14 Training Tips To Build Towards a 5k PR

There are 5k races offered around most of the world on any given weekend, pointing to just how popular this beloved race distance is. Finishing your first 5k is a running milestone that few runners forget, and is often the initial milestone for what becomes a lifelong passion for running.

Once you have finished your first 5k, you might set your sights on running faster and improving your time. Experienced runners often want to know how to hit a 5k PR so that they can chip away at their personal best time and run faster. 

In this guide, we will discuss how to hit a 5k PR and share expert training tips to get faster at the 5k.

We will look at: 

  • What Is a 5k PR?
  • How To Hit A 5k PR: 14 Training Tips To Get Faster

Let’s get started!

What Is a 5k PR?

There’s a good chance you’re aware of what a 5k is, but to cover our bases, a 5k is a 5,000 meter (5 kilometer) or 3.1 mile race. Your fastest finish time for the distance is referred to as your personal record, PR, or personal best, PB, depending on where you live in the world.

For example, if you’ve run three different 5k races, and finished in 29:04, 27:52, and 27:12, your 5k PR is currently 27:12.

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

How do you get faster at the 5k? While there are some race strategy tips that can help you improve your 5k race performance, the bulk of the improvements in your 5k race times will come down to the work you do in training. 

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

#1: Build Your Base

Even though running 5k may only take you 16-30 minutes or so, you still need a good aerobic base upon which you can develop your speed. 

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

A long run up to 6-8 miles can give you a very solid base to hit a 5k PR.

#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. 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.

#3: Polarize Your Training

One of the keys 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 and improving your fitness.

Make sure your recovery days are actually easy efforts so that you can attack the speed workouts fully recovered and ready to give it your best.

#4: Do 1-2 Speed Workouts Per Week

Speed workouts will improve your fitness, allowing you to run faster and longer. They also train your body to be more metabolically flexible, so that you can use fuel more efficiently and burn fat at higher effort levels. 

Good speed workouts for the 5k include hill sprints, fartlek runs, and intervals like 10-12 x 400 meters, 6 x 800 meters, 5-6 x 1000 meters, mile repeats, and various other ladders and pyramids run at race 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.

#6: Increase Your Lactate Threshold

Your lactate threshold 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 is being produced 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 are able to deliver more oxygen to your working muscles while you are running and are simultaneously better able to clear metabolic byproducts made when producing energy without oxygen, you will be able to produce more energy faster with less resultant fatigue.

#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 how threshold training 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 5k effort for most runners. CV running can be equated to an effort level 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 moderate amount 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 minute at critical velocity training pace with 1 minute jog recovery in 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 in between each followed by 6 x 30 seconds at mile pace.
  • 5-6 x 5 minute at critical velocity training pace with 90 seconds jog recovery in 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 indicates 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.

#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. 

Running strides conditions your neuromuscular system to handle faster paces in a controlled and coordinated manner, increases your turnover, and is 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.

#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.

#12: Take Rest Days

Taking 1-2 planned days off per week and impromptu rest days when your body is tired or sore isn’t 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 of the keys to running faster and nailing a PR is consistency, and regularly including rest days in your training program enable 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 things you can add to your running workouts to help you run faster and hit a 5K PR.

Strength training helps prevent injuries, correct muscle and balances, and make your legs stronger for a more powerful running stride.

Examples of 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.

#14: Live Like a Runner Not Someone Who Runs

Hitting a 5k PR is difficult, especially if you’ve been running and racing 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, 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 and limit alcohol and soda, 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 afterwards.

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.

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. 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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