Running is one of the most pandemic-proof forms of exercise, which has spurred many to discover or reignite their love for running. One of the only downsides is most races have been canceled for the foreseeable future. Still, some race distances are especially well-suited to running on your own or with a virtual group, such as the 5K.
“A 5K is an excellent choice during this time, either as a first race for a new runner, a change of pace for an experienced long-distance runner, or an opportunity to work toward a goal for a casual runner,” says Pamela Geisel, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
The average training time for a 5K is 4–8 weeks, with training sessions between 10–45 minutes, Geisel adds, which makes it feel like an approachable time commitment in today’s world.
There may also be mental benefits to setting a 5K PR goal. “It creates a goal to reach for rather than just going out and slogging through the same loop or doing the same-paced, run day-in and day-out,” says Meghan Kennihan, an RRCA and USATF run coach.
Just because a 5K is accessible for all running levels doesn’t mean a 5K is an “easy” distance reserved for beginners. “It can sometimes feel more difficult than an 800m or a 10K,” Geisel says. “This is because it’s too long to just put the pedal to the metal, but also too short to fully settle into a pace. If you think of it in terms of intensity level, you’re never running at a 5–6 out of 10 like a longer event; it’s more of a 7–10.”
WORK ON YOUR EXPLOSIVE POWER
One strategy for getting faster is to incorporate explosive power work into your cross-training sessions. This gives you more power to draw on when it’s time to sprint at the end of your 5K. Much of your explosive power comes from your hips and torso Feinstein says, so her recommended moves for building this capacity include ones you’d expect, like jumping lunges and box jumps, but also ones that really recruit your core and hips, like weighted squats and kettlebell swings.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP
It might sound out of left field, but getting quality shuteye during your training and racing period is crucial if you want to increase your speed. “This is so key for the central nervous system and the neuromuscular system to enable fast muscle contractions for speed,” explains Tilita Lutterloh, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and high-performance coach. “Sleep is also imperative for post-workout recovery to repair the cell damage done during a workout.”
INCORPORATE A WEEKLY LONG RUN
The logic here is simple: “Mentally and physically, if you can run 5–6 miles, you can definitely push your pace for 3.1 miles,” Kennihan says. These longer runs should be at a conversational pace, starting with 3 or 4 miles and building up a half mile at a time to 5–7 miles.
DON’T TREAT EVERY TRAINING RUN LIKE A RACE
Just because you’re working toward a speed goal doesn’t mean faster is always better in your workouts, Geisel says. “Before any training workout, remind yourself what the purpose of the workout is,” she suggests. “Are you just building endurance with some easy paced miles? Are you doing a tempo run and focusing on settling into the uncomfortable? Are you focusing on form during hill repeats? Or are you hitting time splits in 800m repeats? This will help guide your pacing and will help prevent overtraining and burnout.”
RUN BY FEEL SOMETIMES
Tracking your runs with a running watch or app is an amazing way to gauge your progress. But sometimes, runners get too bogged down in the details of their pace. That’s why Geisel recommends occasionally doing training runs where you don’t check in on your pace or splits until after you’ve completed your session. “This will help you become even more in tune with your body, which is an asset when it comes to time goals,” she adds.
INCREASE YOUR STEPS PER MINUTE
There’s a common misconception among newer runners that you need to stretch your stride to get faster, says Nancy Feinstein, a running coach and personal trainer. Her advice: “Focus on pulling the heel up under the glute instead of reaching and stretching out the stride, which cuts off your momentum,” she explains. This small form tweak can help you feel faster and lighter on your feet.
IMPROVE HIP MOBILITY
“Creating space and muscular control within the hip joints will open up your stride to cover more ground quickly,” says Lutterloh. And as opposed to stretching your stride on purpose, this can happen naturally if you adopt a hip-mobility routine.
“The most important part of a successful 5K is mindset,” Kennihan says. That’s why she recommends practicing visualization.
To try it, sit or lie still with your eyes closed, and spend 10 minutes imagining yourself running your 5K. Try to be as vivid and realistic as you can with this. “When you visualize yourself running, you activate the same parts of the brain’s motor centers that become active when you actually run,” Kennihan explains. “The advantage of mental rehearsal is that you can change these brain patterns for the better by seeing yourself running more efficiently, more powerfully and faster than you really do. Then, your goal becomes turning visualization into reality.”
KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT DURING EACH MILE
You’ve probably heard the advice to run the mile you’re in. Especially during a 5K, this is good advice.
“Keep in mind that it’s likely your first mile will be a little quicker than you planned,” Geisel says. “Even the most experienced runner has difficulty controlling the excitement of a start line, whether virtual or not. Be sure to check in during that first mile that you aren’t short of breath; you should be able to speak a couple words.”
During the second mile, you want to just settle into the pace, Geisel says. “It’s going to be uncomfortable — maybe an 8 out of 10 — and a little slower than your goal pace.”
The third mile is your pain cave. “Begin to pick it up, but don’t sprint yet,” Geisel advises. “Here, you’re working at a pace that doesn’t allow you to talk but is still not max effort. Be willing to accept some discomfort and remember why you run. With about 1/4 mile left, let it rip. It’s one lap around the track and know you can do this!”
TRUST YOUR BODY AND YOUR TRAINING
“Staying relaxed is the best advice I can offer,” Feinstein says. “If you put in the time training and preparing, just go out there and enjoy yourself.”
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