In this guide, let’s get you ready to run a faster 5K.
The 5K is one of those race distances that requires a balance of endurance, stamina, speed and sprint – the four training zones – but definitely leans toward the speed side of things. It also requires a hefty amount of mental toughness. Below, let’s look at how I will train you for the 5K.
Factors for Success
It doesn’t matter if you’re at the front, middle or back of the pack in a 5K, the factors for success are similar. You’re going to need enough endurance for 15-30 minutes of all out running. You’re going to need enough stamina to run fast for that amount for time and you’re going to need enough speed to make 5K pace feel easier despite a high amount of suffering late in the race. Add to that the opportunity to gain a few precious seconds with a big sprint over the last 400-800 meters, and you’ll cap off your preparation with some leg speed and sprint training.
But before we get to the training, let’s take a look at the factors that lead to a fast 5K.
Factor #1: Mental Toughness
I cannot say enough about this factor. While we love to talk about the physical training, a lot of 5K training is to condition your mind to the extreme mental suffering that occurs in the second half of a fast 5K. It’s just a really hard race when you are fatigued from the duration, fatigued from the stress on the lactate threshold and VO2max systems and fatigued from lactic acid build-up as the body works hard to provide energy.
As a result, you need to be one tough runner to really nail a fast 5K. I’ve seen it in the pros I coach as well as everyday runners like you and me. If you have a strong mind, particularly in the second half, you can battle the fatiguing feelings your brain is throwing at you instead of what many runners do and that is slow down later in the race.
Factor #2: VO2max
The 5K stresses another key physiological variable called VO2max. VO2max is the maximum (that’s the “max” part) volume (that’s the “v” part) of oxygen (that’s the “O2” part) that you can utilize while running. A higher VO2max means you can take in and utilize more oxygen. Improving your VO2max nearly always results in a big improvement in your 5K time just like an improvement in your lactate threshold does.
Note: Your VO2max is usually around your 8-10 minute race pace. (See the vVO2 pace in the Race Times of the McMillanRunning.com Calculator for an estimate of your VO2max pace.)
Workouts in the Speed Zone of the McMillan Calculator work to improve your VO2max. (You’ll see those in the Training Paces section of the calculator.) Experienced runners call these workouts Speed or VO2max workouts and they are tough because they challenge you to work at your maximum oxygen consumption. These are mentally tough workouts as well and that is extremely helpful in getting ready for a fast 5K.
Another great benefit to speed zone (aka VO2max) training is that 5K goal pace lies within the zone. The speed zone extends from 5-minute to 25-minute race pace so no matter if you are really speedy at the 5K or not, running at your goal pace will also provide a boost to your VO2max.
Like preparing for any race, the more you can practice and get comfortable at your goal pace, the better. My training plans include this goal pace running as well as the other speed workouts, so you arrive ready to perform your best.
Factor #3: Lactate Threshold Speed
I mentioned it in my 10K Training Guide as well but it is critically important for a fast 5K that you have a very fast lactate threshold speed.
As you run faster and faster, you produce more and more lactic acid. While your body has mechanisms to deal with lactic acid (called the lactate shuttle and buffering system), at a certain speed, you produce more than you can remove, and the acid begins to build up. This is called the lactate threshold – the point where your production of lactic acid outpaces your ability to remove it. A buildup of acid interferes with performance and leads to early fatigue.
You’ve probably experienced this where running just a bit too fast and you suddenly are breathing much faster and fatigue comes early. That’s because you’ve crossed your lactate threshold.
Note: The lactate threshold is usually around your one-hour race pace. (See the vLT pace in the Race Times of the McMillanRunning.com Calculator for an estimate of your lactate threshold pace.)
5K race pace is faster than your lactate threshold pace for most runners. As a result, lactate threshold training (aka Stamina Zone training) becomes very, very important for 5K success. Boost your lactate threshold speed and you’ll improve your 5K time. Period.
