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Workouts to break 20 minutes in the 5K

Tips and tricks for improving your 5K time

Photo by: Maxine Gravina

There are a few benchmark times for runners. On the the road, they’re the sub-three marathon, sub-1:20 for a half and coming in under 20 minutes for a 5K. If runners had initially planned to train for a race that has since been cancelled, taking a stab at improving their 5K times is a great alternative to regularly scheduled programming. This distance can easily be run in loops around your neighbourhood if you’re looking for emotional support, or it can be turned into a nice out-and-back route, if that’s what you prefer. Also, mentally, it’s much easier than completing a half- or full marathon solo. 

Paddy Birch is a 2:24 marathoner and coach with Pace and Mind in Toronto. Birch says lots of the runners he coaches are currently looking to improve at distances they wouldn’t normally contest. “Lots of runners are taking a step back from the marathon to try some shorter stuff. You don’t have to race virtually, but you can set little targets for yourself along the way.” Here’s some advice on how to snag a 5K personal best. 

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For the marathoner

Birch says for the marathoner who’s moving down in distance, they’ve got a strong base, but they’ll need to build leg speed. “My ideal speed workout for a marathoner who’s looking to improve their 5K time would be 400m reps. You’re looking to run an uncomfortable pace, but keep it smooth.”

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Birch says another simple option if runners don’t have track access is a fartlek workout. “Something super simple like a minute at 5K pace followed by one minute slightly under pace, for example 4:00 and 4:30, can be super effective. You can alternate between paces for up to 30 minutes. It’s a mix of tempo and speed without beating yourself up too much. When runners are coming down in distance, the biggest problem they’ll have is pacing. Don’t hammer too hard to start. You want to be consistent and get comfortable at your race pace.”

For the new runner

If you’re new to running or typically run shorter distances, you’ll want to focus your training on building up strength. Birch says there are a few great workouts for this, including mile repeats, kilometre repeats or working speed into your long run. “For example, mile or kilometre repeats around 4:05 to 4:15 pace would be a great workout. Another option is throwing five to eight 30-second pickups into your long run. This teaches runners how to turn over tired legs.”

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For all runners

Birch says consistency is key for everyone. “You can’t hammer everything. It’s always better to make sure that you know the purpose of your run. Your long runs are there for strength and your workouts are there to go fast. If you keep going a similar pace all of the time, you won’t see improvement.”

He also recommends that runners looking to get faster over 5K place an extra emphasis on drills and strides. “When you’re running faster, mechanics become more important. Everyone should be doing more of this stuff, but especially when you’re working on speed.”

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