5K Training: Plans, Race Day Tips And More

(Image credit: PR)

When you take up running, a 5K is the natural target event to have in mind, not only because it’s the shortest standard mass-participation race, but also because it’s the easiest to enter – especially since parkrun has brought free, timed 5K group runs to locations all over the UK every Saturday morning.

But a 5K is not only an event for beginners – if you’re an advanced runner looking to trim some time off your PB at any distance, sharpening up your speed over 5K is a great place to start.

5K Training Plans

An 8-Week Couch To 5K Training Plan For Everyone

Nothing will ruin running for you like trying to do too much too soon, so this beginner plan designed by running coach Ed Kerry mixes up running and walking until, after eight weeks, you’ll be more than ready to run 5K. See the plan.

A 10-Week 5K Training Plan For A Personal Best

No matter what your current PB is, this plan put together by Saucony UK athlete Ieuan Thomas and his coach James Thie will help you best it. Each week comprises of five runs which are all based on, or are exact copies of, sessions that Thomas uses. Don’t worry, you won’t have to train at an elite level, just add in one new type of session from the plan to what you’re already doing each week and you’ll soon see improvements. See the plan.

How To Train For A 5K

John Brewer, author of Run Smart, gives his tips on how to build the endurance and speed required for the shortest race distance.

How much training do you need to do?

It depends on your starting point, but two to three sessions a week should work for most people, and will enable you to build up first the time spent running, then the distance. If this is your first time attempting the distance, you need to build up gradually, running a similar distance or only slightly longer in each session, and including faster interval sessions to improve leg speed and recovery. For more experienced runners attempting a faster time, higher mileage and regular interval running will improve your ability to tolerate lactic acid as well as increasing oxygen uptake capacity.

How should you split up your sessions?

You need a mix of steady running to develop endurance and leg strength, alongside interval sessions to improve lactate tolerance, leg speed and recovery.

What’s the most important session?

The hard interval session, which includes fast repetitions and short recovery times. It will be the toughest session of the week but it touches on all the aspects of fitness that are needed for 5K running: high tempo for leg speed, short recovery for lactic acid tolerance, and fast stride rate for leg speed and strength.

How do you get faster?

By running faster and by developing leg power. So high-tempo training sessions that develop leg speed are important, and strength work such as hill running or plyometric training will also help to develop leg power and speed. But it’s worth bearing in mind that a good aerobic capacity is still essential, since without this any runner will be too fatigued to produce fast leg speed.

Where do most people go wrong?

A common mistake is to focus on distance alone and forget that higher-intensity, shorter-duration training can be just as beneficial. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone of steady-state running is essential if you’re going to improve.

What do elite runners do that everyone can learn from?

They mix intensity with volume, and also use races as a means of gaining and maintaining fitness, accepting that their best performances will come at a later date. Building in a rest day, which allows the body to recover and adapt to the stimulus of training, is also a common component of an elite athlete’s training diary.

How To Avoid Injury

Although 5K runners are less likely to pick up an injury than those training for a marathon, simply due to the greater amount of distance you have to cover when preparing for the latter, common running injuries like achilles tendonitisplantar fasciitisrunner’s knee and shin splints can still be an issue.

The most common cause of running injuries is increasing the amount of training you are doing suddenly, especially if you are doing a lot more high-speed running to prep for a 5K PB attempt. If you are a complete beginner it’s definitely worth following a structured couch to 5K plan to make sure you don’t overdo it; if you are already a regular runner don’t suddenly ramp up your weekly mileage to prep for an event, or do three track sessions in a week having never done them before.

A good rule of thumb for a casual runner is to work out your average weekly distance across the past four weeks, then add 2-4km to that each week if you want to increase your total running at a manageable rate. When doing speed sessions make sure you leave adequate time to recover afterwards, and definitely don’t do two speed runs back-to-back if it’s something you're not used to – easy, recovery runs are a must.

The Running Gear You Need For A 5K

As with all running, the key bit of gear for a 5K is a good pair of running shoes. If you’re new to running it’s worth trying gait analysis (available for free in many running shops) to see which type of shoes suit you best. You might overpronate (where your foot rolls excessively inwards when it lands) or underpronate (the foot doesn’t roll far enough), or you may be a neutral runner in the Goldilocks zone between the two.

Whatever gait analysis tells you, there will be a huge number of options to pick between. For 5K running you don’t need huge amount of cushioning on your trainer, which is useful in protecting the body when covering long distances in marathon training. With that said, if you enjoy the comfortable ride of a highly cushioned shoe, go for it. A lightweight racing shoe might be slightly faster over 5K, but it’s only going to make a big difference if you’re a real speed demon trying to shave seconds off your PB.

For 5K running, all other gear is just a matter of preference. You don’t need to carry any food or water with you, and chafing isn’t a concern because you won't be running for hours on end. Wear whatever feels good – a football shirt, a parkrun souvenir T-shirt, a Mr Blobby costume… it’s up to you.

Race Day Tips

The mistake most runners make with any running event is to go out too fast. A 5K might seem a short race on the start line, but it starts to feel very long indeed if you cane the first kilometre. When running with other people you will inevitably start faster than you should but, after a couple of hundred metres, force yourself to rein it in. You may feel like you’re losing time – but you’ll get it back by finishing strong.

Make sure you warm up, ideally by running a couple of kilometres at a gentle pace beforehand if you are PB hunting.

If you’re doing a parkrun for the first time, try to scout the route on the website – a surprise hill at the 4km mark can really hit hard, as can a slippery stretch of muddy track when you were expecting a Tarmac-only run.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.

With contributions from