If you’re an experienced runner, then you’re familiar with the ever-popular tempo run – a continuous run lasting 15-40 minutes performed right at your lactate threshold. Tempo runs result in pushing your lactate threshold speed faster. While you can certainly do tempo runs exclusively, I actually propose training the lactate threshold with a full-spectrum approach – some workouts slightly slower than, some at and some slightly faster than your lactate threshold.
The lactate threshold is what I studied in graduate school and I found in my research (and in my coaching over the last 30 years) that this variety in stamina workouts leads to better results, more fun and less boredom than just doing tempo run after tempo run.
As you can see in your training paces from the McMillan Calculator, I recommend four types of stamina workouts.
- Steady state runs are continuous runs at a pace that is slightly slower than your lactate threshold. These runs work great for runners who need more stamina for the second half of a 5K.
- Next is the tempo run as previously mentioned. Tempo runs are run right at your lactate threshold.
- Then comes tempo intervals. Tempo intervals are like slightly faster tempo runs but you intersperse recovery jogs since you are running slightly faster than your threshold. The recovery jogs are short but because you are slightly faster than your threshold, you really trigger the body to improve your lactate threshold speed.
- Lastly, there are cruise intervals, one of my favorites for 5K runners. Popularized by legendary coach, Jack Daniels, cruise intervals (also called Critical Velocity by some coaches) are run slightly faster than tempo intervals with again, short recovery intervals.Cruise intervals are especially good for runners new to stamina training or who struggle with long, continuous running.
I find that by training across the stamina zone range, you get more efficient at running near your lactate threshold (the steady state runs and tempo runs) and you push your threshold much higher (the tempo intervals and cruise intervals). The result is an athlete that is very, very prepared to race the 5K.
One last note if you are new to stamina zone workouts. The goal in the workout is to fatigue yourself with the duration of the workout, not the speed. This is different than in speed workouts where you more often work to fatigue yourself with the speed of the workout.
For the 5K, I find it is much better to run on the slow end for the pace range and to do more volume in the workout than it is to run faster but shorter. The 5K, even though short compared to a half-marathon, is still a long race so getting used to sustained efforts over a long time will serve you well on race day.
Factor #4: Lactic Acid Tolerance
One reason that runners slow late in the race is because lactic acid is continually building up in the muscles. As a result, improving your ability to tolerate lactic acid is another key factor in 5K success.
Luckily, lactic acid tolerance is easy to improve. You simply do workouts where you flood the body with lactic acid, then recover while the body removes it then you do it again (and again and again). These lactic acid tolerance sprint workouts are tough, but many runners also find them fun. I’ll go into more detail in the training section below.
Factor #5: Proper Pacing
The fifth factor is proper pacing. Because the 5K is run at a pace faster than your lactate threshold, you need to pace yourself well. Otherwise, you’ll build up too much lactic acid too soon and fatigue before the end of the race.
I find that an even split (same pace for the first half and second half in your 5K) is the best strategy. To help you with that, I have a special goal pace workout sequence that I’ll have you do. It works great to help you dial in your best 5K pace, so you make sure you get the most from every race opportunity.
While pace practice is key for dialing in pace. Another great racing tip is the Go Zone Method. This works very, very well for the 5K. Make sure you get familiar with and practice Go Zone Racing (and here is my article on it).
Components of a Successful 5K Plan
Here are the components of the 5K plan I’ll have you do:
#1) Speed Zone workouts
I mentioned these above as well. Since the race occurs between your VO2max pace and lactate threshold pace, you must improve your VO2max in addition to your lactate threshold.
Traditional speed workouts as they are called are designed to boost your maximum oxygen consumption (aka VO2max) but they also help with a a few other performance enhancers. First, you improve your running economy. This will help race pace feel easier. Second, you get a lot for mental toughness training. Speed workouts really challenge your brain to keep going even when you are suffering. This, too, is great for improving your racing ability.
Lastly, speed workouts break up all the stamina and endurance training that half-marathoners and marathoners do and I dare say are fun – often because runners get together to do speed workouts and the camaraderie really helps these tough workouts go by faster. Plus, there is a big sense of accomplishment when you finish a speed workout.
