In this article, UK athletics coach Cathal Logue (who has a 5k PR of 15 minutes 36 seconds) walks us through the training modalities he recommends for how to run 5k in 20 minutes or less.
Whether you’re an experienced runner with several marathons or half-marathons under your belt, or you are pretty new to the running game, running a 5k in 20 minutes is an achievable goal.
Incase you’re wondering… 5km = 3.107 miles
It’s normal to feel daunted by the sub 20 minute challenge and you´ll probably have the typical doubts and fears: How can I run that fast for so long? I’m too slow a runner; it will require too much effort to break the 20 minutes barrier.
However, the breaking of a 4-minute mile was once considered an impossible barrier to overcome until Roger Bannister ran 3.58 in 1954. And amazingly the current world record stands at 3.43.
If you follow the detailed training advice below and approach the sub 20 min challenge with determination and be consistent with the workouts, it can be done!
After all, in the words of Michael Jordan: “You must expect great things of yourself before you can do them.”
Those who have been training for long-distance events over the past number of years will have prepared themselves to cope with the increase in weekly mileage and duration of their runs.
Moreover, I bet you are well able to maintain a steady pace and can easily lock into a constant rhythm.
However, there is a limit to how much you can improve by increasing the mileage and running at paces that your body finds comfortable.
If you want to run a 5k in 20 minutes your body needs to get comfortable running at a speed of 4 minutes/km – or 6 minutes 26 seconds/ mile.
Therefore, to better prepare your body for quicker paces you´ll need to adopt a different training plan by incorporating a few well-established methods.
For example; If your weekly schedule has included 4 long runs per week, you´ll be able to achieve your goal by switching two of these long runs to shorter ones. By reducing your weekly mileage, you´ll be better able to focus on increasing the quality of your workouts.
This is best done gradually and you´ll still be able to maintain your base aerobic fitness with the other two points.
How To Run 5k In 20 Minutes: The 7 Ingredients
These are my top tips to incorporate into your training plan for achieving your goal of a sub 20 minutes 5k:
1. Run quicker than target race pace – interval training sessions
“If you want to improve your potential over 5k, don´t get too far away from speed,” the famous coach Frank Horwill once said. His 5-paces training system has been followed, adapted, and used over the years by many runners from all walks of life. One notable athlete, Sebastian Coe, is said to have used his methods to help him win 2 Olympic golds over the 1500m distance.
Considering that the target race pace to run a 5k in 20 minutes is 4 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. This can also take some strain off your knee and ankle joints by running on the softer grass surface, it´s something your body will later thank you for!
If you have access to a local running track, you can use the measured 400m lap 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’ll find this uncomfortable as it’s between 8-10 on the RPE scale, but your body will adapt.
Your target 3k pace should be 3.50 minutes/km (6.08 minutes/mile) or 92 seconds per 400m.
A good initial session is to run 8-12 repetitions of 400m in 92 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 minutes recovery.
Then the next stage in your speed adaptation is to run intervals at a target 1500m pace of 88 seconds per 400m (3.40 minutes/km or 5.52 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 For Anaerobic Threshold
Studies indicate that one of the best predictors of successful 5k performance is your lactate threshold.
This is the speed you are able to run before lactic acid begins to accumulate in your blood. By regularly including tempo runs or anaerobic threshold (AT) runs in your weekly training plan, you will increase the speed that you can hold before the lactic acid sets in and you begin to slow down!
The Kenyans consider it one of their critical sessions! Their weekly tempo run on dirt-tracks at altitude is one of the key components of their huge success in distance running.
To put it simply, tempo runs teach your body to run faster before fatiguing.
Another benefit of this type of training session is an increased ability to concentrate over a duration of between 15-20 minutes.
You will also find yourself becoming more efficient at running aerobically over long distances.
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 4.20 minutes/km or 6.56 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. Run Hills
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 for your muscles 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 3 more times.
4. Long Runs
Another staple that should be part of any runner’s weekly training plan. 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.
5. Bringing it all together
For your 5k in 20 minutes challenge, I´d recommend you test out each of the sessions described and then after a few weeks decide on the right balance for you.
Some people can train 6 days a week with a rest day, others can only allocate 3 or 4 days. Stick to what you can do consistently.
It’s best you try and group a tempo with an interval session one week and then 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.
6. Stretching & foam rolling
When you start doing some of the speed sessions your body will probably take some time to fully adapt, so don’t be alarmed if your calves are sore when training for your 20 minute 5k!
A regular stretching post session of all the major muscle groups: hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps will help prevent any unwanted tightness.
For any of the persistent niggles, you can bring out the foam roller and self-massage and alleviate any issues.
7. Race day approaches
So you´ve been consistent with your training over the past 6 weeks, your body has grown familiar to the increase in speedwork, you’ve developed a greater tolerance of holding your tempo pace over 20 minutes, and you’re feeling fresh and ready to run 5k in 20 minutes – I’ve got 2 points to add:
The best advice on race day is not to try anything new.
Get up, have the same breakfast you normally do; arrive at the race venue with enough time to warm-up with 20 minutes of light jogging followed by 4-5 strides to really get the body ready.
Trust in the training that you have done. Relax and settle into your own rhythm and target race pace of 4 minutes/km.
Remind yourself that the feeling of discomfort is something you have felt before in training sessions and your body is capable of enduring more.
As the Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington once said: “Pain is just a conversation your mind is having with your body.” And don’t forget to smile when the going gets tough – it will help you relax!