Over the past 12 months I’ve made it my mission to shave some time off my 5km run. Thanks to being in lockdown and therefore unable to work in the gym for much of this past year, I’ve had far more time and energy to run than I would normally have had, as I’ve not been walking to and from work multiple times per day, teaching classes, training clients in-person and cleaning treadmills. Normally I’m so exhausted by all of that that a run is the last thing I want to do, however this year it’s been lovely to have the luxury of time and energy to channel into running a bit more. At the start of the lockdowns back in March 2020 my 5km time was just under 30 minutes. Now, a year later I’ve managed a 25:57 outdoors and a 24:36 on a treadmill. So how did I do it? My method is certainly not glamorous but it is effective and should be achievable for most people who can comfortably run 5km.
A consistent training routine
Prior to the pandemic I was running once or twice per week, and lifting weights four times. One important thing to note is that all my runs were previously around the same pace (around 5:45-6:00min/km) and distance (between 5km and 8km). I wasn’t doing any specific running training. However since the end of March 2020 I switched this to three runs and three strength sessions *almost* every week (see my next point for more on this). My runs have consisted of one long run (10km+), one hard run (a speed/tempo/hill session), and one easy run (5-10km). I’m fairly certain that just by being more structured with my running training this has massively helped me to improve. I no longer always just head out for a plod; I have a specific session planned for that day where the focus may be on speed, hills, time on my feet or recovery, and I’ve varied my routes too. This has also provided far more mental stimulation than previously, because each run is slightly different and feels like a bit of an adventure (even if it is just a jog around the block!).
Flexibility with training
As an intuitive mover this was really important to me. I didn’t want to be tied to a rigid training routine, so I made sure there was some ‘wiggle room’. Although I’m fortunate that I’ve been healthy and have had a fairly quiet schedule this past year, there have still been times when I’ve had to change the plan. There were days in the summer (hello heatwave!) when it was so stiflingly hot that it wouldn’t have been safe to run, and days in the winter when it was so dark and wet that I didn’t fancy running, so I didn’t force myself. I also at the start of January had a minor injury (I think I strained some intercostal muscles, though I’ve no idea how…?), which meant I couldn’t do much of anything for about a week and had to prioritise rest. Flexibility for me has also meant not completing a session if I’ve not felt up to it, e.g. when I’d planned to do 10 x 400m intervals, but felt knackered half way through so cut the session short. This could have easily made me feel defeated but instead I congratulated myself for listening to my body and doing what I could. I think having flexibility with your training is important because I see so many people being ruled by their training plans, to the point where they’re ignoring their body’s signals of fatigue or pain. A training plan should be a flexible guide to help you reach your goal, rather than a bible.
Keep most of your km’s slow
The rationale behind doing most of your running at a low intensity is based on research with elite runners. Esteve-Lanao (2007) compared two groups of six Spanish male runners who competed in 5-12km races. Prior to the study, all participants completed a 10km time trial. They were then split into two training groups for five months. Group 1 ran 80% of their runs at an easy effort (<70% max heart rate), 10% at a moderate effort (70-90% max heart rate) and 10% at a hard effort (> 90% max heart rate). Group 2 ran 65% of their runs at an easy effort, 25% at a moderate effort and 10% at a hard effort. Weekly mileage and training time was matched for both groups. After five months, all participants repeated the 10km time trial. On average, the runners in group 1 had improved their performance by 23% more than those in group 2. This research demonstrates that running easy most of time is more beneficial for performance than a more even split of easy, moderate and hard running.
Research also shows that Tour de France cyclists spend less than 10% of their time training at a very hard effort, i.e. > 90% maximum heart rate (Lucia et al., 1999), so this training method applies to other endurance sports too. The reason why easy work is so beneficial for endurance performance is that it builds our aerobic base. Running at an easy effort increases the capillaries, myoglobin and mitochondria in our muscles, which help to transport oxygen and glucose to the body to produce energy when we move. The more efficient these systems are, the quicker we’ll be able to run when we want to go fast.
I try to ensure that I’m running about 80% of my weekly kilometres at an easy, conversational pace. I’ve paid more attention to my heart rate when I run over the past year, and most of the time I find myself having to go slower than feels natural in order to keep my heart rate at a low enough level. I struggle to keep my heart rate in Zone 2 (60-70% max heart rate) for the entirety of my long runs, as it tends to creep up and stay high once I’m warm, but it’s something I’m working on.
Run fast once a week
The remaining 20% of your weekly mileage is where the speedwork comes in. It makes sense that in order to get faster, you do have to run fast sometimes. This is something I didn’t do much of before last year – I did the odd HIIT session on the treadmill once in a while but it was never part of a structured and progressive running plan. Now, 20% of my weekly training (i.e. around 30 mins, once a week) is at a moderate or hard intensity.
20% seems to be the ‘sweet spot’ for improving performance. It’s thought that much more high-intensity work than this and you’ll become exhausted and struggle to recover from it. Too much hard training increases the stress hormone cortisol levels (Hill et al., 2008), and too much cortisol can negatively affect performance and increase injury risk, as well as negatively affecting motivation, mood and energy. However, much less than 20% and you won’t provide your body with enough stimulus to improve. The good thing is that adaptations to speed training happen much more quickly than adaptations to endurance training. This means that if you start to incorporate some speed sessions into your training you’ll probably find that your speed improves in a relatively short period of time. This is why many athletes add speed work into their training in the weeks prior to a race.
