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14 Training Tips To Build Towards a 5K PR

Get ready to crush your next 5K!

On any given weekend, 5K races are offered all around the world, whether it’s your town’s local 5K, a park run, or a big-time city race, and are just as popular with experienced runners as they are for beginners crossing a finish line for the first time.

Finishing your first 5K is a running milestone that few runners forget and is often the initial turning point for what becomes a lifelong passion for running.

Once you have finished your first 5K, you might want to set your sights on getting faster and improving your goal time.

Experienced runners alike may want to chip away at their 5K personal bests, looking for new ways to improve their speed or run negative splits in their next 5K road race.

Whether you’re a newbie runner or a seasoned pavement pounder, we’ve got our top training tips to help you crush your next 5K and leave that old 5K PR in the dust! Grab your running shoes, and let’s get to it!

People running a 5K PR.

How To Hit A 5K PR: 14 Training Tips To Get Faster

While some race strategy tips can help you improve your 5K race performance, the bulk of the improvements in your 5K race times will come down to the hard work you do in training. 

The following training tips can help you work towards a 5K PR:

#1: Build Your Base

Even though a 5K run is on the shorter side of race distances, you still need a good aerobic base to develop your speed. 

Distance runs, such as long runs and base-building runs, build cardiovascular and muscular endurance, so it’s not particularly taxing to tackle the 3.1-mile distance.

Work up to a long run of 6-8 miles. This will give you a solid base to hit a 5K personal record.

#2: Use a Sensible Training Plan

The best 5k training plans progress gradually so that you continue to improve without increasing the risk of injury. This is especially important for beginner runners.

In most cases, you should heed the 10% rule, meaning you should only increase your mileage by a maximum of 10% from one week to the next.

For example, if you are currently running 25 miles a week, run no more than 27.5 miles next week. Your body should adapt gradually to help you avoid injuries.

A person running.

#3: Polarize Your Training

When many of us start running, we think running fast and hard is always better. That’s just not true.

One key to injury prevention and getting faster as a runner is polarizing your training, which refers to taking your easy days easy and your hard days hard.

Running the same, moderate-intensity pace day after day is a less effective approach to improving your fitness.

Make sure your recovery days are actually easy efforts so you can attack your speed workouts fully recovered, run fast when you have to, and give it your best.

#4: Do 1-2 Speed Workouts Per Week

Speed workouts improve your fitness, allowing you to run faster and longer.

They also train your body to be more metabolically flexible, allowing you to use fuel more efficiently and burn fat at higher effort levels. 

As a running coach, I add one speed workout weekly for my more novice runners and two per week for my more experienced runners.

Good speed workouts for the 5K include:

  • Hill sprints
  • Fartlek runs
  • Intervals: 10-12 x 400 meters, 6 x 800 meters, 5-6 x 1000 meters, mile repeats, and various other ladders and pyramids run at your goal pace or faster

#5: Run Hills

Hill sprints build strength, power, and speed.

They are also a good opportunity to work on your running form and prepare you for tackling hills during your 5K race.

After a 15-20 minute warm-up, run 12 x 10 seconds uphill, jogging back down to your starting point. Cool down for another 15-20 minutes.

People running a 5K

#6: Increase Your Lactate Threshold

Your lactate threshold1Hoff, J., Støren, Ø., Finstad, A., Wang, E., & Helgerud, J. (2016). Increased Blood Lactate Level Deteriorates Running Economy in World Class Endurance Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(5), 1373–1378. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001349 is considered the tipping point wherein your muscles have to start producing energy anaerobically (without oxygen) through the metabolic pathway known as glycolysis rather than through aerobic metabolism.

At the lactate threshold, your body suddenly shifts from being able to clear the lactate and deleterious metabolic waste products at the same rate they are being produced to becoming inundated with waste due to the increased reliance on producing energy without sufficient oxygen.

Threshold workouts are designed to increase your lactate threshold, or the point at which your body is no longer able to clear lactate from the muscles as quickly as it is being produced. 

The lactate threshold occurs around 83-88% of your VO2 max, so your threshold run pace would be the pace you are running at 83-88% of your VO2 max according to your lab results or roughly the pace you could hold at max effort for an hour of running.

For most runners, the threshold run pace is somewhere between 10K-15K race pace.

Threshold workouts involve any work done at threshold effort. For example, you might warm up and then run 4 x 5 minutes at threshold pace with 2 minutes of recovery pace in between each interval. 

Tempo runs are specific threshold workouts that involve maintaining threshold effort (usually run around 10K or half marathon pace) for a sustained 20 minutes or more.

Tempo runs condition the metabolic system to clear metabolic byproducts and waste at the same rate it produces to prevent muscular fatigue and discomfort and challenge your mental fortitude to keep going when you are uncomfortable or to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Tempo runs, like all threshold workouts, also condition your cardiovascular system to deliver and utilize more oxygen at faster speeds, which is essentially reflected in an improvement in your VO2 max (a measure of your aerobic capacity). 

In this way, tempo runs improve your running economy because if you can deliver more oxygen to your working muscles while you are running and simultaneously better clear metabolic byproducts made when producing energy without oxygen, you will be able to produce more energy faster with less resultant fatigue.

People running a 5K

#7: Consider Critical Velocity Training

Critical Velocity training, CV training for short, is a training method created by Tom Schwartz that involves running at a “somewhat hard” pace you can sustain for half an hour.

Therefore, critical velocity training involves any running workout done at a pace that you could hold running at maximal effort for 30 minutes. 

In this way, CV training can be equated to threshold training, which involves any workout where threshold pace is used, keeping in mind that threshold pace is one that can be sustained all out for an hour of running.