Again, after entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Recommended Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of workouts I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
#2) Stamina Zone (aka Lactate Threshold) workouts
I talked a lot about stamina training above but will reiterate it here. You must improve your lactate threshold speed to race a faster 5K. Include the full spectrum of stamina zone workouts – steady state runs, tempo runs, tempo interval and cruise intervals in your plan. And start to learn which type you excel in and which ones you struggle with. This starts to give insight into your runner type.
After entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Recommended Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of workouts, I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
#3) Pace practice
A great training plan includes goal pace workouts. Grooving your goal pace keeps you from going too fast too early in the race. Plus, goal pace workouts make you more economical at race pace. Plus, your brain learns what goal pace feels like when you are fresh at the start of a run as well as when you are fatigued later in a run.
My plans include a sequence of goal pace workouts that start with short, easily accomplishable goal pace workouts and build and build across the training so that by the time you get to the race, you really have goal pace dialed in and know with confidence that you can achieve your goal. (And if your goal pace workouts aren’t going well, you’ll know to adjust your expectations so you can still have a positive race.)
If you aren’t using one of my plans, just enter your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator. You’ll see the Race Pace Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of goal workouts I recommend you include in your training plan
#5) Sprint Zone Workouts
I mentioned that tolerating lactic acid is a big part of racing a fast 5K and sprint zone workouts are perfect for improving this. You’ll do a few (it’s doesn’t take many) sprint workouts where you run fast, take a long recovery jog then run fast again to help flood your system with lactic acid then allow the body to remove it during the recovery jog.
Now, if you get a hamstring twitch when you hear the word “sprint,” don’t worry. I’ll ease you into faster running with leg speed workouts and form drills so you’re more than ready for these short, fast workouts. And as mentioned, it doesn’t take much lactic acid tolerance training to really improve the system.
As with Speed Zone workouts, if you aren’t using one of my plans, just enter your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator. You’ll see the Race Pace Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of goal workouts I recommend you include in your training plan
Don’t get hurt. I’m going to say it again. Don’t get hurt. A few years ago, I made it my mission to reduce running injuries. If you’ve seen any of the research, it shows that 50-80% of runners get injured every training cycle to the point that it interrupts their training. That’s unacceptable.
As a result, I not only created plans that better fit into runner’s lives and how they are feeling, but my plans include your prehab (core, strength and mobility) routines. The combination of these smarter, more flexible training plans -plus the prehab routines- resulted in a reduction in the injury rate for athletes using McMillan plans by 80%!
I’m really proud of that as there is nothing worse than a runner who can’t run. I never want you to be the fittest spectator at your goal race. With my plans, you’ll get to the starting line healthy and the finish line faster.
Start your New McMillan Plan
Enough talking. Let’s start training!
I have them for different runner levels (novice, intermediate and advanced) and for different runner types (speedster, combo and endurance monsters) so you can find the perfect plan for you.
If you want to add coaching access to your training plan, I’m here to help. I created my online training called Run Team. In Run Team, you get your training plan, all of your prehab routines, a weekly check-in email from me and the opportunity to ask any questions you have as you train. You can try Run Team for free here.
Bonus Feature: Better Prep Improves Your Chances
If you have more than three months until your race, you can add preparatory training to help you get even more prepared to excel in the race-specific training. My prep plans help you build a bigger aerobic base (including more long runs), get faster so 5K pace feels easier, build your durability so you don’t get hurt in the training plan and allow you to enter your race plan excited to really nail the workouts and the race.
Here is an article on how I like to sequence the plans to build a longer training cycle. And here is my article on the preparatory plans.
I know you can run a fast 5K. It just takes a smart plan that allows flexibility along with prehab training, so you stay healthy. My plans provide both along with a fun dose of variety and just the right amount of brain training to keep the training exciting and build a brain that helps you get the most from yourself on race day. I look forward to working with you!
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