Running 5km

How To Improve Your 5km Run Time

Back in my prime running days, I could run 5km in 21 minutes 49 seconds. That’s not a brag. I’ve written it in disbelief. The exact date of that run was 03/01/15.

HOW WAS I EVER ABLE TO RUN THAT FAST!? – a question I ask myself frequently.

Since taking part in ocean rowing, my running took a back seat as the two activities do not complement each other.

Five years have passed since I was that bouncy gazelle, and I’m back running again but am nowhere near as fast as I used to be. I ran this morning’s 5km in 25 minutes 44 seconds, which is my 2020 personal best, almost four minutes slower than my younger self.

I’d like to get faster (nothing crazy) but my body isn’t as speedy as it used to be, so I’ve put some strategies in place to help improve my speed.

Today’s 5km run improved by 10 seconds compared to two weeks ago. 10 seconds may not seem like a lot but it’s progress.

Here are the methods I have been using to improve my 5km run time.

1. Heart Rate Training Zones

Recently I’ve been using heart rate training zones. I set my fitness watch to display the percentage of my maximum heart rate during my run.

I got this training tip from my mate Duncan Roy who trains like a beast on an indoor rowing machine and is really strict about working in specific heart rate zones to improve performance.

My current running training plan

– 1 x steady run per week on a Monday.
I run 10km at 70% of my maximum heart rate.
I plan to increase the distance gradually every few weeks.
This comes in Zone 3, the Aerobic zone.

– 1 x sprint intervals on a Wednesday.
Varying from 10 x 200m to 20 x 30m sprints, at 95-100% max effort.
This is Zone 5, the Maximum zone.

– 1 x 5km run at 85% on a Saturday. If I’m going for a personal best I will aim for 90% of my maximum heart rate, which doesn’t feel nice.
This is Zone 4, the Threshold zone.
It’s called the threshold zone because as the body works it produces lactic acid. At the same time, the body is trying to eliminate it. The trick is finding the point where your body is producing slightly more lactic acid than it can recycle, therefore forcing it to adapt.

Each session exercises a different energy system in my body.
The steady run is aerobic and trains endurance.
The sprint intervals are anaerobic and train speed, strength and power.
The 5km run is a threshold run, holding me in an uncomfortable zone which can just about be maintained throughout. It’s mostly aerobic with some anaerobic thrown in.

Each session forces the bodies energy pathways to adapt.
Not all can be done at max effort, otherwise, the different systems wouldn’t be targeted.

I’ve scheduled the runs on the particular days to give me enough rest in between each session.
See my Training Log for all my training sessions.

Side note: Sprint training increases power in the muscle, which in turn increases speed, therefore improving the speed of longer runs – hence the Wednesday workout.


2a. Pacing

I began my 5km time trials a few months ago. When I started the run I would start fast, thinking the faster I ran at the start, the faster I would finish. But since reading The Art of Resilience by Ross Edgley, I now understand the importance of pacing (page 248 Impeccable Pacing: The Basics).

“Maintaining a consistent heart rate during race performance is critical in keeping the psychological model of fatigue in balance.”

Ross Edgley

In short, start too hard and too fast and you’ll blow out, which will slow you down later in the activity.

I usually start my 5km way too fast and feel awesome for the first few minutes, full of optimism and hope, then get 10 minutes in and feel like total shit and can’t maintain the speed.

So this morning, I looked at my last average PB split (which was 5:10min/km) and aimed to run consistently at that speed throughout. If I felt good after 3.5 km then I would aim to run the final 1.5km faster. And it worked! I got a new 2020 PB.

Impeccable pacing is key! Thanks Ross!

2b. Negative Spilt

Aim for a negative split – which means run the second half faster than the first half.

My 5km is two loops of 2.5km. As I mentioned above I usually start way too fast and my second lap is dreadful.

I used the negative split approach this morning and it worked well. Keeping consistent on the first lap meant I had enough energy in the tank to maintain my speed, then used the remaining energy (and a bit of adrenaline) to push harder during the second lap.

