To achieve any fitness goal, especially one as tough as running a 5k under 20 minutes, you must first break it down into digestible chunks. Say you want to lose 50 pounds. Telling yourself, “Ok. Time to lose 50 pounds. Go.” is an ineffective approach. Too daunting. Too broad.
We must parse our goals into smaller, more easily achievable milestones to be successful. Instead of focusing solely on the end result, frame it like so: “I’m going to lose 2 pounds per week for 25 weeks. And here’s how I’m going to do that: each day, each week, each month.”
Have a plan, stick to your plan, reach your goal.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine calls these “S.M.A.R.T.” goals: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
If you break down your goal into manageable pieces, stay committed, and work your tail off, you’ll eventually find yourself at the “finish line”.
Running a 5k under 20 minutes is no different.
Let’s break it down
- A 5k is 3.1 miles.
- 19 minutes 59 seconds is 1,199 seconds.
- Divided by 3.1 miles, that’s 386.77 seconds per mile.
- That’s 6.44 minutes per mile.
- That rounds out to 6:26 pace.
If you cover the first 3 miles at 6:26 per mile, you’ll cross the 3 mile mark at 19:18.
Then comes the pivotal 0.1.
At 6:26 pace, covering that last one tenth of a mile will take you 39 seconds. So, your splits look like this:
- mile 1: 6:26
- mile 2: 6:26
- mile 3: 6:26
- mile 0.1: 0:39
Tallying this this up:
1,197 seconds, or 19.95 minutes, or 19 minutes 57 seconds.
But it’s not just about knowing your splits. How do you get there?
Train for speed
6:26 pace is quick. Damn quick. 9.36 mph quick.
To race fast, you have to train fast. Rocky Balboa’s trainer, Mickey, said it best: “We need speed. Speed is what we need!”
Tempo runs, fartlek runs and high intensity intervals are excellent training modalities to build speed.
*Always check in with your doctor before starting any exercise program*
Tempo run / threshold training
Tempo runs, also known as lactate-threshold runs, are run at a pace about 25-30 seconds per mile slower than your 5K race pace. So for a sub-20 minute 5k, 7 minute per mile pace.
Without getting too technical, tempo pace is the effort level at which your body clears as much lactate — a chemical byproduct of exercise — as it produces. Basically, the fastest pace you can maintain without the “dead-leg sensation” setting in.
While this training method is most commonly used for 15k efforts and above, tempo runs have their place in a quality 5k training program for several reasons:
- They get the body used to running fast without the repeated physical stresses of running at or above race pace
- They’re generally dictated by time, not mileage — great for those just starting a running program or who travel a lot
- They help develop mental toughness and concentration — very useful come race day
- They stimulate and build both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers, leading to gains in both speed and endurance
Swedish for “speed play”, Fartlek runs are as fun to run as they are to say (well, for running geeks like me they are). Unlike tempo runs, Fartleks are unstructured. Unregulated. Alternating between slow, moderate and hard efforts within a single run.
See that sign a quarter mile up the road? Sprint hard, reach the sign, then jog for a couple minutes. See that hill over there? Run up it as hard as you can. Walk down. Then fall back into your pace as you make your way home.
Think about how you used to run and play as a kid. Do that.
Think about how you first felt when you started running. Bring that same mental attitude.
Feel your body. What hurts? What doesn’t? What feels good? What needs to be stretched and rolled out? Fartleks are perfect for taking stock of your body, for identifying problem areas, and for having fun!
The goal is to keep your runs as free-flowing as possible. To keep your body guessing in order to avoid the dreaded plateau. Plateaus occur when we do the same thing, perform the same workout, day in day out, week in week out. We stop improving. Stop making gains. Stop seeing reults. Basically, plateau halts progression.
We always want to continue getting better, to continue getting stronger. Fartleks help keep the plateau at bay.
High intensity interval training
Now the real fun starts. High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T) workouts are, as the name suggests, intense. Dialed up to 11 intense.
That shouldn’t scare you, that should excite you!
When most runners think H.I.I.T., they think sprints. And they’d be right. Sprints are the best form of interval training a runner can perform.
