybe it’s because for many runners their journey started with Couch 2 5k, or perhaps it’s all about the mushroom growth of Parkrun. Whatever the reason, unquestionably 5k has become a benchmark distance.

That being the case, I often speak to runners that sight improving their 5k as their current goal. If that’s you then this blog post will help you get moving towards a better 5k PB.

Start with Structure

Running consistently means you will improve. And of course let’s stay in the real world; our running needs to be fun! So doing runs that we enjoy, in a way we enjoy, is going to be key for most people to achieve consistency. However if you do the same run every day at the same pace, then OK you will improve, but at a much slower rate than if you added structure (a predefined plan that you can create for yourself) and variation into your runs. A very accessible way to think about variation is to consider ‘easy’ runs and ‘hard’ runs. If you have read any of my other blogs this will not be new news to you.

 What makes a ‘hard’ day hard? You could include track sessions (if you have access to such a facility, intervals, or hill sessions. Also though the trusty Fartlek session is a fun way to turn an everyday run into a harder run.

A couple of points about these hard days; firstly when you increase intensity you also materially increase your risk of injury. Warming up, and managing the intensity can help here as can finding a good surface. But be careful! Secondly hard sessions need to be… well hard! Otherwise you are not only wasting your time, you are also wrecking your progress. This means you need to know in advance what “hard” should be for the session you have planned and also recognise that you will need more recovery after and be rested and fuelled before. As a benchmark – ‘hard’ is 80% to 95% of your maximum ability using whatever metric is appropriate to the session. You are not trying to hit 100%.

Volume of hard days should be roughly 20% of your training volume. Or an easier way to think about this (for most ‘average’ runners) is to include one hard session a week.

TOP TIP: It is easier to run hard in company! If you are part of a club they are likely to have one evening a week when they do a higher intensity ‘coached’ session. Truthfully it really doesn’t matter what the session is!! As long as it pushes you to that ‘hard’ zone. Working in a group like this is a fun way to be consistent.
So if you are going to do one hard session a week that leaves lots of ‘non-hard’ sessions. 80% in fact! The big mistake most people make with easy sessions is that they are not easy enough. They end-up doing something that is just a little too hard for it to be easy (or base training) and nowhere near hard enough to be a ‘hard’ session. Again this is a waste of time (although you will feel disproportionately good afterwards!) and overall will detract from your progress.

Probably the easiest way gauge an ‘easy’ session is on Heart Rate. Set a ceiling for your run which will be close to the top of Zone2 – and stick to it! (even on the hills, initially you will probably have to walk… but you will improve!)

Another way to gauge easy runs is on pace. Shameless plug (!!) I have written an app for iPhones that works out all your paces and timings. It’s easy to use and works great for training runs and planning races. It’s cheap at less than £1 (or your local currency), so if you would like to support my work then you can find Run Pace Calculator here. (thank you 🙂 )

Train at Target Race Pace

Come race day (or the day you plan to run your new PB), you need to know what ‘maximal race pace’ feels like. Therefore the only way that will happen is to have trained at very close to that intensity (see ‘hard’ days above). A good way to run at goal pace within your training is to break the run up into shorter, sharper intervals. If you never train at target race pace, it will be a complete shock to the system come race day, and your chances of failing or injuring yourself will be massively increased. So preparation is everything.
There are no ‘magic’ sessions, but we do all have our own favourites. The reality is that the detail is immaterial, what matters is that you do something at the right intensity and you do it consistently. To get you started then here are some ideas:

  • 5×1km repeats. (With 75 seconds active recovery). Or;
  • 3×1mile repeats. (With 90 seconds active recovery between)

Couple of notes on this. Firstly you are trying to run each repeat at your goal pace. However to start with you are not going to be able to do it (if you can then you have set a goal that is too low!). Secondly what really matters is that you run each repeat consistently (pace wise). Therefore the first time you do this session you are trying to find a pace that is as close as you can get to your target pace and still manage to hold it consistently across each repeat.

If the longer repeats don’t float your boat then shorter intervals are another variation. Particularly if you have access to a track (laps make counting so easy that even I can do it!)

  • 8 x 400m repeats. (With 60 seconds STATIC recovery) followed by;
  • 8 x 200m repeats. (Also with 60 seconds STATIC recovery between) at slightly faster pace than the 400’s.

The point of all of this is to train the body to get as comfortable as possible at goal 5K pace.

