A blog by runners. For runners.

Front-of-the-pack: Running a sub-16 5K

front-of-the-pack-running-5kI have experience running every distance from 400 meters to the marathon, but the 5K has always been my kryptonite. In my mind, I sadistically replay the pain of running my first mile too fast; the constant, building discomfort in my legs and chest; the voice inside that favors a road rash and sob story over the discomfort of running at my V02 max.

But all that has changed with a few tweaks to my training and philosophy on running.

Since I favor the half marathon distance over any other, specific training for other distances doesn’t really fit into my schedule. In five years, I’ve bounced between many training plans yielding varying results, most of which focus on tempo runs and repeats of 800 – 1600m at 5-10k pace. With these types of plans, I recorded many 16:30 – 17:30 5Ks. But with my most recent plans, pieced together from a hybrid of Jack Daniels workouts and notebook etchings from the desk of my high school cross country coach, I found my body being worked in new ways.

My goal at a recent local 5K was to break 16 minutes — aggressive, but doable with my training. Surprisingly, this event draws a competitive crowd from around the world (in fact, the first place finisher crossed the line in 13:47 and the top 47 finishers broke 16!). Anyway, at the start, the gun went off and I immediately felt muscle memory kick in. I was able to think my way through the first mile — planning my race strategy — which went by very quickly.

I positioned myself in a pack running at 5:03 pace and hung with them until the first split. Halfway through mile two, I decided to surge past my current pack and make contact with the group just ahead. I kept thinking, “just hang on until mile 3.” I passed the two mile checkpoint in 10:13, 5:06 pace. I knew I was on my way toward meeting my goal.

As I ran, I thought back briefly to my half marathon cycle and the solid base of several weeks at 50+ miles. With a 10 – 15 volume increase, I felt I had more reserves in the tank and more depth in my endurance. Additionally, I focused on three quality sessions a week, three easy days, and one day of total rest.

My first quality sessions (two types) impressed speed, form, and endurance:

  • Mile repeats below 10K pace (intervals)
  • 800m repeats below 5K pace (intervals)
  • 2400m repeats at 10K pace (intervals)
  • Progressive tempo runs from 3-8 miles (lactic threshold training)

But my largest improvements came from a weekly session of super sets.

  • I started with 400m at 5K pace – 20 seconds, which is close to mile pace + 800m at 5K pace + 1600m up to 3200m at half marathon pace.
  • I rested with 800m of jogging and repeated the set up to three times. These sessions were brutal! For a half marathoner, it simulates late race fatigue and trains the body to remove lactic acid. For a 5K runner, it simulates the challenge of maintaining pace after a competitive start. It helps build mental toughness, forcing your body to adapt to varying paces and conditions.

Back to the race, now. In the third and final mile, the mental mile, I felt a wave of contrasting emotions and sensations: pain and joy, discomfort and
confidence. I surged to the end at mile pace and crossed the line with not much time to spare: 15:55. I met my goal, and I’m proud to write that of those 47 runners who broke 16 — I was number 47.

Written by Stephen Marcin.