How to Improve your 5km Running Time

Whether you're looking to complete your first 5km race or you just want to improve your time, this guide will help you.
I will provide you with a proven strategy to build strength, endurance, speed and most importantly a faster 5km time.
Below you will find a complete programme to follow and learn why only running at the same speed every training session is not the best way to improve your run time.

The benefits of a 5km event

Training for a 5km run is a perfect way to help improve fitness, strength, body shape and boost heart and lung health. 5km runs have been increasing in popularity for years. And it's easy to see why.  It's far enough to get you working hard, but not too far that you have to dedicate all your spare time training for it like you would with a marathon.

Is this guide for you?

Whether you're just starting out or you've completed 100 events, you will be able to apply the plan below to help you. The details can be adjusted slightly depending on your experience level. Less experienced runners can use perceived effort rather than time for all the running sessions. This is totally fine and will help you tune into how your body feels.

Perceived effort works on a scale from 1 to 10. 1 would be like lying in bed, 10 being a maximum, 100% all out effort. Example, 70% effort = 7 out of 10, which would be reasonably hard but sustainable.

Becoming familiar with how your body feels is important. It allows you to monitor yourself, learn how to pace your efforts and understand what a certain pace feels like to you.

Let's start by looking at the types of session you should include in your weekly training schedule and how a typical week could look for you.

4 types of training to include

The key point I'd like to make first is that if you want to improve your 5km time, going out and running at the same speed multiple times a week is not an effective way to do it. To improve, you must vary your training to work different systems within your body. Putting controlled stress on your body at different intensities will result in it growing stronger and fitter in order to cope with those new, higher demands. It's the most effective way to see results, and what I detail below.

Here are three sessions to use for run based training:

  •  Speed Session – To run faster, you must get used to running at a faster speed than you're used to. Running at the faster speed for short periods and building up gradually will help you maintain a faster speed for longer in your event.
  • Long Run – This session ensures you have the endurance, both physically and mentally, to complete the distance easily
  • Hill Session – Develops power and running technique
The 4th session is a gym based/resistance training session, covered below with a programme to follow.

Let's now look at the details for each session.

Speed Session

If you know your current best 5km time, run 10% faster for each set below. If you don't know it, that's ok, just run at a pace you feel is a little faster than what you could sustain for 30 mins, or whatever the maximum time you can run continuously for is.

Example: your best 5km time is 25 mins (5 mins per km). For each set below you run at 4:30 per km pace because that's 10% faster.

Activity

Time

Pace

Warm-up

10 mins

Build from walk to jog to run

Run

90 seconds

See above

Rest

60 seconds

Walk

Cool-down

5 mins

Jog, walk and stretch

Repeat the run and rest pattern 5 times to start with. Each week add 1-2 more repetitions to it until you are doing 12 repetitions in total.
12 reps will be a total of a 30 min workout without the warm-up and cool down.

Hill Session

Find a hill which is long enough to run up at around a 70% of max. effort for 60 seconds without stopping. The hill should not be too steep. You need to be able to run with a normal technique up it.  We don't worry about time in this session. This one is all about maintaining a good upright running position and driving powerfully with the arms and legs.

Concentrate on proper technique and even try to make your knee lift and arm movement slightly over-exaggerated. The idea of this session is to build a powerful stride and good knee lift. It will make you a stronger runner.

1 repetition is running up the hill for 60 seconds at a 70% effort, followed by 4 mins rest – the majority of that rest will be the walk/very slow jog back down to the bottom of the hill. We want to be fully recovered between each rep. Aim for 6 repetitions in total.

Long Run

The aim of this session is to prepare your mind and body for longer run efforts. If you know you can comfortably run for longer than your race distance, you'll be confident you can run the 5km race without a problem.

You can do it one of two ways:

  • Run for a specific amount of time
  • Run for a set distance

With both options the idea is to gradually build time/distance each week, but without getting faster. This is not about trying to run fast or beat your time each week.

Run the time/distance at 70% of your best 5km pace, so it's comfortable and you don't come home feeling burnt out. It would be around a 7 out of 10 effort.

I'd recommend adding 10-20% longer/further each week. For example, if you run for 20 minutes now, add 2-4 minutes to your next run.

