The 8 simple keys for a 5km PB

The following is a companion post to a training program that you can find on TrainingPeaks. The goal of the training plan and this post is simple, train smarter to lower your current 5km PB. In reading this post and completing the 10-week program you will be amazed at how simple running faster can be once you strip back the non-essentials. Running, after all, is an instinctual act and as such only requires the lightest of touches to maximize what is already an extremely efficient system that has developed over millions of years of evolution. It is my goal in pointing out these 8 training keys to running faster to allow you to unhook the harness that has been holding you back.


Lets get started and begin to understand the keys to unlock the potential within you.

1. Technique

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While I am starting with the one point that many coaches will say is the hardest, I would argue and say it is the quickest to modify and therefore the best way to easily enhance your speed and efficiency. My gem of knowledge is to simply run ‘pretty’. When you tell people they are running pretty they stick out their chest like a peacock, rise up tall open their hips and therefore free the body to move upward and forward in their stride. An ugly runner is dropped on their heels, their hips and shoulders are closed and their dipping head low. Pretty runners have effortless stride patterns; ugly runners are labouring as their legs look visibly heavier than a pretty runner.

How do you make a pretty runner? Well just like a parrot you give them a mirror to show them how pretty they are. Which means you need to video yourself and see how you look. It is important when you look at the video not to analyse what you are doing right and wrong, but simply ask yourself how can I make myself look prettier when I run. As the program increases your strength and endurance, your form will improve and so too will your confidence as a runner.

I have placed three video sessions in the program. The first one in week 1 day 1, the second in week 6 before you do a time trial the next day and finally in week 10 just before your PB attempt. Look at each of these videos on its merits and embrace how good you look and in the final week compare yourself now to how you looked at the start. Running is significantly mental so if you feel ‘good’ then you are well on your way to being ‘good’.


2. Intervals

Intervals are vital for getting your muscles and your cardiovascular system progressively conditioned for faster performance. Too many athletes just go out the door and try and run fast for the whole distance. It is no surprise that the body rebels, injuries set in and motivation plummets to the point where you give up. Intervals allow your body to progressively get up to speed in manageable increments.

In the training program you will see an interval session once per week. You will see that these intervals are time-based, with a slow jog recovery between each set. Five intervals at or above your desired race pace is sufficient to load your body and condition it so that over the 10 week program you will show noticeable signs of improvement

3. SprinT

Just like intervals, sprints are essential for pushing your muscles to engage leg speed that is beyond your normal 5km race pace. If your body engages in a cadence of 250 for sprints lasting 50 to 100 meters, with full walk back recoveries, you will gain muscle memory which will mean that an optimal cadence of 160 – 180 over the course of the 5km run will be much more achievable and feel relativity easy.

I suggest that you build from 50% to 60% of max speed then add 5% to 10% extra speed for each interval. Once again five is sufficient with a full warm up and cool down leading to a session of around 3km to 4km. While this may not seem like a big session, if done correctly it will yield amazing results and give you a much longer top end curve to your speed.

In the 10 week program you will note that there are five sprint sessions. I have not put in a sprint session every week as it is not necessary and, if you do it correctly, the effects of these sprint sessions will take 2 or 3 days to take effect and last 10 days in terms of mind and body adaptation.

4. Long slow Distance runs

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Long, slow distance (aka LSD) runs enable the body to slowly recover and train your heart to beat at a slower rate while covering a distance greater than the 5km distance.

Over the course of the 10 week program your LSD runs will start at 3km and build to be over 7km by the end of the program. The key to these long run is keeping your heart rate at a level which is 180 minus your age. If it rises above this at any time you must slow to a walk. If walking doesn’t get it lower, then you must stop. This whole process is training your heart to efficiently operate at a lower level. This efficiency means that your heart is increasing its ability to pump more oxygen rich blood for every contraction. Just as short shallow breathing causes inefficient respiration, fast heart rate causes reduced blood volume and inefficient diffusion rates within the cells of the function body. Toxins cannot be removed fast enough and oxygen and glucose can’t get into the muscles cells efficiently enough.

Even if you are used to longer runs than this, I highly recommend that you complete the program as it is written. I assure you that you will experience success if you trust the process.

