How to improve your 5K times

People running 5K
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

For a lot of runners, the 5K is a great jumping off point. It’s a distance that’s both walkable and runnable, a user-friendly way to ease into the sport. With time, it’s mega rewarding to see your 5K time decrease, providing that beautiful runner’s high you may have thought was fake until you experience it yourself. For those that are on the hunt to find their fast, there are a few strategies that you can implement to pick up the pace and slam a new 5K PR.

1. Set a goal

Just like with any big to-do in life, getting to where you want to be first starts with articulating exactly what it is that you want. For your 5K, it’s not enough to just state “I want to do it faster.” Instead, get specific with what you’re after, suggests Sam Tooley, an endurance and mindset coach based in New Jersey. 

“Too many time runners come to me and say I want to get faster without having set a tangible goal, a true metric or number to chase,” he says. “I am all about focusing on the process but I like to set a goal, and reverse engineer what their training needs to look like in order to achieve that goal. It gives us something real to chase.”

The question arises: How do I set a smart goal for my 5K? Tooley recommends keeping it SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound). “A good rule of thumb is pick a goal that you think is fair but scares you just a little bit, that’ll light a fire under you to get out and train.”

2. Run faster

It may sound silly, but if you’re not pushing yourself to run faster, you won’t be faster. Your body has two types of skeletal muscle fibers, slow (type I) and fast-twitch (type II). Typically, for longer efforts, you’re utilizing the slow-twitch muscles and focusing on endurance. 

For 5K efforts (and anything faster), however, it’s important to dedicate some time to building up the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Integrating speed work into the mix helps to develop these fast-twitch fibers, which come in the clutch for shorter, fast races (including the 5K) and are activated when the body’s hitting max exertion.

“Running fast makes any pace that’s slower feel that much smoother, even if you’re doing it at first in shorter intervals than your goal race,” says Tooley. “Whether you’re aiming for a 5K or a marathon, doing that top gear work makes you kind of say to yourself ‘hmm, this isn’t so bad.’”

3. Mix up your training

When you’re just getting into running, it’s easy to get up and out and run the same type of run (and route) on the regular. That’s certainly something worth celebrating, having a regular run routine! However, you can level-up your experience by integrating different types of training into your weekly schedule to stave off boredom and enjoy the process that much more. “Consistency matters but you can expedite your progress by varying your training,” says Tooley. “I recommend all plans try to incorporate a progressive longer run (build volume gradually each week), some sort of tempo run (shorter and faster effort closer to goal race pace), and finally intervals (like track repeats to hill reps).”

4. Add in some strength training

If you want to be a faster (and stronger!) athlete, it’s important to build a resilient body that can endure stress. As runners, it’s easy to get into the grind of just lacing up and logging miles day after day. However, spending time strengthening the body — in particular your posterior chain and core — is critical to both staving off injury and running more confidently overall. 

“Running is a lot of ground and pound on our bodies,” says Tooley. “There’s something to be said about utilizing other modalities like strength training to build overall fitness.” 

New to strength training? Tooley recommends incorporating two days per week of mixed strength work for 20 to 30 minutes, focusing on movements that help to improve weaknesses or compensation patterns, like single-leg work.

5. Don't be too hard on yourself

It’s super rewarding to see your hard work pay off over time. But, something to note is the fitter you get, the harder it becomes to drop time, especially on shorter distance races. “If you’re just starting out, big jumps are possible,” says Tooley. “If you’re a seasoned vet, improvement takes a lot more time.” Tooley recommends having some grace with the process, and keeping your eyes on the prize.  

6. Get the right gear

If you look good, you feel good, and that can pay off in your overall performance. This is critical from the shorts you choose to what’s on your feet, too. Instead of getting caught up in what type of shoe you 'should' be wearing (and there are a lot of options based on your foot type and running patterns), experts recommend picking the pair that makes you feel most comfortable. 

One study even went as far to prove that sneaker comfort is key to preventing injuries. Researchers gave more than 900 beginner runners neutral shoes, regardless of their personal foot pronation patterns. Then, they followed them for one year. The experts found that runners faced the same risk of injury, regardless of the shoe. Translation: If it feels good to you, it’s good for you. 

Emily Abbate

Emily Abbate is a freelance writer, certified trainer and run coach, and host of the podcast Hurdle. You can find her work in GQ, Shape, Runner’s World, and other health and fitness publications. She is a self-motivated, social media-savvy writer and editor with more than a decade of constructing brands from the ground up.