When you get to the longest time/distance you want to run for, just continue running that distance/time each week.  There is no need to run for more than 45 mins to 1 hour or over 8-10km unless you are training for longer distance races.

Resistance Training

A critical but often overlooked aspect of training for running is the use of weights or resistance machines. This type of training has so many benefits, not just improving your muscular strength. It helps with endurance, making the muscular system more efficient, developing bone strength, improving ligament and tendon toughness and working otherwise under used muscles.

An example gym workout

Note: Please get the help of a qualified professional if you are unsure about how to perform any of these exercises safely and check with a doctor before starting.

Use a weight which you find tough to complete the last rep of each set with.

Exercise

Repetitions

Sets

Glute Bridge

3

60 seconds

Plank

3

60 seconds

Walking Lunge

20

4

Mountain Climbers

50

4

Leg Press Machine

12

4

Leg Curl Machine

12

4

No gym? No worries...Check out my body weight workout on YouTube as a home based alternative.

An example training schedule

Here is an example of how your training schedule for 1 week might look. You can vary it for what works for you, but remember to never train more than 2 days in a row. Rest days are important because that's when your body adapts and gets fitter and stronger. It's all about quality over quantity, so when you train make it a good session and then you'll earn your rest days.

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

Gym Workout

Rest. Foam roll and stretch

Hill Session

Speed session

Rest. Foam roll and stretch

Long Run

Rest. Foam roll and stretch

Note: If you're just starting out or haven't exercised in a while and find it hard to train 4 times a week from the beginning, don't worry. You can build up to it slowly. Start off with 2 or 3 sessions per week and add to it when you can.

So that covers your schedule and exactly what workouts to complete. Let's take a look at some tips to help you maximise your efforts and keep you safe and healthy.

Top Tip 1

If you're new to running or have never done a 5km event before and would like to try, I would recommend signing up straight away. You'd be surprised how effective knowing you have a date in the diary is for motivation levels. Once you're committed, it will help you train harder.

Make sure you have around 12 weeks to train for the event you'll have a good amount of time to train. 12 weeks might sound like a long time, but if you think about it that's only 12 sets of training sessions. You'll probably miss 1 or 2, so it might not even be 10 times that you get to practice a long run or a speed session.

When you think about it like that, doing something only 10 times is not a lot, so don't be fooled into thinking you have ages to train for it.


Top Tip 2

Join a run club. Being surrounded by other people who are doing what you're doing will help massively with motivation and make you more likely to stick with training.

Nearly every run club I know is welcoming to people of all abilities so you will have no issues or worries. You'll also get to learn a lot from the others who are regular runners. They will support and help you along the way. As a bonus, they're usually very social so you'll make new friends and have lots of fun.

Managing Expectations

Success is not linear. You may get faster quickly in the beginning, but there will be a time when you plateau. This is totally normal. It's not possible to constantly improve at the same rate all the time.

The faster you get, the harder it is to reduce your time. Going from a 30 min 5km to a 25 min 5km is easier than going from 25 mins to 20 mins. It will take a lot longer.

Don't let it dishearten you if your times aren't improving as quickly as you would like. Stick with the training and it will pay off. Persistence pays.

Stretch and Roll

Use a foam roller to massage out any knots in your muscles, especially the bum and legs.

Stretches, such as hip openers, help increase your stride length, especially if you are an office worker and sitting down all day.

Here is a stretch routine on YouTube for runners and here is one for foam rolling.

Aim to get at least one 10 min stretch session in per week in addition to 3-5 mins after every training session.

And if you'd like a foam roller stretching sort of workout, here is a short 14 min on on YouTube you can do at home any day of the week.

Avoid the burn out...

You may need to take a break, too, depending on how consistently you are training. Training 4 x a week could be sustained, but you might become fatigued physically or mentally depending on your experience level.

Have an easier week every 5 to 6 weeks. Don't do nothing, but just reduce the training load and/or intensity.

Having said that, if you have only been training consistently 2-3 times a week then stick with the training as you won't be over trained.


About the Author

Rob Jackson from Minimal FiT is a personal trainer specialising in body transformations in London, England. He is an Ironman UK finisher and has a 10km personal best of 39:05. You can connect with him on Facebook where he shares workout videos and fitness advice.