May 19

How to improve your 5km run- whatever level you’re at!

Here’s some key points to improve your 5km run time!

These points are just as important for you looking to make it round in a sub 20 time as they are for those of you looking manage your very first 5km run! The difference is how, and when, to use the tools. So, lace up those running shoes, because you have some new PB’s just around the corner!

Lockdown 2020 has been tough, but here’s one small positive- lots of people have spent more time on their health! I don’t mean the usual go “all out” in the gym: I know all too well that gyms have been closed throughout this period, and this led to 3 responses:

  • Paused your training (because this wasn’t a priority considering what was going on)
  • Started working out from home
  • Took up running

Now, I’m not here to discuss what approach was best. What I’m here to do is highlight why you need to did a little deeper, and get back on track with INTELLIGENT training, and finish this difficult period with some clear wins to show for it- in this case, an awesome 5km run time!


So, the problem….

For most of you reading this, you probably went with option 3- you took up running. If not, don’t worry, you may be at a great place to start, because you didn’t need to cope with the mistake of jumping in to running as far as possible, as fast as possible, as often as possible.

For most people, that approach is a recipe for disaster. For others, it just limits your progress.

You see, in most cases, this leads to under recovery. You may “feel” good to go, but sometimes, the stress on your body through being unprepared to handle that speed, distance or frequency can end up with the little annoying niggles. But maybe this isn’t you, maybe you’re more resilient?

In this case, not allowing for recovery may not cause any obvious injury, but it can limit your adaptation to training, and slow, if not halt, your progress.

This means ultimately, you run less. Or slower. Or stop enjoying it. And cycle through the motions of excited to run, making progress, getting injured, stopping running for a while, and ultimately, not really getting anywhere (not an intentional “run pun”).

Ultimately, you can ask the following question. “Am I doing this to make progress?”

The answer may be no. If you’re running to enjoy it, or to manage your health, then well done you. However, an understanding of recovery is still essential, so read on.

But if the answer is yes, I want to make progress in health or performance…. I want to run faster, be healthier and feel better! Well now we can really start to move forward.


What’s stopping you?

Here’s the limiting factors to your 5km run time. Ultimately, you need to work on all of these. But what you don’t need to do, is work on them all at once. And here is where the individualisation comes in…What’s stopping YOU from improving? What methods will have the biggest impact RIGHT NOW on your progress? Let’s see.  And just to be clear, all of these factors are highly influenced by training.


Work on your VO2 max

You may have heard of this one. Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and use as we convert stored fuels into energy. This is your “top end” aerobic fitness, and will have a huge impact on your performance in any endurance event. Several factors contribute to developing a strong VO2 max, but for most people, improving VO2 max is the starting point to improving your 5km running time. Building your body’s ability to use oxygen is a key foundation of improving performance.

Want to test this? All you need to start some predictions is a 12 minute run on a track or treadmill, and you can get a good starting point! We use this test all the time at FX, as the Cooper 12 minute run.


Consider the Anaerobic threshold

Next up, we need to consider your anaerobic (or “Lactate”) threshold (AT). This is the point where Lactate (or as you may have been told incorrectly in the past “LACTIC ACID”) starts to build up faster than it can be cleared within the muscle. This is when you get the localised fatigue, that burning sensation, and ultimately, if you can’t get control of this, leads to reduced performance.

To be clear, lactate isn’t the bad guy, but regardless, when lactate is accumulating faster than you can clear it, our ability to sustain that performance is diminishing. Your AT is different to your VO2 max, but in general, a higher absolute VO2 max will mean you can push this threshold point higher. AT can be expressed as %VO2 max, but often, it’s more practical to discuss this as a % max heart rate.

Here’s the really crucial point.

People with the same VO2 max can have a very different Anaerobic Threshold. This means for person A, with a AT of 80% VO2 max, they will be able to maintain a higher level of performance than person B with an AT of 70%.

Not only that, but let’s say these guys run together, and assume their VO2 max is the same. Person A running at the same speed as person B will be working at a different relative intensity. This means their body is stressed in different ways, and at different levels. AND THIS MEANS DIFFERENT RECOVERY WILL BE SUGGESTED FOR EACH- even if they did the same speed, same distance, and had the same VO2 max score.

An awareness of this means that for some, focus on developing this aspect of performance will be a priority.


Running economy and 5km run times

Here’s one of my favourites, and why training in the gym can have such a profound impact on running when done right. Economy.

This goes way beyond running, so let’s just call it “movement economy”. How well can you move? More to the point, how ECONOMICAL is your movement when compared to your goal.

