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Why All Triathletes Need to Run the 5k


By Lee Gardner


I was recently reminded, quite painfully in fact, about why running the 5k is an important distance or event for triathletes to spend time focusing on. My reminder came in the form of a duathlon, which was a 5k run/30k bike/5k run. The pace from the start was fast. About 2 minutes into the first 5k, I looked down at my Garmin and saw a 5:19 m/m average pace. The rest of the first leg is a blur to me. Once I regained conscious thought during the bike leg, I couldn't help but think, "Holy crap, that hurt! I need to focus on running 5k!" My point is not about how fast or slow I can run a 5k, but to simply express my thoughts about how this middle-distance running event is a key for you, the triathlete, to gain and maintain run speed, regardless of the triathlon distance in which you specialize.


runFirst, let's talk about what the 5k is from a metabolic stand point, and how that relates to how we train as triathletes. The 5k is about 90 percent or so aerobic. This is good news for most triathletes, as we are an aerobic bunch, meaning our races are at or below our anaerobic threshold (I usually refer to this as "at or below Lactic Threshold Heart Rate"). So if we're going to spend time focusing on the 5k run, we still need to spend time building our aerobic metabolism via short, moderate and long distance aerobic runs.


Additionally, we continue working on the other types of run workouts we do throughout a block of training: threshold runs, strides, and fartlek running, as well as biomechanical drills that help make us more efficient runners. So, by maximizing your aerobic metabolism through the run training that you are likely already doing, you are already 90 percent of the way towards improving your 5k split. It's of that additional 10 percent I am writing about here.


To begin training for the 5k you will need to figure out your current best 5k time. If you've raced a 5k recently (preferably on a flat course), you can use that time as your basis. If not, using a pace calculator can give you at least a starting point. I would not recommend that you go out and run a 5k on your own to discover what your 5k pace is. The reason is that it is very unlikely you will get an accurate time for your effort. Our tendency as competitive athletes is to push ourselves much harder during competition then we do while on our own. That would leave your solo 5k split a bit slower than that of a 5k racing 100+ competitors. Besides, there are literally 100s of 5k races every weekend throughout the country, so there's a good chance of a 5k near you within the next month. Just get out there and race!


Once you have a 5k split for yourself, it's time to do some math. Let's say that your most recent 5k time is 21:45. That's a 7 minute per mile average pace over 3.1 miles. To maintain this pace per mile in your training, you'll want to create some intervals that keep your body used to the level of effort it takes to go that fast. If you want to force your body to go faster, you'll need to shave a little time off of those intervals.


Here's how:

To work on improving your 5k split, I feel it's important to get to the track. The track provides an environment that will allow you to objectively log your progress. It's also more accurate than using GPS, and because what you're going to work on at the track will take a toll from your body, a modern track's surface is usually less jarring to muscles, tendons and joints than the road is likely to be.


If we go by our example of a 7m/m pace for our current ability (also known as "date pace," a term used by T&F coaches), we can devise a track workout of 12x400 at date pace -1 second, with a 100m float. 12x400 will give you about 5k of hard work, directly affecting your 5k ability. With our date pace at 7m/m, that becomes 1:44/400m, so date pace -1 second is 1:43/400m. Now, 1 second doesn't seem like a lot of improvement, however, adding it up with each 400 over a full 5k, you are now running a 21:27, which is nice new PR by 18 seconds. Not too shabby!


The key to this workout is consistency. You really want to hit those 400s right at 1:43 every single time: not slower, not faster. An inability to hit the 1:43 indicates your body is not ready for this workout. Maybe you're tired or didn't eat well for a couple of days, or maybe you haven't recovered from a previous workout. Whatever the reason, it's best to stop the workout, and focus on preparing for another day at that point. Going faster than 1:43 is not your goal, and will likely lead to slowing down in the second half of the interval session. The 100m float ("float" is a relative term used to describe a recovery interval where you continue running, but at a pace that allows you to recover) can be adjusted as your fitness improves: you can spend less time floating the 100m while still keeping your pace slower than that of the work interval.

Some variation of this workout might look like this (keep in mind that the concepts here are exactly the same as with the 12x400):


  • 6x800m with a 200m float
  • 5x1000m with 90 seconds recovery jog
  • Ladder up as 400-600-800-1000-1200 with 20 seconds per 200m recovery jog

A word of caution and some advice:

If like many age-group triathletes you are not a regular at the local track, or have never really attempted this type of workout, you're going to want to ease into it. In other words, be realistic about what you can do now or have done recently in your training and create a workout accordingly, maybe even under-do it to start with. Slowly building your total workload over several weeks will help avoid injury and keep you from missing the next few days of workouts due to extreme muscle fatigue and soreness caused by a hard workout of this kind. My advice is to conservatively build your workload up to a workout like the 12x400 set. Start with 4x400. See how that feels, then adjust it for the next time.


Preparation is also a key to success with this type of speed building. I divide preparation into two buckets:


  1. Non-training prep. By this I am referring to rest/recovery and nutrition. You need to go into this workout very rested and recovered from previous workouts. Planning to get lots of sleep (8-10 hours per night, consistently) before and after this workout is optimal. Also, scheduling the workout so that you have a day or two of easy workouts leading into and directly after a workout like this (all depending on your bodies reaction to the work) is recommended. Proper attention to your nutrition and hydration in the days leading into the workout will enhance recovery and prepare your body for hard work. This means eating balanced, whole foods, and drinking water.
  2. Training prep. What can you do in your training leading into this workout to prepare you for a successful session? As previously mentioned, a slightly lightened load a day or two before will help. Equally important is priming your body for the work you intend to do. To do this, adding some short, but faster than 5k goal pace intervals on an easy day's running workout the day or two before will help "open up" your body’s ability to go fast by stimulating neuromuscular activity. For example, 3-5x20 second strides are great. You could also do 3-4x150-200m intervals at just above goal race pace at the track or on the road.


And there it is: an outline of your plan to better your 5k with minimal intrusion to your triathlon training, and in the process, to improve yourself as a triathlete by discovering run speed that you didn't think you had. The side effects of speed building at 5k pace also trickle down to your longer distance running. Regardless of whether your race includes a 5k or not, you'll end up faster for the work you put into your 5k training.


Lee Gardner is the head coach at Trismarter Triathlon Coaching and Nutrition. Coach Lee has successfully coached age-group athletes to a number of championship events, including ITU Triathlon Worlds, USA Triathlon Age-Group Nationals, Ironman World Championship, and Ironman 70.3 World Championship. In 2012, Lee coached athletes to both Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championship age-group victories, as well as the USA Triathlon 2012 Female Age Group Triathlete of the Year. Contact Trismarter Triathlon Coaching & Nutrition to begin training to make your triathlon dreams a reality.