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How to Run Your Fastest 5K Yet

by Frank Mungeam

My heart was pounding. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins. And I was seated in an auditorium chair.

Warren Miller, the legendary ski filmmaker, was speaking over the final thrilling frames of his latest movie. With his last words, he urged us to head to the mountains this year, because "if you don't, you'll be another year older when you do." He could have been talking about going for a PR!

Why wait another year to notch a new personal best time? Whether you want to blaze a fast 5K or survive for a personal best at the marathon, here are training strategies to help you reach your goals from two elite runners who now coach others to achieve their PR dreams.


Brad Barquist lived the American dream, competing for Team USA in the 10,000 meters at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He also made the American team for the World Championships 10K the following year. Now retired from international racing, Barquist coaches others to achieve their running goals. With personal bests of 13:41 for 5K and 28:07 for 10K, this Seattle resident knows how to combine speed and endurance to get results.

If your goal is a PR at 5K or 10K, Barquist recommends a 20- to 24-week plan for optimal progressive training. Fit runners can complete a PR program in as little as three months.

"Runners should do two quality workouts during the week," says Brad, "plus a weekend long run."

For mid-week quality training sessions, Brad rotates his runners between these three core workouts (Choose two per week):

-20-minute tempo (at 30 seconds slower than 5K race pace)

-Mile repeats (at 30 seconds slower than 5K race pace)

-400 meter repeats (at 3K to 5K race pace)

Barquist swears by the regular tempo run: "I like to do mine on a track so I can concentrate on running at an even pace, at my aerobic threshold, for the full duration."

The weekly long run is critical even if your goal is a shorter race like the 5K.

"It doesn't matter how much track work a runner does if he doesn't have the endurance to finish off a race," points out Barquist.

The long run should be no more than 15-25% of your weekly mileage, and should be run at conversational pace. "The easiest training mistake to make is to run the long run too fast," says Barquist.

For optimal results, Barquist recommends dividing your training program into four equal phases.

Aerobic Base




Phase 1: Aerobic Base

The key to any training program is an adequate aerobic foundation. During this phase of aerobic base training, you should focus on running at conversational pace for time rather than distance to increase aerobic fitness. Barquist recommends building up to a running frequency of six days per week. Runners who've already built a strong aerobic base can skip to Phase 2.

Phase 2: Threshold Training

The goal of the second phase of training is to increase your aerobic threshold, which is the fastest pace you can sustain while still supplying all the oxygen your muscles need.

During Phase 2, add a weekly tempo run and interval workout, while continuing the weekend long run. The focus is on sustaining pace more than pure speed. "By training at threshold pace, you'll eventually be able to run at a faster pace, longer, without tying up due to lactic acid build-up," says Barquist.

Phase 3: Sharpening

The third phase of training uses the same core workouts but shifts the emphasis away from volume and toward quality and intensity. By now, you should have a good mileage base, so skip the junk miles. "You want to increase the pace in your interval workouts and should reduce your weekly mileage to accommodate the increased intensity of the quality workouts," says Barquist. This is also the time to incorporate regular races into your schedule.

Racing as Training

Some runners train and train, building up to a single race. If you want to run well in your goal race, you have to practice racing, not just running. "There's no substitute for racing," insists Barquist. "Racing helps runners establish their threshold pace. More importantly, it helps them get used to the whole race environment and the race pace effort.

There's no way to replicate that level of intensity in workouts. The psychological benefits of practicing the race experience are almost more valuable than the fitness and training benefits."

Phase 4: Tapering

The purpose of the tapering phase is to ensure fresh legs for your goal race. During this phase, decrease your mileage across all workouts by about 25% for as much as a month before your target race. If necessary, also increase the recovery days between quality workouts.

The emphasis during tapering is on high quality training efforts and ample recovery, allowing you to arrive fresh and confident at the starting line for your PR effort.


If your goal is to PR at the marathon or half marathon distance, you'll follow similar training principles but you'll use different combinations of intervals, paces and distances.

Bob Williams, a former All American in the steeplechase at Oregon, has been coaching runners for three decades, and has trained a dozen different athletes for the Olympic Marathon Trials. He's seen what works and the most common mistakes that dash PR hopes.