This is simplified, but here’s the basics. Consider your goal is to run faster for 5km (well it is the focus of this blog). What does that require? A high VO2 max? Sure. A Good anaerobic threshold? Yep, why not. But what else?

Consider every step you take is leaking energy all over the place. Your body is working hard on every step to send you in the right direction, and every step feels like an effort to do so. Now consider every step you take is light and springy. No energy is wasted, it’s all going in the right direction, and taking minimal effort to do so. Same speed in both cases.

If we move more efficiently, every single step can become a little easier on your body. Less effort to maintain a given speed. Think about what that does to the speed you can maintain at threshold or VO2 max? Clearly, an improved running economy will improve performance, and this is something we can work on in the gym, or at home with targeted strength training.

An important point: strength training is not the same for all sports. This should be specific to what you’re trying to achieve.


Dynamic Energy Control

Here’s one other factor that doesn’t really get enough credit. Dynamic energy control. This is the idea that you need to feel your pace. Through training you will develop the understanding of how you move, or when to push, and when to pull back. Tactics are important in sport, and in this case, it’s pacing.

Understanding when to push, and when to pull back, not only during the session, but also between sessions from the programme is crucial to your success.

This is why your best 5km doesn’t start with your 200m all time PB. You need to learn how to feel during successful performances. You can use HR as a guide, and recovery times as a guide, but part of your training should consider “feeling” the right training speeds/ zones.



Here at FX, we use a number of different methods to improve running speed by focusing on the above variables when it matters most. Here’s just a few of our running specific methods that will help you to boost that 5km time, for all levels. We went with these as they’re a little less complex and easier to follow, but be aware that lots of other methods may be appropriate for you. We suggest keeping some level of strength training with all programmes throughout, and your nutritional practices will have a HUGE impact on success of the programme.


Beginner Methods:

Cardiac output

For those of you newer to fitness training, you will probably get the most out of your training by spending a lot of time here. Working on your aerobic fitness can help you to pull your body composition back in check, and have huge performance benefits throughout. In this instance, a lot of moderate pace aerobic training, 45-60 minutes, 3-5 x per week may be ideal. High frequency, lower intensity. Build a base of fitness before going for the higher intensity methods. These sessions should feel comfortable, and pace is completely individual to you. As a basic guide, you probably want to be 55%-70% max HR during these sessions (or 6/10 perceived difficulty).

If you find one pace boring, feel free to alternate between 5-7/10 (or 55-75% max HR for the duration. For beginners, this method will have a huge impact quickly, and can be done alongside nutritional strategies for fat loss.


Advanced method:

VO2 max intervals to build your OK 5km run time

Here we use a maximum pace on a relatively flat or incline surface. The intervals for this rage between distances of 1 and 2km efforts (or 4-8 minute intervals). These are intense, working at the maximum speed you can maintain for the interval. Between this, taking a brisk walk or light jog for 4 minutes then repeating 3-5 efforts is a great way to continue to push that VO2 in higher level athletes, but it also helps to improve running economy at speeds faster than your 5km speed. In addition, these intervals will build up high levels of lactate, helping to increase anaerobic threshold.

Importantly, each interval should be considerably faster pace than a standard 5km race pace, and should be at least 90% HR max for the majority of the interval. RPE per interval should be 9+/ 10. This is why more often than not, we suggest a walk rather than a light run between, to allow adequate recovery and the ability to maintain pace for each interval.

Crucially, these workouts are intense. These should not be done more than 2x per week, and for most people, 1x per week will be enough in addition to other sessions. This intensity will be less effective for beginners, and the skill required, and recovery demands from these intervals will be higher than necessary for those at lower fitness levels. Advanced methods work best for more advanced athletes.

Because of the intensity required to keep these workouts effective, we do not recommend these on diet days if performance is the goal. You should be well fueled for this type of workout. This should be done in addition to lower intensity workouts.


Now it’s your turn!

Give these methods a try, and watch your 5km run time start to climb! Ultimately, picking the area that needs the most work for you is where you will have the most success. Remember, watch for fatigue when testing your scores- trying to test after a hard training session (or a few hard weeks) without recovery will hide your true progress!

For more information on programming, or if you have any questions regarding your performance, contact us here!

Also, if you’ve not seen it, check out this video we put together on CARDIO discussing some of the methods we use, and this one on RECOVERY so you can start to improve your programme as a whole!


Josh Kennedy, MSC, ASCC, CSCS

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