5 Ways to Improve Your 5Ks
Going back a few years, I had built my running up to 50-100 miles a month and started entering in to longer and longer competitive distances. I say competitive, as in I was paying to enter a formal event and would get my medal at the end, no matter how long it took!
As far as my fastest times go, I was actually at my quickest way back in 2015! That year I set my Parkrun PB at Barrow-in-Furness (24:06) and completed my first half-marathon in the Great Scottish Run with a time of 2:06:23 - despite trying really hard again in 2016, this is still my best half-marathon.
It's fair to say I had the bug for a few years, leading me to book my most recent formal event - the Loch Ness Marathon. Training for this event was quite daunting and being honest I never really got in to it. I was also suffering bad with sciatica throughout the whole of 2017 and when it came to the big day, I tried my best, but I wasn't able to keep running for the whole distance. After walking the last 9 miles, I finally crossed the finish line after 6 hours and 10 minutes. It was brutal and it absolutely killed my love of running for at least two years. It wasn't running's fault. I just went beyond what I was ready for.
However, at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic I used the increased time during lockdown to rediscover my love of running - but I was so much slower now. To get myself back down to running 5 Km in 24/25 minutes, I had to do things differently. I wasn't just older now, I was two stone heavier too. I had to become more mindful and smarter in my approach to running to get back to my best.
Keep reading below to see how I got on, as you find out 5 ways to improve your 5Ks:
1. Connecting with nature - I tried a number of different routes in my area through March and April, but I always seemed to run strongest when I was running through woodland areas, trails and being surrounded by nature in general. We are spoiled for this in Glenboig, so I know it might not be achievable for everyone. But, if you can travel somewhere close by, it can be really motivating and enriching to get away from people, noise and traffic and reconnect with the natural beauty available to all of us. Not only this, research has shown that people who exercise in green rural settings can actually move quicker whilst feeling lower levels of exertion, than compared to those exercising indoors or in urban environments (Focht, 2009).
2. Wearing smart devices - personally I wear the Suunto Spartan Sports Watch, which can cost in excess of £300. However, I am not advocating spending this much money! There is actually a bit of a funny story behind this acquisition, involving someone hacking my Dad's Amazon account, buying this watch on his credit card and accidentally posting it to his house! In the end, everyone got their money back, but no one asked for the watch back...my Dad didn't want it, so I just got lucky! That said, it's a great device and now I can't run without it. The training features allow me to track my time, pace/mile and monitor my heart rate mid-run, with much more in depth information available within the accompanying app to see where I found things harder along the way. There's probably a whole other article I could write on which sports watch you should buy, based on your price range and why, but we'll save that for another day. All I will say is that I recommend that you choose a device that offers you the best information during the run, so you can monitor your pace and exertion, allowing you to increase effort and intensity where you need to. I will also give you an example of this, with regards to how this helped me earlier this year. On my 5km route I felt that I was losing time up the same hill after about 9 minutes and each time I didn't get that time back, as I would always be slower in the subsequent kilometre. Instead of maintaining this hope that I'd naturally improve my performance after the hill, having managed my intensity on the way up, I decided to go the opposite way. By monitoring my average pace/mile on my sports watch, I deliberately increased my speed as I tackled the incline. This then allowed me to maintain a quicker overall speed after the hill, whilst still recovering from the climb I had just endured, before steadily dropping down to my targeted average pace as the run continued. Academic researchers such as Ananthanarayan and Siek (2012) have also stated that smart devices and other wearable technology can build motivation by increasing awareness through the use of timely feedback during exercise.
3. Focusing on your heartbeat - like I have suggested above, when we are using a smart device it can be used to monitor your heartbeat during the activity. But other than just seeing the numbers, what should you look for? When you are exercising there are two heartbeat indicators you can pay attention to during the activity; average heart rate and maximum heart rate. Your average heart rate is important to pay attention to because it is the most accurate indicator for exertion, i.e. how hard you have had to work during any activity or performance. The higher the average heart rate you have recorded during activity, the harder you have had to exert yourself during that activity. Over time, you will be able to see your average heart rate reduce running over the same distance and at the same pace, as your cardio respiratory fitness improves - if I can offer a word of caution here though, the heart rates being recorded by any smart device aren't necessarily accurate, such as where you wear the device and how reliable the device is. Generally though, as long as you are wearing the same device in the same place for each run, you should get a consistent estimate during each activity. As my running times improved in April and May, I used my average heart rate in each kilometre to show me where I could work harder during the run, without over-exerting myself. This might seem like a contradiction, but when it comes to maximum heart rate I am most interested in how high I can get my heart rate during maximum exertion. We can all calculate our theoretical maximum heart rate by taking our age away from 220 e.g. 187 in my case, as I am 33. During my last 200 metres or so of any formal race or PB attempt, I am always running at maximum exertion to finish as strong and as quick as possible, even sprinting where I could. By doing so, I was even able to increase my 'theoretical' maximum heart rate to 191 at the end of my quickest 5 Km this year. The higher your heart rate can climb, the harder you can work and faster you can run to finish.
4. Utilising sprint intervals - As I have alluded to a few times already, bringing elements of sprint interval training in to your runs can increase your top speed and average speed throughout your 5 Km. I have covered this in greater detail in a previous article entitled 'What are the Benefits of Sprint Training', so feel free to check that out too after you read this. As well as suggesting above that you practise a sprint finish for the final few hundred metres every time you run, or increase running speed on inclines, it can also be very effective to opt for a 'quick-kilometre' early on in the run. This can be done really well on the 2nd kilometre in particular, because you will have properly warmed up at this stage and will now have the most energy in the muscles before you fatigue in the later kilometres. If you are going to try anything from this article, definitely try this! It has really worked for me earlier this to get my quickest times.
5. Make it a family affair - I'm not going to suggest that training with the kids will make you quicker directly. In fact, you'll have to slow down to look after them! But, for those of you, like me, that love to exercise with their kids, taking your wee ones for a run (when they're old enough and it's safe to do so) can give you more of an opportunity to practise these sprint training elements that I am referring to above. Typically, a run with the kids will be at a slower intensity and overall pace, so you will find that you have more energy and less fatigue when it comes to tackling a tough incline, running quicker from lamppost to lamppost, or getting your head down for a sprint finish. Rather than jumping straight in to these sprint intervals on a standard 5 Km, why not take the kids out for a shorter distance and challenge them to wee races along the way? By doing so, you get a chance to work on these more vigorous elements to boost your 5 Km time, whilst the kids get to have a load of fun and be inspired by their super-speedy Mummy or Daddy! James Junior and I went out a few times during lockdown and he did so well despite being just 2-and-a-half! This inspired me to keep getting fitter, stronger and quicker to keep inspiring him for years to come. Active parents, often have active children (Pinchbeck, 2013).
If you are going to try and implement any of these 5 ways to improve your 5Ks, I would absolutely love to hear how you have gotten on and if they have helped you to hit your targets - running 5 Km in under 30 minutes is definitely a big one for many of you that I have spoken to this week.
I actually started the year running (just shy of) 5 Km in around 30/31 minutes and as you can see below my best time on the same route that recorded during lockdown was 24:01! I really believe in the methods that I have listed above and will be excited to hear from you if you have been able to benefit from them too, especially if you've found yourself hitting a bit of plateau recently.