Five Marathon Mistakes

Doing too much too soon.

"If you throw too much work at your body too soon, it will break down," predicts Williams. "The training work has to be progressive."

Not resting enough, especially after long runs.

"Most people need two full recovery days after a long run," explains Williams. "Even most good runners can only tolerate two-and-a-half training days a week."

Not eating enough food after a long run.

Not doing enough long runs.


"Most people over-train," says Williams. "They get tired of it, emotionally and physically."

So how do you build a killer marathon or half marathon training plan that won't kill you? Coach Williams recommends four types of workouts to maximize your stamina, strength and speed.

The Fab Four Workouts

Long Runs -

Begin three to four months out, running 12 miles at 1:00 to 1:30 slower per mile than goal race pace. Allow your body to gradually adapt to the workload by increasing the length and speed of the long run every other weekend. With four weeks to go, you should have completed at least one 22-miler (16-18 miles for a half marathon) and your pace should be about :45 slower than your goal pace.

In addition to the long run, there are three kinds of shorter, faster workouts that build strength and speed.

Long Intervals

About once a week, do repetitions of 3-7 minutes (800s, 1200s and mile repeats) on the track or road to develop oxygen power. Run these intervals at 8K race pace.

Tempo Runs

On alternating weeks, substitute a tempo run for your long interval. Tempo runs are about 3-4 miles in length, run at a steady pace :15 slower than 8K race pace. These runs help you develop a higher tolerance for lactic acid build-up.

Short Intervals

If you want to run faster in a marathon, you have to run faster in training.

Once a week, hit the track or a measured stretch of road and do shorter intervals (400s or 200s) at 5K race pace. These intervals develop running economy, enhancing your ability to run longer at closer to your VO2 max.

Williams recommends setting aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for your speed workouts, and Saturday for the long run. This schedule allows your body two full days of recovery before the next speed workout. Fill in the other days with easy recovery runs or actual rest, as needed.

Half vs Full Marathon

Williams notices more runners targeting the half marathon distance, and for obvious reasons: "It takes less time to train, it offers some variety, or they're seeking a new challenge," says Williams.

The standard marathon training program can be easily adapted for the half marathon distance.

"You only need about two-thirds of the training required for the marathon," says Williams. "The longest runs only need to be 16-18 miles, and the weekly mileage can be 35-45, compared to 45-55 miles per week."

Also, Williams suggests entering shorter road races, like 5Ks and 8Ks: "There's more glycogen depletion in a half marathon, so you need more stamina and speed."

Here are the recommended paces for half marathon interval workouts:

1. Mile repeats at 15K race pace

2. 200 meter repeats at 5K race pace

3. 400 meter repeats at 8K race pace

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you hope to race well, you must simulate race conditions during your training. Practice running at goal race pace. "Pace judgement is crucial," says Williams. "Training at race pace teaches you what it will feel like on race day."

Also, use your long runs to rehearse your goal race rituals. Carbo load for your long runs just like you would for the race, starting two or three nights in advance. Eat a pre-race meal, drink a sport drink every two to three miles during the long run and - most importantly - eat like a horse afterwards. If possible, do some of your long runs along parts of the race course.

Coach Williams also stresses the importance of entering two or three other races to help you practice running with discomfort. "You're not just training your body," he explains. "You train yourself psychologically to take on the work."

The races provide a sense of accomplishment from the training, and allow you to gauge your progress and set realistic pace goals for your PR effort.

The Final Countdown

Tapering. It's the most beautiful word in a distance runner's vocabulary. But how do you know how soon to taper? Williams recommends running the last quality workout about 10 days before the race - 5-6 repetitions of a mile at 8K race pace.

On Tuesday of race week, do mile repeats but only at goal race pace, to remind your legs how that pace feels. From there, taper with daily runs of 4 miles, then 3 miles, then 2 miles, then nothing the day before the race.

If you want to eat like a winner, start sooner. Most runners wait too long to begin carbo-loading, hydrating and resting. Start increasing your carbohydrate intake three days before the race, and get as much sleep as you can for three days beforehand. "The day before, go to an afternoon movie," recommends Williams. "Then take a tub bath, curl up with a book to read and fade off to sleep!"

The next morning, wake up and turn your PR dreams into reality.

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