Speed Training For A Faster 5K
The first part of running a solid 5K is building an endurance base. A 5k is fast but it is long enough of a race where a solid base of 25+ miles a week for several months is crucial for having rock-hard ground to build on. Five days of running a week while working up to a longer run of 7 or 8 miles one day a week can build the necessary building blocks for speed and strength.
Once your base is established you can begin substantial training. I am a firm believer in three hard workouts a week, three run rest days, one cross training day, and one full day of rest. When I say three hard days, I mean three REALLY hard days where walking after your workout hurts. When I say three easy days, I am referring to days of running at conversation pace. You should be able to carry on a conversation with a running partner and be able to finish your sentences without gasping for breath or becoming winded. This is painfully slow. Slow enough where you will feel like you are crawling. These are junk miles, miles that help you login time on your feet but miles that are not taxing on your body.
The cross training day should be a fun day of swimming, biking or hitting the elliptical at the gym. This is a great opportunity to work hard, build up your cardio but not put stress on your legs. I find swimming to be the best exercise for cardio while having the least wear and tear on joints and feet. Your one day off is just that... a day off with zero running and zero sweat.
The contrast between three hard days and three easy days is what really makes a difference in training. Many runners train like joggers... they run at about the same speed each time they go for a run, maybe going slightly faster from time to time, but never shocking the body for growth and speed. They often run close to the same distance each run or have a favorite route they run every day. Speed comes from strength and shocking your muscles to teach and train them to run faster.
Getting faster requires teaching your muscles and lungs to go faster. The three hard day routine involves one hill workout, 1 distance run, and 1 day of speed.
The week starts on Monday with a day off. Tuesday is hill workout day. Find the biggest hill or slope near you and run up it for 4 miles. Living in Idaho we have trails throughout the foothills for miles and miles of hill training. What goes up must come down so your hard hill workout is really only going to be two miles up as the other half of your 4 mile run will be downhill. Run the 2 miles up hard. Hard enough where you may need to walk for a bit before you turn around and start running down. Be out of breath and feel your legs burn. If you don't have a large steep 2 mile hill to run, find a steep 1/4 mile hill and continue running quickly to the top and down at average pace repeating until you reach four miles.
Your legs should hurt when you are done with this run as it is for strength building and you should keep the pace fast enough where breathing becomes labored. These hill workouts are what will carry your legs through the last part of a race when your competitors are starting to fail.
Wednesday is a rest / run day. This means three miles at a relaxed conversational trot. Three junk miles with minimal effort.
Thursday it is back to pain. Time to hit the track. Continually running at the same pace or long slow distance will just make for slow runners. The goal on the track is to get your body comfortable with speed. Speed hurts.
Interval training equals speed. What you run for intervals on the track depends on your goals and current race pace. As an example, a 21 minute 3 mile runner averages a 7 minute mile pace. A good speed work out would be something like:
12 X 440 @ between 1:25 and 1:35 pace with a 1 to 2 minute slow jog in between each interval.
One week I like to do 440 speed runs and the next I like to do 880. Then switch back to 440 the following week to keep my body and muscles challenged and uncomfortable. At the same 7 minute pace a good workout for 880 intervals would be:
8 X 880 @ between 3:10 and 3:20 pace with 2 to 3 minute slow jog inb etween each interval.
If you reduce the number or intervals, increase the speed, but also allow for greater rest in between each interval. If you add more repetitions, slow the speed down a little and reduce the time between intervals. You may not be a 7 minute mile 5K runner and this pace could be either too slow or too fast depending on your level of running. Try and train at a speeds for the 440 and 880 that are around a minute faster than my average 3 mile or 5K pace. Some days I push it a little harder with faster reps or less time in between intervals but the most important part of running intervals is to make sure that your first interval time is very close to the time of the last interval you run. Running your first intervals fast and your last intervals much slower will not train your body to maintain speed.
Intervals should hurt. Your first several intervals should be comfortable to run but your last few should be hard to finish on time.
Friday is another rest/run day. get in 2.5 to 3 miles at a painfully slow pace. Remember that speed and hills put a lot of stress on muscles and not enough rest will lead to injury.
Saturday is cross training day. Swim for 30 minutes, bike for an hour, or use an elliptical but keep your feet free of heavy pounding. Give your knees, feet, and joints a bit of a break today.
Sunday is the long run day. For a 5K runner a long run of 7 to 8 miles at a pace that is around one minute above your 5K race pace works well. If you are a 7 minute 5K runner, then run your long run at around 8 minute miles or slightly slower. Remember to carry water for this distance to stay hydrated and either bring your cell phone or run in a populated area in case you get injured, sick, or can't finish the run.
Remember to keep your hard days hard and your easy days really easy. Best of luck running a faster 5K.