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Can You Race a Fast 5k With Little Training?

Posted Feb 16 2011 9:18pm
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I get questions all the time from runners and non-runners about how to hit a certain time or race well while only running a few days a week.  My favorite question came a few weeks ago: “I want to run a fast 5k but I hate running now.  How do I accomplish this with just three runs a week?”  This person had an accomplished running career but had only run twice a week for 5-6 miles for three years.  For him, it’s possible to get back in decent shape if he runs the right workouts.

Race a 5k on 3 Workouts a Week

It is absolutely possible to run PR’s and get faster with only 3 runs per week provided you haven’t been training at a high level already.  If you stop running 80 miles per week with two solid workouts and try this program, you will not improve.

But for those who have done some running and want to squeeze the most productivity from a few runs every week, you can still get fast.  If your workouts are structured correctly then a lot of fitness gains can be realized in a minimalist training program.

I want to be clear that this type of training is not ideal.  Don’t do the bare minimum if you want long-term success or want to continue to improve at a high level.  This is not the best way to train for long races but it will allow someone who lacks time or commitment to run fairly well.

Let’s take a look at my minimal training recommendations for  a 5k race.  I chose a 5k distance because it’s an incredibly popular race and a benchmark for most runners.

If you want to be somewhat competitive in a 5k and only have three days to run, then you have to focus on quality.  A full running schedule would include several “maintenance runs” that would build your aerobic base but not be very specific to racing 5,000 meters.  All three runs in this schedule will be specific to prepping a runner for racing this distance successfully.

The first run of the week will focus on strength and will be my absolute favorite type of workout: a combination tempo and hill workout.  The key to making this successful is to dial down the length of your tempo so it is shorter than what you would normally do and cut the number of hill reps.

For example, I normally do 30 minute tempos and 8 hill reps of about 400 meters separately.  For a combination workout, I would only tempo 15 minutes and run 4 hill repetitions of 400m.  The workout will still take roughly the same amount of time as a full 30 minute tempo or 8 hills.

Run the hills at your current 5k race pace.  The incline will make this feel faster than race pace.

It’s important to do the tempo first otherwise your heart rate will be too high after the hills to run a successful threshold run.  A short tempo is also a great warm-up for a harder effort.

The second workout of the week will put you on the track running intervals at slightly faster than your current 5k pace.  I prefer 800 or 1,000m intervals when training for the 5k simply because they are fairly short and allow you to more easily hit your goal times.  Confidence is important with these faster workouts.

It’s important to run between 4 – 5,000m in these workouts when training for a 5k.  This would mean 4-5 x 1k or 5-6 x 800m.  Covering the race distance or close in the workout will give you the strength necessary to race where you want to be.  Take 2-3 minutes between the intervals to ensure you’re properly recovered.

As you get more fit and your goal race gets closer, reduce your recovery time to two minutes or even 90 seconds.  Always make sure that you can get more out of  yourself.  In other words, don’t race during training.

Every training program for races longer than a mile need a long run in my perspective.  It’s vital to developing stamina that will allow you to out-sprint your competitors at the end of your race.  The total distance of your long run completely depends on your current fitness level and past training.

If your longest run in the past month has been five miles, then aim to complete 6 miles as your first long run.  But if you ran 15 miles last week, keep your long run at this level.  For this minimalist training program, there’s no need to run longer than 15 miles on your long day.

Your long run should be approximately 40 – 50% longer than your other two training days.  For example, if you want to run 15 miles on your long day then your other sessions should be 7-10 miles.  If your long day is 10 miles, your other days should be 4-5 miles.

Let’s take a look at how this training program would look like in a sample week.  For simplicity reasons, I am not including any strength training, barefooting, core workouts, or supplemental aerobic work like biking or pool running.  I’m assuming this person has only 3 days per week to train.

Monday: OFF

Tuesday: Combination workout – 10 minute tempo and 3 x 300 hill reps.  Including a 15 min. warm-up and 10 min. warm-down.  About 6 miles total.

Wednesday: OFF

Thursday: Intervals – 5 x 800m with 400m jog recovery.  About 6 miles total including warm-up and warm-down.

Friday: OFF

Saturday: Long run – 12 miles.  Optional addition of speeding up during the last mile if you feel good.

Sunday: OFF

This program is intense.  It assumes the runner wants to improve and race well but simply doesn’t have the time to train every day.  It also assumes they have some running experience to be able to handle this volume and intensity.

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to training because different workouts affect runners in a variety of ways.  But by combining four types of workouts in three sessions in this week, this program allows a busy athlete to get the most bang for their time investment.

What do you think?  If you train only a few days per week but have wildly different workouts, let’s hear it!

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