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How to Run a Faster 5k

Amanda Wendorff

For many beginner runners, it takes only a few minutes after crossing the finish line of a 5k to start planning for the next one. If you’ve mastered the basics of run training but want to know how to run a faster 5k on your next race day, you’ve come to the right place. 

In this article, we’ll pass along some training tips for improving your running speed. Specifically, we’ll talk about: 

  • How to improve your 5k time by using training zones
  • How to find your training zones and 5k goal race pace
  • How to build endurance for a 5k
  • How to do interval runs for a 5k
  • How to incorporate strength training into your 5k plan
Joshua Lusk always thought his self-proclaimed "dad bod" meant he couldn't think of himself as an athlete. But despite living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), he started training with MOTTIV and surprised himself by completing races he never thought possible -- now he knows he IS an athlete!


Step 1: Find Your Run Training Zones and 5k Race Pace

To improve your 5k time, you should include different intensities in your run training. You’ll want to determine your run training zones and 5k race pace to do this effectively. 

What Are Training Zones?

Running training zones, or intensity zones, are like gears in a car; each one is suited best for a different purpose. Although various coaches will define the zones in different ways, we use a five zones method:

  • Zone 1: The lowest intensity zone, used for warm-ups and easy recovery workouts.
  • Zone 2: Endurance zone, used for building endurance, creating mitochondria, and becoming metabolically fit so your body can burn fat as fuel.
  • Zone 3: Tempo zone, used for building the ability to hold speed for an extended period
  • Zone 4: Lactate threshold zone, used for improving lactate threshold
  • Zone 5: VO2 Max zone, used to improve your VO2 Max, increase your top-end speed, and teach more muscle groups to fire.

Well-designed 5k training plans incorporate all five zones.

How Do You Find Your Training Zones?

Running zones are often based on heart rate. Calculating your heart rate zones using the correct method is important for optimizing your running performance and ensuring you are training at the right intensity.

You can use a few different methods to determine your HR zones. We prefer the Karvonen Method as it is the most accurate for the greatest number of people. 

THE KARVONEN METHOD CALCULATION

The Karvonen calculator's first step is determining your maximum and resting heart rate.

We recommend the workout below from our training app to perform a maximum heart rate test.



Once you have your maximum heart rate, you can collect your resting rate by wearing a wrist-based heart rate monitor to bed for a few nights and looking for the lowest value from while you were sleeping. If you don’t have a wrist-based monitor, you can take your resting HR while lying down first thing in the morning. Use a number 5-10 beats per minute lower than the reading you collected as your resting heart rate.

Finally, you can enter your maximum and resting heart rates into our calculator below to get your heart rate training zones:

How Do You Find Your 5k Race Pace?

While much of your 5k training should be based around your heart rate zones, a good training plan will also include some workouts with intervals at your goal race pace.

Calculating your 5k race pace involves completing a maximal run effort over a shorter distance, like 3 kilometers (or 1.86 miles), during your training. Once you have your 3k time, you can use our Running Race Pace calculator to determine an equivalent 5k time:

 

Read more about how to find your 5k run race pace in this article.

Step 2: Build Run Endurance

Once you’ve established your heart rate training zones, it’s time to focus on Zone 2, the endurance zone. Most of the runs you complete while training for a 5k should be done with your heart rate in the Zone 2 range. 

Why is Zone 2 So Important? 

Zone 2 runs are the building blocks of all running training plans for races from 5ks to marathons. This is because low-intensity running creates physiological adaptations that are key for running faster and allows for more training. Specifically, Zone 2 training:

  • Builds mitochondria: Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of the body, they take in nutrients from food and transform them into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a usable energy source. The more mitochondria in the muscle cells, the more energy your body has to run. Zone 2 runs are particularly effective in creating mitochondria.
  • Improves running economy: Studies have shown that runners that include lots of Zone 2, lower-intensity running into their training have better run economy. Running economy measures how efficiently a runner uses energy to move forward. A runner with a better run economy can go further with the same amount of energy as one with a lesser run economy.
  • Puts lower stress on the body: Low intensity, Zone 2 running is much easier on the bones, muscles, and connective tissues than more intense running paces. By staying in Zone 2, a runner can do more run training with less risk of injury.

