The 5K can feel like a difficult distance to improve in. Over 3.1 miles, large jumps in your average pace can result in a finish time that’s only seconds faster. You may devote months and months to training and have to try multiple times to increase your 5K time. But when that does happen and you earn that 5K PR, all the hard work pays off. This article will guide you through how to improve your 5K time, whether you are training for a sub-40, sub-30, or sub-20 5K.
What’s the Average Time for a 5K?
As participation rates increase in the 5K distance, the average 5K time has changed to reflect the accessibility and inclusivity of this distance. The 5K is a distance for run-walks looking to finish in 40 minutes, runners looking to achieve the big sub-30 5K goal, or runners chasing down the challenging sub-20 minute 5K.
Curious about what the average time for a 5K is? Read this full article on 5K finish times!
How Long Does it Take to Improve Your 5K Time?
The more experienced you are, the longer it can take to improve 5K time. That does not mean that it is impossible to earn a 5K PR after years in the sport. Rather, it means you may have to work harder for smaller time improvements.
Conversely, newer runners will often see quick improvements in their 5K time. Fitness adaptations such as those to VO2max occur rapidly over the first one to two years of training. You may easily shave off minutes of your 5K time during your first year or two of racing.
Regardless of your experience level, you will see more improvements in the 5K if you devote a training block to the distance. Typically, it takes six to eight weeks or more for significant improvements in velocity at VO2max, lactate threshold, and fatigue resistance. Thus, if you want to improve your 5K time, you will see greater improvements if you spend eight or more weeks specifically training for the distance.
Faster 5K Training Plan Examples
Specific 5K training involves workouts that target the unique physiological demands of the 5K.
You should have a robust aerobic base before starting a training plan for a faster 5K. While it’s much shorter than other road races, the 5K is still a predominantly aerobic event.
Sub 20 5K training plan
A sub 20 minute 5K is a 6:26 min/mile (4:00 min/km) pace or faster. A sub 20 5K training plan will typically involve workouts that prepare you to hold this intense pace on race day. In addition to these speed workouts, your training week will involve easy runs, a long run, and strides. Advanced runners may also complete a second workout, such as a tempo run, each week.
Workouts in a sub 20 5K training plan will involve short intervals (1km or shorter) at 5K race pace. A finishing kick can make all the difference between 19:59 and 20:01. To improve your finishing kick, you may do very short intervals at faster than 5K pace. Workouts that combine 5K pace and slightly faster will also provide a race-specific stress for more advanced athletes.
Sample sub 20 5K workouts include:
- 15 x 1 min at 5K pace or slightly faster (1 min jog)
- 8 x 600 meters at 5K pace (300m recovery jog)
- 6 x 800 m at 5K pace (300m recovery jog)
- 3 x (600m at 5K pace/400m at 5K/300m at 5K/200 at 3K pace)with 300m recovery between reps and 400m-600m recovery between sets
- 3 x 5 minutes at 5K pace (3 min recovery jog) followed by 3 x 1 min faster/1 min jog
A sample week of a sub 20 5K training plan:
- Monday: easy run + strides
- Tuesday: 5K pace interval workout
- Wednesday: recovery run, cross-training, or rest
- Thursday: easy run or tempo run
- Friday: easy run + strides
- Saturday: long run (8-12 miles)
- Sunday: rest
Run a 5K in 30 minutes
Being able to run a 5K in 30 minutes is a significant goal for many runners. A sub-30 minute 5K involves running a 9:39min/mile (6:00min/km) or faster for 3.1 miles straight.
In order to do this, you first need to develop a foundation of endurance. A 30-minute 5K race requires you to run for 30 minutes hard without stopping. No matter how good your speed is, if you do not have endurance, you will slow down over the final mile.
To develop endurance to run a 5K in 30 minutes, you want to run at least three times per week. A majority of these runs should be easy. Even if your goal is running faster in the 5K, you should only do one hard workout per week.
Similarly to the sub-20 minute 5K plan, you will include intervals in training for a sub-30 minute 5K. These workouts will involve training at faster than 5K pace, at 5K pace, and slower than 5K pace.
Sample sub 30 5K workouts include:
- 10 x 1 min at faster than 5K pace (1 min jog)
- 8 x 400 meters at 5K pace (200m recovery jog)
- 4-5 x 800 m at 5K pace (300m recovery jog)
- 20 minute tempo run at 10K pace
A sample sub-30 minute 5K plan:
- Monday: cross-train or easy run
- Tuesday: interval workout
- Wednesday: rest
- Thursday: easy run + strides
- Friday: cross-train or easy run
- Saturday: long run (5-8 miles)
- Sunday: rest
How to run-walk a 5K in 40 minutes
A 5K in 40 minutes requires a run-walk pace of 12:52 min/mile. This is the average pace of all run and walk intervals combined. If you run more of the 5K and take shorter, less frequent walk breaks, your run pace may be closer to the average pace. If you take longer or more frequent walk breaks, your run pace will need to be faster.