5. Head for the hills

Every Wednesday over the 10 week program you will alternate between sprint work for leg speed and hill work for leg strength.

Most people think that the only good in running hills comes from when you are running up the hill. Fortunately, hills are equally good going up and down. I personally believe, and the evidence supports this, running up the hill benefits leg strength and cardiovascular endurance but running down the hill hardens the legs and enables you to maximize speed down the hill.

Many people use the downhill section of the hill as a rest after the uphill section. It is mentally ingrained in people to simply fall down the hill after their effort climbing it. While this ‘rag dolling’ is a good technique it is actually counterproductive in training. If you put in the same effort going down the hill as you spent going up your speed across the whole distance will be markedly improved the increased leg speed gained from the downhill section can translate to better cadence across the whole distance.

6. Data

I recently wrote a blog on running ‘naked’. Which focused on the art of running with no technology, getting your mind back to that state when you were simply running for your mental health rather than the unwavering glare of the stopped watch. I still state that running occasionally with no technology is vital for runners to reconnect with their inner Emil Zatopek, but I also believe that one of the keys to faster running is data analysis.

Data of course has its time and place, but in terms of running faster it makes scientific sense to analyse data to see the cause and effect of qualitative elements that you have changed. When it comes to running data, I believe the most important metric is that of cadence. Cadence is the number of strides over a given time (usually a minute). When comparing two people of the same physiology who cover the same distance in the same time but one does with 10 less stride they will have different efficiencies. If both these test subject are physiologically equal, then the person with less strides must have the greatest efficiency. If you follow this logic and made both athletes run with the same cadence the person with the greater efficiency would end up 10 strides ahead after the same time interval.

It is simple maths to say that a high cadence with a longer stride length equals faster speed. But this comes with a caveat, over striding diminishes performance as does inflating the cadence beyond the maximal capacities of your physiology. We would all love Usain Bolt’s stride length of 2.4m combined with his lightning quick cadence of 281 strides per minute, but it is simply not humanly possible to maintain that intensity any longer than the distance of a sprint. The body would produce toxic by-products at a rate faster than the body can remove them meaning the muscles would simply slow.

The ideal cadence of approximately 180 for endurance runners is the gold standard and one that you should keep in the back of your mind. Your ideal cadence reflects your ideal efficiency. It will be unique to you as an athlete and it will change as you develop and enhance your skills and fitness over the 10 weeks of the program.

Over the 10 weeks I have included four cadence specific session that are designed to analyse your stride frequency as you make changes to qualitative elements to your running style. Don’t worry, the process will be simple. Just run for a minute at or just below your race pace and simply count your strides. Fully recover and repeat but this time change one element and see what effect that has on your cadence. Ten repeats is all that is needed. Warm up and warm down for a 3 to 4 km session.

7. Stretch

It goes without saying that your stride length is dictated by the physiology of your body type. But your stride length is also dictated by your ability to maximize your physiology within your body type. An incredibly flexible 5’2” runner that spend 30 minutes every day working on their flexibility will have a much more efficient gait than a 6’5” runner who never stretches and complains of having hamstrings strung like piano wire.

I have therefore included a 30 minute session of stretching and flexibility twice a week over the 10 week training plan. I personally use the SWORKIT app on my iPhone as it uploads directly to Strava meaning that I can log and monitor my progress. You are not required to use this program, you can simply sit on the carpet in front of the TV and go through a series of stretches that you have grown to love over the years. Ideally it would be better if you stretched every day, but I am aware that you may have a life beyond running a 5km PB.

8. Shoes

I know there are amazing bargains to be had on the internet. You can source shoes for a fraction of the price that the local stores sell them for. But I highly recommend that you pump some money into the local economy and buy local. Find a local shoe store and establish a relationship with them.

The first time I got fitted for my running shoes by a podiatrist who sold running shoes I was amazed. It was like my feet and legs had discovered the love of their life. While we spend hundreds of dollars on pointless fads and pump vitamins pills into our bodies, I think an investment in a good quality pair of fitted running shoes are essential.Comfort and support will result in a better running style, more enjoyment in running and better times.