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The Slow Runner’s Guide to a Fast(er) 5K

Three things helped this runner finally break her 5K PR. And no, it’s not as much about running as you might think.

The 5K—the smallest, yet seemingly biggest, race event ever. Why? Well, the 3.1-mile run is often the first race for many runners. It is a noble and tangible goal for everyone just beginning to run. Couch to 5K programs have become incredible popular for a reason.

But even lifelong runners struggle with the 5K because it is at once a test of speed, adaptability, mental toughness, suffering, running prowess, and form.

RELATED: Get to Know the 5K, the Most Approachable Distance in Running

I was an adult-onset runner who, for the longest time, chased the sub-30-minute 5K.

My first 5Ks were almost 40 minutes—and I suffered through those. I tried to run as hard as I could, efforts that yielded results of 39- and 38-minute races. Thirty-eight minutes was my fast pace. So yes, I am admittedly, what some may say, a “slow runner.” I had one speed when I began each run: slow, as if I was running through sand. My half-marathon pace was the same as my 5K pace, which was the same as my “I am running for my life” pace.

But I knew that if I really tried, I could do better.

I set my mind on a sub-30 5K and I decided that, once and for all, I would break that barrier. I wanted to be at the point where no matter what, I would always run faster than 30 minutes for a race. I set off for many events and walked away with 32 and 31 minutes. Breaking that barrier was not happening. Then I implemented just a few tricks into my training and I was off to the races.

Here is what worked for me and can, hopefully, work for you.

3 Steps in Reaching Your 5K PR

Your ultimate 5K goal may be faster than a sub-30, or it may be to break 40 minutes. Regardless of the actual time goal, these tricks will reap rewards towards getting that fast for you 5K.

1. Find your “fast” gear.

Running a faster 5K means learning to run much faster. It sounds rather simple, but the execution of this took a little demystification and interpretation for how to make it happen on daily training runs. I needed to learn what the “fast” pace inside of me was. I had to find my inner hare. I was 100-percent tortoise. I learned that I needed to be at least 10-percent hare.

If you are like me, maybe you laugh a little at what I’m calling a “fast pace,” because even our fast pace seems slow. That’s OK. The key is finding your fast and knowing what that feels like.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to begin to incorporate intervals into training runs once or twice a week—shorts bursts of speed that allow differentiation between paces.

Try this easy addition to your next run. As you continue training, make those fast intervals a little longer and a little faster.

  • Warm up with easy walking or running for five to 10 minutes.
  • Run “strong” for 30 seconds to one minute.
  • Then run “easy” for two to three minutes.
  • Repeat strong or easy five to eight times, depending on your workout time.
  • Cool down.

On your next run, try to run a little “stronger” (e.g. faster) and add an interval or two (if you ran five intervals last time, try six this time) or shorten your rest interval. This will begin to teach you the differences in paces and help you get used to what this new speed feels like.

2. Lean into the pain.

I never realized how hard it would be to reach my time goals. I did not quite understand the idea that the 5K hurts. Mind you, it need not hurt. If you want to have a relaxing run with your friends, go at whatever pace and fun you’d like. But to break through your time goals, you will need to learn to suffer.

Suffering is an incredible gift and muscle to stretch in running. Learning to lean into the pain of the effort and output is key to reaching goals in running. This is why the interval work above is so important, as you learn what it feels like to be uncomfortable. The more you learn to lean into the discomfort, the longer and stronger you can run through it. The more you become accustomed to turning your legs faster and breathing harder, the faster you will reach those time goals.

After all, a 5K is relatively short—but you must learn to build that pain tolerance to run your version of “hard” for 20, 30 or 40 minutes to reach your goal.

RELATED: How to Power Through the Pain Cave to Find Success on the Other Side

3. Keep trying.

Getting faster is not a quick process. It can take people years to break their PRs.

To get faster in the 5K, you’ll need to train hard and work hard, but understand that your time goal may not be met immediately. Keep stretching those “fast leg” muscles and you will get there one day. If you feel like you’ve plateaued, ask for help from a running group, training partner, or coach.

Enroll in local races–and look for free ones so you don’t blow out your budget. But just keep trying. Try and try again, and don’t stop until you get there. It will feel so good when you eventually do.

RELATED: Beyond the Stopwatch: How to Set New Running Goals