Whether you’ve been racing consistently for years and have a number of marathons or half marathons under your belt, or you are relatively new to the racing side of running, the ability to run 5k in 18 minutes will pay dividends in the long run!
In this post, coach Cathal Logue shares his 4 main training tips for running a sub 18-minute 5k, and a 6 week training plan to achieve it!
Why 18 minutes?
Perhaps this time rings a bell if you’ve ever had a friend or family member involved in the US Marines?
The PFT Three-Mile Run test is part of the US Marine Physical Test that is performed by US Marine personnel every 6 months. It measures the aerobic fitness of participants.
Scoring 100 requires the participant to run it in 18 minutes (for every 10 seconds over 18 minutes, 1 point is deduced). This would require the runner to average a pace of 6 minutes/mile or 3.45/km. However, 3 miles only equates to 4821m, so we have additional 179m to bring us to the 5k distance.
- Related: How To Run a 6 Minute Mile
Therefore, if the goal is to break 18 minutes for the 5k, then you need to run quicker than 5.46/mile and 3.36/km.
It’s normal to have doubts about breaking through something that you may consider a tough barrier but overcoming the seemingly impossible is steeped in history!
If you have been consistent with your running over an extended period and have built up a solid aerobic base, then by adding in some specific paced workouts to better prepare your body to the demands of running quicker, then it can be done!
To reiterate – to run 5k in 18 minutes your body needs to get comfortable running at a speed of 3.36 minutes/km – or 5 minutes 46 seconds/mile.
Therefore, if you follow the detailed training advice below and approach the challenge with determination and be consistent with the workouts, it can be done!
Here are my 4 essential elements and a 6-week training plan for achieving your goal of a sub 18 minutes 5k:
1. Interval training sessions
According to the famous coach Frank Horwill, “If you want to improve your potential over 5k, don’t get too far away from speed.” His 5-paces training system has been followed, adapted, and used over the years by many runners from all walks of life.
Considering that target race pace to run a 5k in 18 minutes is 3.36 minutes/km, you’ll need to be able to sustain this pace over the whole 5k distance.
This is where interval training at speeds quicker than your target race pace will come into play and assist you.
To get started, it is recommended you find a flat route where you can measure out your distances with a GPS watch.
Some of the best routes are by rivers – try and find somewhere where you won’t have to constantly stop or side-step other people.
Some people find it useful to run in their local park or indeed use the perimeter of a football pitch. Or if you have access to a local running track, you can use the measured 400m lap!
Start with intervals at your 3k pace. This pace or intensity is what you could hold during a 3k race, which is just short of 2 miles. At first, you may find this uncomfortable as it’s between 8-10 on the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion), but your body will adapt.
The 3k is 3.25 minutes/km (5.28 minutes/mile) or 82 seconds per 400m. A good initial session is to run 8-12 repetitions of 400m in 82 seconds with a 90 seconds recovery. As you get stronger, you can try longer intervals such as 600m and 800m at the same pace with a 2-minute recovery.
Then the next stage in your speed adaptation is to run intervals at a target 1500m pace of 78 seconds per 400m (3.15 minutes/km or 5.08 minutes/mile). You should aim to run 6-10 repetitions of 400m with a 90 seconds recovery. If this is too difficult, reduce the interval to 200m and run it 10-12 times with the same recovery.
2. Tempo Runs to improve lactate threshold
Studies indicate that one of the best predictors of successful 5k performance is your lactate threshold.
This is the speed you can maintain before lactic acid begins to accumulate in your blood. By regularly including tempo runs or anaerobic threshold (AT) runs in your training week, you will increase the speed that you can hold before the lactic acid sets in, and you begin to slow down!
Another benefit of this type of training session is an increased ability to concentrate over a duration of between 15-20 minutes.
The general rule is that your tempo pace is between your pace for a 10 mile or half-marathon race and 20 seconds per km or 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5k race target pace, in other words 3.56 minutes/km or 6.16 minute/mile.
Start off with 2 x 10 minutes with a 3-minute recovery and then build up to 1 effort of 20 minutes. Stay relaxed and remember you are teaching your body to run efficiently.
3. Get strong with hills and strength training
If you find a hill that measures 100m with a moderate gradient, you can replace one of the speed sessions for a series of hill repeats.
Remember the focus should be on running with good technique to replicate resistance training and it is not merely a race to the top as fast as you can go! Start with 6 repetitions and build to 10.
Alternatively, you can work on your power by running as fast as you can for 15 seconds on a slightly steeper hill. Walk back down and fully recover before repeating 4 more times.
Building leg strength through circuits can also be incorporated. Focus on the major muscle groups by completing lunges, squats, one-legged squats, and calf raises.
Strength training every second day produces the best results. Start with your own body weight and then you could add some additional resistance.
In a study carried out by Finnish researchers, they considered the role of explosive strength training in improving running economy.
They found that in a group of 10 elite cross-country runners whose training was monitored over 9 weeks, that the group that included explosive strength training in their plan, recorded a significant improvement in their 5km running performance over the 9-week period.
4. Long Runs
The long run is another staple that should be part of any runner’s weekly schedule. This easy-paced run of between 10km-16km or 60 mins- 90 mins will improve your endurance and give you a chance to recover from the hard sessions earlier in the week.
Additionally, a safe way to gradually introduce your body to more speedwork is to run some strides after your run. Start with 4-5 efforts where you build up the pace and be careful to stretch well afterwards.
The 6-week plan 18 minute 5k training plan
I’d recommend you decide on how many days you can train. Some people can dedicate 5 or 6 days a week with a rest day, others can only allocate 3 or 4 days. Stick to what you can do consistently.
The hard sessions can be grouped so that there’s a tempo with an interval session one week and then interval session with a hill session the following week.
This will give your body ample time to recover. Continue to use your long run to build endurance and recover from the hard days. Allow your body to adapt to this extra load, but most people should be ready to try out a race or test run after 6 weeks of increased quality work.
The training plan below assumes 5 days of running, with 2 days of complete recovery. Week 4 is a recovery week.
You can access and train along with the plan using the TrainingPeaks app, and track your progress as you get ready for your 5k race!
|Mon||Easy run 35 mins||Easy run 35 mins||Easy run 40 mins||Easy run 40 mins||Easy run 40 mins||Easy run 40 mins|
|Tues||Intervals 10 x 400m @3k pace, 90 secs rest||Intervals 8 x 400m @1500m pace, 90 secs rest||Intervals 6 x 800m @5k pace, 90 secs rest||Easy run 40 mins||Intervals 4 x1k @5k pace, 2 min rest||Intervals 14 x 200m @3k pace, 60 secs rest|
|Wed||Easy run 35 mins||Easy run 35 mins||Easy run 40 mins||Easy run 40 mins||Easy run 40 mins||Easy run 40 mins|
|Sat||Tempo 2 x 10 mins, 3 min rest||Hills||Tempo 20 mins||Tempo 20 mins||Hills||5k race|
|Sun||Long run 60 mins||Long run 60 mins||Long run 65 mins||Long run 60 mins||Long run 65 mins||Easy recovery run|
Figure 1: 6-week training plan
|Pace||per 400m||per km/mile|
Figure 2: Pacing chart
Trust in the training that you have done. Relax and settle into your own rhythm and target race pace. Remind yourself that the feeling of discomfort is something you have felt before in training sessions and your body can endure more.
Related: Here’s our complete Couch To 5k guide and training plan