Fighting the 5K

My favorite race is the 5K (3.1 miles for the non-metrically inclined). I find it to be the perfect combination of strength and speed, which suits my temperament. Quite simply, I like to run fast. I feel more athletic when I run fast. An easy two hour run on the trails might be heaven for marathon runners, but I’d much rather lace up my racing flats and run mile repeats.

Despite not training as much over the last few years as I’ve done in the past (writing two novels and having a full-time job ate up a lot of my time), my race times have not slowed down as much as I thought they would. I credit this to switching to a quality over quantity schedule with a specific focus on performing well in the 5K. 5K is not that far of a distance to cover, even for  a novice runner, but there is an art to racing it well. There is a huge difference between finishing a 5K and racing a 5K. The pain experienced in a 5K is different to that in a half-marathon or marathon, where the early miles could almost be described as pleasant. In a 5K you’re fighting discomfort from the get go — a very successful 5K racer once told me that he knows he’s racing correctly when he has to constantly fight urges to drop out of the race over the last mile. I concur. So how do you cope?

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There are several workouts that get me prepared. My favorite — one that can be done once a week year round — is a 3-mile tempo run. A tempo run is more or less a 90% effort. A good rule of thumb is to aim to run 25-30 seconds per mile slower than an all out 5K race. For example, right now I’m in shape to race at 5:55 – 6:00 pace, so I try to do my tempo runs at 6:25 pace. Typically, I’ll warm up with 2-3 easy miles and cool down with another 2 miles.

Another favorite is 3 x 1-mile at 5K effort with an easy half-mile job in between each rep for recovery. This is a great workout to get accustomed to race pace pain with the recoveries allowing you time to rest up before doing it all over again.

If I can do both of these workouts in a given week with two or three medium length easy maintenance runs, I’m usually good to go in the 5K.

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