Running Your Best 5K
Updated: Apr 26, 2019
Training (or thinking about training?) for a 5K? Fleet Feet Sports Richmond, Va. athlete Kate Spangler, who runs a sub-19-minute 5K, shares her best tips exclusively with FitTraveliingMama readers. Whether it’s your first or you’re going for a new PR, her insight below will assist in your training. To read more about Kate’s prenatal and post-partum running journey, click here.
FTM: What do you love about the 5K?
KS: I really love the 5K training: track workouts (400m repeats are my absolute favorite) and going fast! And the lazy part of me really loves that I can train for a 5K and if I don't hit my goal, chances are I can try again in a couple weeks because these races happen all the time and require little planning. The marathon distance is hard because you just get that one chance over a long period of time. If one factor is off on race day, it could lead to a miserable race. The 5k is short and fun and so much less stressful, but you still get that same feeling of accomplishment afterwards.
The beauty of the 5k is that it's 3.1 miles. You can walk the entire thing, be done in less than an hour and still get cheered on as you walk into the finish chute! Everyone is welcome and all accomplishments are celebrated. If you just want to have fun, sign up for one right away and just plan to take it slow with ample walking breaks (or walk the whole thing). I promise you'll feel accomplished and see how fun and non-intimidating it is! You have nothing to lose! Maybe it's just the motivation you need to set a goal: be able to run all 3.1 miles, finish in a certain time, etc.
FTM: How many weeks do you recommend for a 5K plan?
KS: If you prefer to fully prepare for a 5k, I think 4-8 weeks is reasonable depending on your goal. If you're ready to put in the work and meet a big-time goal, shoot for the eight-week end of that spectrum. After you build a good base with your mileage, go play around with some speed work. Watch your pace drop and revel in your hard work. It's really one of the best feelings!
FTM: Do you suggest runners train with heart rate or by pace?
KS: Most casual runners probably aren't concerned with intensity at all, and that's fine. I applaud you for going for a run solely for the purpose of running and not for the next race or social media post or to compare your time with someone else's. Skip this next paragraph and keep doing your thing!
I always have my next race goal in mind and really love training to meet those goals. I've never gotten into heart rate training. So many factors can affect heart rate: sleep, hydration... need I say more to a group of moms? For me, running by effort has been the better option. I am prone to injury and have found that I wind up injured when I try to hit certain numbers during workouts.
I have a pretty good feel for my different efforts (easy, moderate, tempo, mile pace, etc.) and rather than attempt to shoot for a specific pace or heart rate, I prefer to think of it as running at 10K effort, mile effort, etc. If you're someone that wants to get faster or run longer but are having trouble pushing yourself, maybe then it's a good time to look at heart rate data and make sure you're pushing yourself enough. We're all different, so find what works for you.
FTM: What is the most important workout within a 5K plan?
KS: I've learned that there's not one workout that's more important than the rest, but I sure do have a favorite: 12 x 400m repeats with a 200m recovery jog in between reps. This is a continuous run, going straight from the fast 400m to a slow 200m jog recovery. I usually do a couple miles for a warm-up and finish with a very, very slow and painful jog home. It took years to "perfect" this workout, and I still have times when I start out too fast and am bent over heaving by my eighth one, so don't expect to complete this on your first try.
I aim for a pace that's faster than 5K goal pace, but slower than a one-mile race pace. If you're just introducing speedwork for the first time, start with 6 x 400m and choose a pace that you can maintain for the six repeats, but that's still uncomfortable enough to make you wish you could quit on your last couple (but push through--don't quit!!).
I can tell you my least favorite workout of a 5k plan (or any training plan, for that matter): the tempo run. It's really the devil, but after I started forcing myself to do them, I started seeing big results. A tempo run means running fast for longer periods of time.
Today for my half marathon training (for the Christie Clinic Illinois Half Marathon), I did 3 x10 minutes at 10K effort. I wanted to collapse by the last one, but I love that feeling of knowing I worked hard enough to reach my lactate threshold (that feeling when your legs are absolutely dead and no matter what signals your brain is sending to them, they just aren't moving like they're supposed to). Mostly though, I think a solid training plan should have two components each week: the long run and a workout. The workout can be tempo or speed work and the long run will be based on the distance of your goal race.