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Training: How do I run a faster 5k?

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

Here is a question from a reader named Kathleen in Portland, Oregon that asks about improving her 5K times:

I am a 43 yr old female and have been running for about 15 years. In the past 2 years I have become more serious and decided to train for 5ks. I run about 25 miles/ week. I run 5 days/week. Included in that week are: a tempo run of 20-30 minutes, 4-6 intervals of 800-1000 m, a long run of 6-8 miles and 2 easy pace runs of about 5 miles. I sometimes replace an interval workout with a faster pace 400s or hill repeats. I base my pace of all my runs on Jack Daniel’s VDOT numbers. I currently am able to race a 5k in about 22:30 and seem to be stuck there.

You have progressed very nicely and your times are quite good. The program you’ve followed has obviously served you well and Daniel’s data is very good to base your training on.

To improve we need to look closer at your paces, phases and progressions. I’ll make several observations from the information that you’ve provided:

Paces – To run fast you must, run fast. Sounds ridiculous when I say this, but it is a critically overlooked fact by runners. In order to run faster (break 22:00 for instance) then you need to improve your absolute speed (very fast stuff), as well as running progressively more reps/miles at your targeted race pace… and slowly decrease your current race pace or calculated paces from Daniels’ formulas.

Phases – Though year round training is critical to continuous improvement you cannot do the same training week after week. After 6-8 weeks you will have adapted to the type of training you are doing. So, the number of reps, intensity, frequency, duration and type of training must change to keep you moving forward. Having a progression from running specific strength to hills to speed is important so that your training builds on itself. Year round speed training of some sort is essential for anyone who wants optimal results. But, the nature of the fast stuff changes at different times of the year.

Progressions – In conjunction with paces and phases you need to progress within workouts over time. Your race paced efforts (reps) need to gradually get longer. For instance move from 400s to 600s to 800s to 1000s to miles over a season. Contrary to distance, rest intervals must decrease over time. You may start the season with a workout of 12×400 @ 1:46 (21:59 5k goal pace) with 1:30 rest between. Over the season you reduce the rest by 15 second increments so that over time your rest moves from 1:30 to 1:15 to 1:00 to :45 to :30; while moving from 12 reps to 16 or even 20!

Tempo runs are a type of quality run. By definition they are run somewhere between 10k & 15k race pace – or about 20-25 seconds per mile slower than your 5k race pace. So the question it begs is: how does using precious energy on this quality run – running slower than your 5k race pace help you run a 5k faster? If you are truly focused on the 5k, my advice: ditch the tempo run. You would even be better served by running a speedplay (Fartlek) run which intersperses a variety of paces some much faster than race pace. Tempo runs do have a place in training but at this point, it is not a key element in your progress.

Finally, within your workout program, there can be a different emphasis to getting you to improve. For instance: It could be that your early season strength phase is insufficient and doesn’t allow you to be strong enough to carry out all the faster workouts you need to do in the next phases. It could be that you need a lot of work on your raw power and max speed.

This is all nice on paper. I guess this is why coaches exist because the application of these principles requires more than a formula (like Daniels’) or guideline. An insightful coach can assess how you progress; evaluate your racing weaknesses and how to strengthen them; and have a variety of workouts to get to the same ends depending on the athlete.

Do you need a running coach? We are now taking on new clients for the upcoming season. For more information click here to go to our coaching services page.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News


2 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. ltk October 3rd, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Tempo runs help raise your lactate threshold which allows you to stay at a higher pace for longer. So I wouldn't skip tempo's. TRack intervals will help your speed though like said above.

  2. 2. The Post-5k Training Gap December 8th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    […] for all of a quarter mile. That makes it kinda hard to decipher frou-frou running plans, although this blog post on improving times does a good job of explaining how the different pace times are […]

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