Here’s an example:
- Warmup 8–10 minutes with an easy jog
- 60 second CONTROLLED sprint at hard to maximum effort
Like a car at 8000 rpm, your body should be in the red (reaching hard for air, legs churning, unable to hold a conversation, counting the seconds until you can stop).
Get that heart rate up as high as possible.
- Three minutes of easy jogging or walking to catch your breath
Read: easy jog. Your heart rate should come down as quickly as possible. The secret is in the recovery between sprints. The difference between your heart rate during the sprint and your heart rate during recovery is the “interval” part of interval training.
You want to run the subsequent intervals strong and finish the workout fatigued, but not completely spent.
- Repeat this process 8 times
- Cool down with a 5–7 minute easy jog or walk
As your fitness improves, play with your timing a bit. Up your sprint from 60 to 90 seconds. Shorten your recovery from 3 minutes to 2 minutes. Up your interval count from 8, to 10, to 12.
Make sure to never skip the initial warm-up and cool down periods.
Don't neglect long runs and recovery runs
Long runs and recovery runs have their proper place in all types of training for all types of distances.
Long slow runs, where you can have a conversation with a friend, are essential for not only building a foundation for faster, tougher workouts, but for improving body physiology. You’ll foster growth and development of new capillaries and blood vessels in muscle tissues. Your heart will get stronger. Your feet will get tougher. You energy efficiency will improve. You’ll be a better machine.
Recovery runs encourage blood flow to stiff, sore areas in need of rehabilitation. They aid in the removal of scar tissue, lactic acid, and any other negative chemical byproducts built up from physical activity.
Regular maintenance on your car is just as important as the performance of the car itself.
Have a structured training plan
A quality training plan is the cornerstone of any effective running or race program. You can eat right, sleep right, maintain good habits, but if you don’t adhere to a plan the odds you reach your goal diminish dramatically.
Renowned elite runner Hal Higdon has some amazing (read: AMAZING) running plans designed for racing at distances from 5k to marathon.
Hal’s programs provide ample detail about all facets of training: number of sessions per week, training volume, mileage, etc. He too defines tempo runs, intervals and fartlek runs, and how they should be incorporated throughout the week. He even breaks them out into novice, intermediate and advanced levels.
Best part – a majority of the content is available for free.
I’ll put the link here again – Hal is a fantastic resource. Take advantage!
Race day preparation
For any attempt at a specific time, I always recommend running a sanctioned race. There’s nothing quite like race day — the energy between the participants as you line up, the hustle and bustle of the spectators, the constant encouragement of the race volunteers — it really is quite an experience.
In order to perform your best, there are a few considerations to make:
- Most races take place first thing in the morning. A small snack (think: half a bagel with peanut butter) is recommended 60–90 minutes before race time
- Make sure to go to the bathroom — coffee helps with this :)
- Check the weather and dress accordingly
- Check your electronics — fully charged phone, headphones, whatever you’re bringing with you
- Don’t drink too much water beforehand. There are water stations along the course
- Don’t start too fast. You’ll have lots of nervous energy — stick to your plan! Resist to run with the crowd as much as you can. Run YOUR race.
Keep calm, run on
The day is here. Your moment of reckoning. Your goal is so close you can almost taste it.
When you line up, push to the front of the starting corral. You want as few people in front of you as possible. Set your watch. Get your playlist bumping. Bounce in place to release some nervous energy. Visualize your goal.
Most importantly: stay calm. Deep breaths. You’ve done the work. You know your splits. You’re ready.
You got this.
Surge that last 0.1 miles
You ran through the 3 mile mark at 19:18, right on schedule. Just as I knew you would. Why cut it close at 19:57? Run as hard as you can that last tenth of a mile. Turn the music up. Throw caution to the wind. Narrow your focus. Use the crowd. Push harder than you ever have before.
You can do it. Channel your inner Little Blue Engine:
“I think I can, I think I can. I know I can, I know I can.”
19:59 for 3.1 miles is an achievable goal. But you’ve got to train intelligently, stay committed, and put in the work. It won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile.
“Nothing worth having comes easy”.
Your body is a wonderful machine. Go use it.