Again with the shorter sessions you are trying to eventually execute all 8 x 400m at your target 5k pace and the 200’s slightly above. But as always you want each interval to be CONSISTENT and that means learning to pace yourself.

Feel Good

The all important feel good factor. I started this post by saying that we tend to gravitate towards the things that make us feel good. So the trick is to find strategies that make the sessions that will move us towards our goal also ‘feel good’. The better you feel about running the better you will run.

Part of feeling good is, feeling confident. And one factor that affects our confidence is how we think we look – in our running kit. Whether it’s a favourite top or trainers that we believe in or even just some amazing socks; what you wear has more of an effect on your performance than you might really appreciate. Not because of the technical materials but simply because you love wearing it! In cycling there is a saying that the BEST bike is one that makes you smile when you look at it. Same.

Learn to Pace

I mentioned it earlier, but learning to pace is a vital skill. You learn it in training, but you need it on the big day be that the 5k race or the day you go out with the intention of hitting your new 5k PB.
Pacing strategy is very individual. But the useful thing about the 5K distance is that we can recover fairly quickly and try again whilst we experiment with finding our optimal pace strategy, unlike a marathon or ultra!
If you are just starting out, and not really actively explored Run Pace Strategy, then let me suggest a sensible start point:

Run the first 4K consistently and stay within your limits. This is not an ‘easy’ pace you are probably looking for something like 85% – 90% of your maximum, but if you have used some the sessions from earlier then you will be in familiar territory. Pick the pace up in the last km, by giving your absolute all towards the end. A good mantra is “you can do anything for 1k!” so go all out, knowing that 1km is no distance for you, and you will have run countless 1k repeats in training.

Remember at the start of the 5K, we often tend to have a lot of adrenaline because it is what we have trained for. It’s the big one. We are rested and feeling like we can do anything. So don’t get carried away in this first kilometre as you will almost certainly wreck your attempt. 5k is just not a long enough distance to “actively recover” if we go hard into an anaerobic effort in the first 1km. Reality: you are going to get this wrong to start with. Everyone does. Learning to control our pace (and our ego / energy / enthusiasm) is worth dedicating training time too.

Another approach (and one that I tend to use) is to break the 5k up into three distinct phases. the first 3k is at my threshold pace. I could go faster but I don’t need to. I focus on settling into the run, actively feeling good, check my technique and make sure that I am not running off the front or (ideally) not being dropped. Next 3k to 4k, for this one kilometre I might dial the pace back to Tempo, I want maximum composure, get my heart rate settled, start to focus on the fact that I am going shortly run faster than I have ever run before! I visualise that the 4k mark is another start line. Third phase, we hit the 4k mark and we are off. It is flat out, the chance to make the difference. Nothing else to think about other than keep pushing as hard as I can and use everything I learned about MY running in those countless training sessions. Finish strong and fast.

Now I am not saying that has to be your plan or your visualisation. But what I am saying is that you need to have something in mind, a game plan to follow, things to think about. You need to have worked this out well in advance and ‘rehearsed it’ countless times!

In summary

I know it sounds American and Cheesy – but you can do this! If you believe in yourself…

There is no magic or secret sauce to setting a new PB, it is ALL about consistency. Key to being consistent is finding things that motivate us and make us feel good.

I hope some of these tips help you and that you have loads of fun training towards your new 5k PB.

After all we do this nonsense for fun right 😉


Join 3 other runners & triathletes and be the first to see useful content, news and the occasional offer.

Unsubscribe at any time. I usually send two emails a month.

View more articles
  • You are not an avocado

    In addition to taxes and death, if you train to participate in races / sporting events (at whatever level) you will have the additional certainties of sickness (or injury) as well as a taper of some description. Rationale, you and I both know that fitness does not disappear over night. But putting aside our rational…

  • Why you might prefer a Fitness Mentor

    Since qualifying as a Personal Trainer some years ago now the role has never quite sat comfortably with me. I set out to offer something different, and yet once labeled as a “Personal Trainer” I effectively became that person that wrote programmes, counted reps (with varying degrees of accuracy!) and basically instructed people on how…

  • Running Injury Risks

    There are numerous health benefits to running, but of course it also carries an inherent degree of injury risk. Most injuries arise from overuse rather than trauma. Broadly, there are three main categories of risk considered to cause running injuries: biomechanical factors, anatomical factors and training error. Over the course of the next few blogs…