Critical velocity is thus a harder effort than threshold effort, but easier than a 5K effort for most runners. CV running can be equated to an effort level of around 90 percent of your VO2 max. 

For some runners, your CV pace may be close to your 5K PR (if your 5K PR is around 30 minutes), but it’s likely a bit slower. CV training can increase the aerobic capacity of Type IIa muscle fibers.

These adaptations will help you sustain harder efforts for longer distances without producing the fatiguing byproducts of glycolysis and anaerobic metabolism, meaning that you can sustain a faster “hard cruising speed.”

Examples of Critical Velocity Training workouts include the following: 

  • 5–7 x 3 minutes at critical velocity training pace with 1-minute jog recovery between each, followed by 5 x 45 seconds at mile pace.
  • 16 x 1 minute at critical velocity training pace with 1-minute jog recovery between each and 6 x 30 seconds at mile pace.
  • 5-6 x 5 minutes at critical velocity training pace with 90 seconds of jog recovery between each and then 6 x 30 seconds at mile pace.

#8: Work On Your Cadence

Your running speed is a product of your stride length multiplied by your cadence or stride frequency. The longer your stride, the more distance you travel per step, and higher your cadence, the more steps you take per minute.

If you want to run faster, you can increase your stride length, stride frequency, or both.

However, research indicates2Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4 that increasing your cadence can reduce your risk of injury, whereas increasing your stride length can increase your chance of injury.

When you run with a faster cadence and a shorter stride length, your feet are always closer under your center of mass—not too far in front of your pelvis, which increases the force on your joints because it lengthens the moment arm through the joint.

Most runners fall within the 165 to 175 steps per minute range, but the general consensus is that a cadence closer to 180 is ideal.

Elite runners have an even higher cadence. Keep in mind that a few factors also influence your cadence, such as your height and running speed. Taller runners tend to have a slower cadence.

People running a 5K

#9: Increase Your Turnover With Strides

Strides involve sprinting anywhere from 50-200 meters or so, using your best running form, often accelerating your pace throughout the duration of the strides. 

Strides condition your neuromuscular system to handle faster paces in a controlled and coordinated manner, increase your turnover, and are a great way to add little pockets of speed work to an easy run day without really taxing the body like a full interval workout.

Add 10 x 50-meter strides to your next easy run to quicken your cadence.

We have a complete guide on how to run strides here.

#10: Add Cross Training

Low-impact cross-training activities like swimming, rowing, cycling, and elliptical reduce the stress and strain on your bones, joints, and connective tissues while still giving you a cardiovascular workout and encouraging circulation to recover from runs.

Cross-training also subjects your muscles to different motions than the same repetitive running stride, so incorporating cross-training is a good way to correct muscle imbalances caused by running and develop yourself as a well-rounded athlete.

#11: Include Mobility, Stability, Flexibility, and Balance Work In Your Routine

Mobility, stability, flexibility, and balance work can prevent injuries and leave you feeling limber and loose rather than wound up and tight. 

Foam rolling, single-leg drills, core exercises, dynamic stretching, yoga, Pilates, and massage are great accouterments to a running program, especially when you’re pushing your body and striving for a PR.

Think of these modalities as “prehab” practices, bulletproofing your body to reduce the risk of running injuries.

People running in a group.

#12: Take Rest Days

Take 1-2 planned days off per week and impromptu rest days when your body is tired or sore.

It’s not being lazy; it’s being smart. Running causes micro-tears in your muscles, and they need time off to repair and rebuild back stronger. 

One key to running faster and nailing a PR is consistency, and regularly including rest days in your training program enables you to train consistently by reducing the risk of injuries.

It’s better to voluntarily take planned days off than have your body force your hand because you’ve overdone it in your workouts and overall training volume.

#13: Strength Train 2-3 Times Per Week

Strength training 2 to 3 times per week with total-body workouts is one of the most effective ways to improve your running speed and hit a 5K PR.

Strength training helps prevent injuries, correct muscle imbalances, and strengthen your legs for a more powerful running stride.

Good strength training exercises for runners include squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, planks, push-ups, pull-ups, rows, bridges, hamstring curls, calf raises, lateral lunges, side steps or clam shells, and other core exercises.

Two people running on the road.

#14: Live Like a Runner, Not Someone Who Runs

Hitting a 5K PR is difficult, especially if you’ve been running and racing for a long time and have already gotten your time down to something competitive for your age group.

Once you take care of the basics in terms of training and are following an appropriate 5K training plan, the additional edge you can get for further improvements can come down to lifestyle choices—the things you’re doing when you’re not running.

For example, you should eat a nutritious diet with minimally processed foods and a wide range of healthy natural foods, get at least 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep every night, drink plenty of water, limit alcohol, and minimize stress. 

Work on figuring out the timing of your running and eating so that you feel energized and fueled without being bloated and full.

Focus on carbohydrates before you run and a balance of protein and carbohydrates to refuel afterward.

See yourself as a runner, not just someone who runs. When you do all the little things, they can add up and help you hit a 5K PR.

Here at Marathon Handbook, we have a wide variety of 5K training plans for beginners and advanced runners. Take a look at our database here to let us help you crush your next 3.1-miler.

If you want an extra boost and someone to set up a personalized training plan for you, help you with your pacing strategy, guide your pre-race nutrition, and get you to that race day starting line super well-prepared, you may want help from a running coach:

References

  • 1
    Hoff, J., Støren, Ø., Finstad, A., Wang, E., & Helgerud, J. (2016). Increased Blood Lactate Level Deteriorates Running Economy in World Class Endurance Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(5), 1373–1378. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001349
  • 2
    Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise43(2), 296–302. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ebedf4
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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