Some of my favourite ways to add some speed to my sessions are 400m intervals, 1km intervals and challenging myself to do a fast 5km every so often.
Run up hills
This is also something I didn’t do before 2020 – in fact I actively avoided hilly routes because running up hills is hard!
However, hills are one of the best training tools available to us. When we run up hills we naturally run at a slower pace than on the flats because we are working against gravity. Hills provide great cardiovascular benefits without having to run fast; I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling of gasping for breath halfway up a steep hill, even if you’re just jogging slowly. Hills also provide resistance training for our legs. The muscles on the back of our legs – our glutes, hamstrings and calves, as well as our hip flexors and Achilles tendons, have to work particularly hard, so they become stronger when we run up hills. We also have to take smaller steps when running up hills, which helps increase our cadence (the number of steps we take per minute), and this skill can transfer to running on the flat, which will help improve speed and reduce injury risk.
There are many ways to incorporate hills into your running – you could include them on your long run, do short hill sprints to improve your explosive power or do longer hill reps to work on your cardiovascular endurance and leg strength. Don’t be afraid to walk up hills, particularly during long runs if you’re trying to keep your heart rate low, and it’s totally fine to walk down your hill for recovery if you’re doing a hill reps session. I recommend doing a hill workout every two weeks, in place of a speed session.
Although I was already strength training, I changed the way I train slightly from March 2020. I went from doing two upper body and two lower body days per week to three full body sessions. I’ve continued to do a combination of low and higher rep work (5-12 rep range), and I’m still getting a similar amount of volume in each week. However, I find it’s easier to manage because I get less DOMS, as I’m never completely hammering one muscle group in one session. I’m lucky that I’ve had access to a barbell and some relatively heavy weights all year round, but you absolutely could still train and make progress in this way with some dumbbells or kettlebells. I also don’t think it’s necessary for those who want to run faster to do three strength sessions per week – two is sufficient, I just personally enjoy it and wanted to maintain my previous strength levels, so I tend to do three.
Strength training is important for runners for several reasons. Firstly, it reduces the risk of injury by strengthening muscles, bones and connective tissue, and reducing muscular imbalances. Secondly, it can improve performance by increasing your running economy and boosting neuromuscular coordination and power.
It’s important to note that strength training does NOT mean a HIIT or circuits class - you need to lift a relatively challenging weight, paying attention to your technique, and rest sufficiently in between sets. The above classes tend to be cardio workouts, because they include short rest periods and the weights used are generally relatively light. Since you’re already getting loads of cardio from your running your focus should be on strength training. I’d also advise against runners following a bodybuilding split, where you train a different body part every day, because this will increase the likelihood of getting sore muscles for several days afterwards, and sore legs are no good for running. It’s better to do full body workouts that prioritise compound lifts (e.g. squats, deadlifts, pull ups), and aim to work each main muscle group every session, but never to the point of failure, to minimise fatigue. Finally, it’s essential to include some single leg exercises, such as lunges, Bulgarian split squats and single leg Romanian deadlifts, because when we run we’re using one leg at a time, so we need to be strong on each leg individually and not have one leg that’s weaker than the other.
This final point is perhaps the most important to keep in mind. Progress takes time, and you have to trust the process. Sometimes it felt like I wasn’t getting any quicker and it was quite disheartening. Often my long runs were SO slow I felt like I couldn’t possibly be making progress, but I just had to trust that going slow when I was supposed to go slow would make me faster when I was supposed to go fast. You won’t get faster overnight, and you might not get faster in months, but in a year, if you stick with a sensible yet flexible training plan, you will get there.
My final thoughts
It can be too easy to constantly chase fitness goals and not step back and look at how far we’ve come. When I reflect on the past year, I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made. Trying to become a faster runner has given me focus and structure during this crazy time when many other things have been utterly out of my control. Looking ahead to the rest of this year, I’d love to shave my 5km time down to sub-25 minutes outdoors through continuing to focus on the above strategies. But equally, if I don’t get there I won’t be too upset, because I know running will always be there for me. And who knows, maybe life will get in the way and I’ll be too busy working, partying and holidaying to pursue any serious fitness goals for the rest of the year?!
Esteve-Lanao, J., Foster, C., Seiler, S., & Lucia, A. (2007). Impact of training intensity distribution on performance in endurance athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 21, 943-9. 10.1519/R-19725.1.
Hill, E.E., Zack, E., Battaglini, C., Viru, M., Viru, A., & Hackney, A.C. (2008). Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect. Journal of Endocrinology Investigations, 31(7):587-91. doi: 10.1007/BF03345606. PMID: 18787373.
Luciá, A., Hoyos, J., Carvajal, A., & Chicharro, J.L. (1999). Heart rate response to professional road cycling: The Tour de France. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 20(3),167-72. doi: 10.1055/s-1999-970284. PMID: 10333093.