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How To Run 5K In 20 Minutes Or Less

Take our expert running coach's advice to get your next PR.

In this article, UK athletics running 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’re new to the running game, running a 5K in 20 minutes is an achievable goal. 

In case you’re wondering… 5km = 3.107 miles

It’s normal to feel daunted by the sub 20 min 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; breaking the 20-minute barrier will require too much effort

However, breaking a 4-minute mile was once considered impossible until Roger Bannister ran 3.58 in 1954. Amazingly, the current world record stands at 3.43. 

If you follow the detailed “how to run 5K in 20 minutes” training advice below, approach the sub-20-minute challenge with determination, and be consistent with the workouts, it can be done! 

People running a road race, fast.

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 can maintain a steady pace and easily lock into a constant rhythm. 

However, increasing mileage and running at paces that your body finds comfortable can only improve you so much. 

What Pace Do I Need To Maintain To Complete A 5K In 20 Minutes?

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 must adopt a different training plan and incorporate a few well-established methods.

For example; If your weekly schedule has included four long runs per week, you can 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. 

People running in a road race.

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: Interval Training Sessions – Run Quicker Than Target Race Pace

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 by many runners from all walks of life over the years. One notable athlete, Sebastian Coe, is said to have used his methods to help him win 2 Olympic golds over the 1500m distance. 

Considering the goal pace to run a 5K in 20 minutes is 4 minutes/km, you’ll need 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

To get started, it is recommended that you find a flat route where you can measure your distances with a GPS watch. Some of the best routes are by rivers—try to find somewhere where you won´t have to constantly stop or side-step other people. 

People running on a track.

Some people find it useful to run in their local park or 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, which your body will later thank you for!

If you can access a local running track, 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-second recovery. As you get stronger, you can try longer intervals, such as 600m and 800m at the same pace with a 2-minute recovery.

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-second recovery. If this is too difficult, reduce the interval to 200m and run it 10-12 times with the same recovery.

People running on the road.

#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 can run before lactic acid accumulates in your blood.

Regularly including tempo runs or anaerobic threshold (AT) runs in your weekly training plan will increase the speed 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. 

Simply put, 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 minutes/mile.

Start by doing 2 x 10 minutes with a 3-minute recovery and then build up to one effort of 20 minutes. Stay relaxed, and remember that you are teaching your body to run efficiently. 

People running up a hill.

#3: Run Hills

If you find a hill that measures 100m with a moderate gradient, you can replace one of the speed sessions with 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 six reps and build to ten. 

Alternatively, you can work on your power by running as fast as possible for 15-second hill sprints on a slightly steeper hill. Then, walk back down and fully recover before repeating the exercise three more times. 

#4: Long Runs 

The long run is another staple that should be part of any runner’s weekly training plan. It is an easy-paced run of between 10 km and 16 km or 60 minutes and 90 minutes.

This run 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 afterward. 

People running on the road.

#5: Bringing It All Together

For your 5K in 20 minutes challenge, I 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 six days a week with a rest day, while others can only allocate three or four days. Stick to what you can consistently do.

It’s best to try grouping 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 six 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 unwanted tightness.

For any of the persistent niggles, you can bring out the foam roller and self-massage to alleviate any issues. 

A person running fast on a track.

#7: Race Day Approaches

You’ve been consistent with your training, your body has grown familiar with 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, and arrive at the race venue with enough time to warm up with 20 minutes of light jogging followed by 4-5 strides to get the body ready.

Trust in your training. Relax and settle into your own rhythm, with a target race pace of 4 minutes/km. 

Remind yourself that you have experienced discomfort before in training sessions, and your body is capable of enduring more to get to that finish line. 

As 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!

20 minutes a bit too ambitious?

Here’s our 5K in 25-minute training plan and guide:

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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