How Do You Make Sure You’re Running in Zone 2?

To improve your 5k running pace, spend 70 to 80 percent of your training in your Zone 2 heart rate range, running at a low intensity. (It may seem counterintuitive that you need to run slow to go fast, but this is based on scientific evidence.)

To do this, keep an eye on your heart rate using a chest or arm-based running strap paired with a smartwatch. Although many smartwatches now include heart rate sensors, wrist-based heart rate monitors have been proven to be far less accurate than chest or arm straps.

Many beginner runners run too hard and struggle to keep their heart rate in Zone 2. To keep your heart rate low, start your runs with some walking, and transition into an easy jogging pace -- you'll have to walk a lot at first, this is very normal. As long as you're consistent and work hard to stay in the Zone 2 range, you'll soon notice you're walking less and less, and running longer and faster. Allow the heart rate to build to your Zone 2 range slowly.

Step 3: Add Interval Running Workouts

Once you’ve built a good endurance base by spending time in Zone 2, it’s time to start adding higher-intensity running. As discussed above, lots of low-intensity running is important for building mitochondria in muscle cells. High-intensity running teaches the body to use those mitochondria to run fast.

What are Running Intervals?

To incorporate high-intensity training, try interval workouts. Intervals are short durations (30 seconds to 8 minutes) of fast running alternating with periods of very easy running or walking. An example might be six repeats of two minutes hard with a one-minute easy walk or jog in between.

Although the specifics of speed workouts can vary significantly based on your running goals, most intervals should be in Zones 4 or 5, which is at and above your goal 5k race pace. For these fast runs, keeping an eye on your pace rather than your heart rate is best. 

What are the Benefits of Running Intervals?

Running intervals are a game-changer for 5k runners. They have many benefits, including:

  • Improved ability to maintain speed
  • Practice with your pacing strategy
  • Mental preparation for your 5k
  • Improved efficiency at race pace
  • Improved ability to clear lactate and run longer at a faster pace

To best prepare for a 5k race, 20 to 30 percent of your training should be devoted to running intervals.

Step 4: Strength Training for Runners

One of the most significant ways to improve your performance as a runner is strength training. You’ll improve your race performance and general health by incorporating strength training. We include guided strength training videos as part of every single training plan in the MOTTIV training app, because we know it's that important!

There are seven measurable benefits of strength running, which have been supported by plenty of studies:

  • Measurable race performance improvement
  • Improved running economy (athletes will use less energy at every pace)
  • Better body composition (lower fat and higher muscle)
  • Improved hormone profiles
  • Reduced muscle loss, a key factor associated with aging well
  • Better mood
  • Increased metabolic rate, making it easier to keep fat stores low

Strength training will not only make you less likely to become injured, it will also improve your running economy and range of motion so you’ll move forward more efficiently and forcefully. 

Step 5: Use Intermediate & Advanced Training Plans

Once you’ve mastered the basics of 5k training, incorporating endurance runs, interval training, and strength work, you can try one of our Intermediate or Advanced training plans. These training plans will include more miles and race-specific intervals, which will help you run your fastest 5k yet. 

Although all of the workouts in the MOTTIV training app are personalized specifically to you, here are a couple of examples of basic intermediate and advanced training plans.  (Click here to see a sample intermediate plan, click here for a sample advanced plan.)

Wrap-Up

If you’ve completed your first 5km race and are now hoping to get faster, you can add plenty of things to your training plan that will improve your speed and endurance. In this article, we’ve offered some tips to run faster, including:

  • Calculating training zones and 5k pace
  • Using training zones to structure your training
  • Running the majority of your miles in Zone 2
  • Incorporating interval training
  • Adding strength training into your 5k training program

Adding variety to your run training plan can make a big difference in performance benefits and make your training leading up to your 5k more enjoyable and challenging. With a good mix of endurance running, intervals, and strength work, you can look forward to plenty of 5k personal bests.

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Amanda Wendorff

| AUTHOR

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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