I like this method – it felt really good and I’m not feeling as tired as I usually feel after my run. I’d even go as far as to say I probably still had a bit more to give at the end. I also liked that I had to have a bit of patience during the first lap and hold back, and it taught me to trust the process.

Click here to read an awesome article about using negative splits for performance.


3. Science of a Smile

Another one of Ross Edgley’s methods which he explains in his book The Art of Resilience (page 271 – You’re stronger when smiling) is ‘The science of a smile’.

I’ve known about ‘The Science of a Smile’ for a while and try to put it into practice when I can. I used it when rowing across the Atlantic ocean, smiling when I didn’t feel like it; when I felt miserable and sad and achy, and really quite awful.

It is scientifically proven that smiling, even a fake smile, provides a psychological shift in the brain, which in turn can improve our mood. There’s a feedback loop between the muscles we use to smile, and the brain. When we smile, the brain produces happy hormones. It’s that simple!

During this morning’s run, in amongst the grimacing, I forced a smile in an attempt to relieve some of the pain. I think it worked. One bonus was at least the people I ran past thought I was a pleasant, happy runner.


4. Positive Affirmations

I love positive affirmations. I use them during my adventures and for injuries. And also to help cure acne and Raynaud’s phenomenon.

When I mention positive affirmations, I can sometimes get an eye-rolling reaction. Some saying it’s hocus pocus.

But again, there is a science to back up the statements we tell ourself, be it positive or negative.
In an MRI scan, it is shown that neural pathways open up in the brain when we tell ourselves positive statements.

They provide a mindset shift, which can get us out of some real sticky situations.

So, in this mornings run I was saying things like:
– “Strong, fast legs and feet”
– “I am having a GREAT time!”
– “This is easy!”
– “You’ve got this LT. You can do it!”

These statement seem a little drastic for a 5km run around my local park but they worked : )

If you don’t believe in positive affirmations, yes I agree, they can be a little bit cringe but they cost nothing, take very little effort and what harm can a few nice words to yourself do???

This section of the blog is closely related to The Geri Halliwell Effect where I write about focusing on the positive instead of the negative.


5. Breathing, Posture & Cadence

In order to focus on my finish time, I focused on the following:

Abdominal breathing
Instead of puffing and panting and restricting my airways, I focused on deep abdominal breathing (for as much as I could), breathing in time with my footsteps – 3 steps breathing in deeply, 3 steps breathing out deeply.

I figured this would help me take lots of oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.

Posture
When I get tired, my running form and posture take a hit.
I tried to maintain an upright and confident* posture throughout.

*I use the word to reinforce the positive affirmations from above

Cadence
It’s easy for the cadence (total number of steps taken in one minute) to decrease when the body gets tired.

I tried to keep a consistent cadence (and running form) throughout my run.

Sometimes increasing cadence and improving posture can instantly improve running speed. A physical and psychological boost!


6. BONUS

It always helps to have a banging playlist to get you pumped.
I have one called ‘Pullups’ (which I use to get me motivated to do pullups, funnily enough) which gets me all fired up and ready to go.

Listen to this (perhaps cringeworthy) playlist here:


NOTES

There are other things I do to improve my running speed, such as strength training, monitoring my resting heart rate, prehab and single-limb exercises and quality sleep. The above methods are new things I have put in place to have a direct result on my 5km time – and so far, they seem to be working.

I only try for a personal best once per month or every 4th run, otherwise, it takes me too long to recover and I just end up feeling like poo each week. At 90% of my maximum heart rate, the personal best attempts leave me depleted and take a couple of days to fully recover from.


I hope you found this blog useful.
I’m not a fast runner or personal trainer but wanted to share my thoughts and lessons from the last few months.
I’ll be tracking my progress over the coming months so will share any updates I have.

If you have any good tips or are going to try anything from above, reach out to me on social media and let me know.

Thanks for reading x