Improve your time in just 4 weeks with this 5K challenge

With few (or no) races on the calendar, this month-long challenge will boost your speed and give you the opportunity to focus on a plan.

  • The 5K is by far the most popular distance race, according to Running USA’s 2019 U.S. Running Trends report. There were 8.9 million 5K race registrations in 2019, and it’s the only distance recording an increase year-over-year (the second most popular distance, the half marathon, racked up just 1.79 million registrations).

But even with many races cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future, 5K challenges are surging in popularity. More than one million athletes joined Strava’s 2020 May and June 5K virtual running challenges each month (about double the number of January 5K challenge runners pre-pandemic).

Why the sudden surge in popularity? ‘5K training entails working on speed, power, and endurance: all the things that you would get out of even a marathon training plan, but in much more bite-sized chunks,’ says Jes Woods, certified coach for Nike RunningBrooklyn Track Club, and Chaski Endurance. ‘It’s an accessible challenge, but it sets you up to be in shape for any distance.’

You don’t even need to join an online community to race a 5K; the beauty of a virtual 5K challenge is that ‘it’s just you against yourself,’ says Woods. ‘It’s something anyone can start at any time and easily wrap their heads around, especially when there are no races.’

Want to DIY your own 5K challenge? Here’s how.

Establish your baseline

This is the easiest part. Your baseline 5K pace is what you can run if you were to run 3.1 miles right now. A benchmark workout like this is important because it gives you a starting point to work from, so you can track your progress in your training.

Setting a baseline is something runners of all ability levels can do. In this case, you’ll want to have run the 5K distance at least once before. If you haven’t, there’s a plan for that: Follow this beginner’s 5K training program, then come back for the challenge.

For experienced runners, this challenge is not about running your fastest 5K ever. There’s a lot going on right now that’s out of our control, all of which can affect your running. So this is more about setting a benchmark and seeing how much you improve after a month of training.

Make sure you choose a spot that you can return to for the challenge, says Woods—if not the exact same place such as a track or local park, for example, at least somewhere with similar terrain and conditions and as few distractions (i.e. street lights) as possible.

Your 4-week speed training plan

If you want to get faster, you need to run fast. There’s no negotiating that. But not all speed workouts are the same. ‘You want to do six speed workouts in total between your benchmark workout and your challenge run,’ says Woods. Your primary speed workout (let’s say that’s on Tuesdays) is always the more intense one, while the second one should feel easier.

This calendar lays out everything you need to train over four weeks. It offers a few priming workouts to lead into your baseline run, but if you run regularly and want to just start with the benchmark test, you can do that. Below it, you’ll find details on how each week’s speed workouts break down.

Week 1

Start with running faster than your 5K pace. ‘That’s going to teach you proper running mechanics, because whenever you’re running at those super high speeds, you can’t help but tap into a big, beautiful stride,’ says Woods.

Tuesday: Hill Sprints

  • Warmup
  • 3 miles easy
  • 5 to 6 x 20-second short hill sprints at maximum bursts of energy + full recovery
  • Cooldown

Thursday: 5K Benchmark Test

Week 2

This week is about building the strength you’ll need to tap into your explosive power. “You can work on strength by means of doing a fartlek workout, a speed workout that’s continuous,” says Woods.

Tuesday: Descending Ladder Intervals

  • 10- to 15-minute warmup
  • 5-, 4-, 3-, 2-, 1-minute intervals at 90-percent effort with a 1-minute recovery jog in between each,
  • 10- to 15-minute cooldown

Thursday: Short, Hard Intervals

  • 1-mile warmup
  • 2 miles of 15 seconds hard + 30 seconds jog
  • Cooldown

Week 3

Now it’s time to hone into your goal 5K pace. “Shorter intervals shouldn’t feel super taxing if you’re actually keeping it at 5K pace,” says Woods, so don’t be afraid to hit the gas a little bit—but don’t go overboard.

Tuesday: 8 x 400s

  • Warmup
  • 8 x 400m (or 2 minutes) starting at 10K pace or 80-per cent effort for the first and working your way down to mile pace or 100-per cent effort for the last with 90 seconds rest after each
  • Cooldown

Thursday: 8-12 x 200s

  • Warmup
  • 8 to 12 x 200m (or 1 minute) at goal 5K pace with “floating recovery” 200m jog after each
  • Cooldown

Week 4

The 5K is a mix of power, speed, and endurance, which is where longer intervals come in. ‘A lot of pro athletes talk about how the 5K really starts at the 3K mark,’ says Woods—which means you need to be able to dig deep to really start pushing for those final two kilometres.

Tuesday: 5 x 1K

  • Warmup
  • 5 x 1K at 10k pace with 90 seconds jogging after each interval
  • Cooldown

Thursday: Easy Run + Striders

  • Warmup
  • 3 miles easy
  • 5 to 6 striders to refresh mechanics and work on turnover
  • Cooldown

Race Week

Heading into your ‘race,’ ‘you want to ease off the gas pedal in terms of volume and intensity, but you don’t want to just do nothing,’ says Woods. ‘Get your heart rate up a little bit to make sure you’re not stale.’

Tuesday: 3 x 1 Mile

  • Warmup
  • 3 x 1 mile at half marathon or 70-per cent effort with 2 minutes rest after each interval
  • Cooldown

Thursday: Race!

What to know about the “race” itself

With four weeks of training under your belt, you should be ready to fly for this 5K. But remember, this ‘race’ isn’t about PRing or uploading a certain time to your favourite tracking app. ‘The point is to improve on what you did four weeks ago,’ says Woods. ‘Stay in the moment, stay in the day, and be grateful that you have something to go after right now.’ That said, if you happen to PR, then congrats to you.

The best part about this challenge: You can just keep doing it every month. Like Woods said earlier, a 5K training plan sets you up for success at any distance. Once you’ve completed this challenge, you can set your bar higher for next month—or even move on to further distances.

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