If you have never run before, preparing for a run-walk 5K may involve following a couch to 5K training plan (such as this one from Run to the Finish). If you have been running for a while, you can work on running longer run intervals and shortening walk breaks to cover the distance faster.
A sample sub-40 minute 5K plan:
- Monday: cross-train
- Tuesday: run-walk + strides
- Wednesday: rest
- Thursday: run-walk
- Friday: cross-train
- Saturday: long run (3-5 miles)
- Sunday: rest
Other Ways to Increase 5K Speed
No matter your goal race pace, there are some general training principles that will help you run a faster 5K. These modifications to training and race day will help you improve your 5K time.
Practice Race Pace in Training
Many of the sample schedules above included workouts at 5K race pace. Theoretically you do not have to train at goal pace to run a fast 5K – you could do hard intervals and tempo runs and still get fast. However, goal pace training helps you run a faster 5K race based on factors beyond fitness.
5K pace workouts teach you how race pace feels. The better understanding you have of your goal race pace, the less likely you are to start out too fast on race day (and end up slowing down). Additionally, 5K pace workouts allow you to assess your fitness and set a realistic goal. Finally, seeing yourself repeatedly hit goal pace in training can build your confidence for pursuing a fast time on race day.
Training at various intensities
As essential as training at your goal race pace is, you should do other workouts in 5K training. Workouts done faster and slower than goal race pace will ensure you train all aspects of your fitness – and are able to improve at other distances.
And yes, easy runs are included in this! Having a well-developed aerobic base is essential for increasing your 5K speed. For some runners, the answer is not more speedwork – it’s a devoted base building phase or increasing their running mileage first before 5K training.
Some other workouts you can include in 5K training are:
Optimize Your Pre-Race Warm Up
It can feel impossible to go from standing around to running 5K goal pace – because it is very difficult! If you warm up adequately before a 5K race, you will have an easier time hitting your goal pace from the start. A warm-up turns on your aerobic metabolism, which makes you less likely to fatigue early in the race. You also will elevate muscle temperature and enhance mobility, which aids with forceful muscle contractions that are necessary for running fast. Even without any changes to your fitness, warming up before a 5K can improve your 5K time.
These steps will help you warm up before a 5K race:
- Perform your normal dynamic warm-up
- Jog slowly for 10-20 minutes
- Perform 2-4 sets of 15-20 second strides
Ideally, a warm-up should be completed within 30 minutes of racing. If you allow more than 45 minutes to elapse between your warm-up and your race, you may cool back down.
Eat Carbs in Your Pre-Race Breakfast
You do not need to take gels during a 5K like you do during a marathon. However, you will optimize your performance if you start off the race well-fueled. While the 5K is short and you will not experience glycogen depletion, a pre-race meal with carbs ensures you have enough substrate (fuel source) to push as hard as you can.
A pre-race breakfast before a 5K should include simple, easily digestible carbohydrates. To reduce the risk of GI upset such as cramping, you want to minimize intake of fiber, protein, and fat in this meal. Depending on the size of your pre-race meal and the race start time, you will eat about 1-3 hours before the race. The meal can be larger if have a couple of hours to digest, such as a plain bagel with peanut butter, or can be a pre-run snack such as graham crackers.
Aim For Even Splits
The ideal pacing strategy for a 5K race is even pacing. If you start out too fast, you will experience muscle fatigue and be forced to slow down later. If you start out too slow, you may not be able to make up time later.
Aim to build into 5K pace within the first half mile and then focus on holding that pace as best as you can through mile 2. In the final mile, focus on passing as many people as you can (or if you are in the lead, push harder every ¼ mile). Read here for more tips on how to pace a 5K race.
Work on Your Mindset
Racing a 5K is hard. The distance may seem short, but the intensity is high and the race will hurt by the end. Sometimes, the thing that holds you back from your goal isn’t your fitness, but it’s your mindset. If you back off the pace whenever it hurts, you won’t be able to run your fastest 5K.
Some approaches that can help develop a mindset for racing:
- Race the distance multiple times to learn how it feels
- Use meditation or mindfulness to control pre-race nerves
- Do a mile time trial or mile race to build confidence and skill in running faster
- Have positive mantras, including reminding yourself that you can run fast
For more guidance on mindset in racing, listen to this episode of the Tread Lightly Podcast.
The most important tip for how to run a faster 5K? Keep trying! You can race a 5K distance multiple times in a season. If you miss your goal a couple times, do not give up: keep training and keep trying.
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