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How I Shaved 5 Minutes Off my 5k Time in a Year

It's been just over a year now since I started consistently running every week. I added running into my training routine for the variety. I don't train for a specific sport anymore, so I like the idea of a hybrid approach and aiming to better myself in different areas of fitness. To recap and take a deep dive into hybrid training, check out my previous article here. But in summary, hybrid training essentially means actively pursuing improving separate physical qualities at the same time. So, an example of this is aiming to get stronger in a deadlift, whilst also aiming to run a sub 20 minute 5k. Your training would reflect attempting to achieve both goals.

Since I have added the consistent dose of running per week, I went from a 24.07 minute 5k to 19.20, which I achieved a few months back. I probably could have a decent crack at sub 19 minutes now, but I am currently training for a duathlon next month, so perhaps will save it until after. A lot of people have asked about my running journey, specifically my thoughts and top tips to run faster over this distance. So I thought it would be good to chuck it all into an article, and talk about a few things that helped..... So here it is...

Building a foundation & a minimal effective dose approach.

You get better at something when you do more of it. However, you can't do more running if you're beat up all the time running hard and pushing your limits every session. Performance improvement is a slow burn. Often the biggest drop off in compliance to training is due to volume, frequency and intensity being too much, too soon. The task essentially exceeds our tolerance. If you get 6 weeks in and your lower limbs are kicking up a fuss and you feel exhausted, then it doesn't help build a habit, it breaks it. It's ok to feel stuff, but not so much that it's causing you to put ice packs on your feet.

What helps minimise this is having a decent foundation, used as a springboard to increase and tolerate further activity. Additionally, utilising a minimal effective dose approach can help manage training load, and quite frankly I'm not sure why we are in such a rush. For most people, you don't need to do much to see a big return on investment. Remember, consistency wins the race... and the race is a long one. I have no doubt in my mind if I went at this full guns blazing and following a 'typical' 5k training plan, I would have struggled to be consistent, and perhaps struggled to manage the training load. A lot of the issues I see when people undertake 'hybrid' approaches, is many people follow a specific running programme and also follow a strength based programme. But that is two full programmes mashed together. Like I said above, this is not necessary to see improvement, and it also puts you straight on the back foot struggling to fit things in, and also recover appropriately. To look at how I plan my training week check out this article documenting some of the things to think about when merging strength and endurance sessions across the week.

So with that said, how can you build a strong foundation and what is the meaning of minimal effective dose?

First of all, I think what is helpful in getting to grips with this discussion is understanding how we manage training load, or how we regulate training intensity. We all do this to some extent naturally. We all judge how difficult something is when we do it. This is essentially what we call RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion). RPE is a tool you can use to monitor intensity levels. RPE is an-out-of-ten subjective grading scale of training difficulty. This can help categorise your running sessions to be either easy, moderately challenging, or really bloody hard. Ultimately, this tool helps manage recovery across your training week and also helps us target specific session outcomes in programming. As I mentioned in our deep dive into training zones article, easy, moderately challenging and hard, is the simple way of 'zoning'. Even though some people think it is a bit silly, as surely there has to be something more complex and detailed, right?! But these subjective measures for most people actually have been shown to have a pretty decent correlation to some physiological markers, as seen in a detailed active metabolic test like a VO2 max test. For example.....

  • 'Easy' runs are typically around endurance pace, where we predominately use fat for fuel, and something that you can sustain for a good few hours without hitting a wall. It is typically a 3-6/10 intensity on an RPE scale or 70% and below of your max HR.

  • 'Moderately challenging' is something more like a tempo or threshold pace. A pace that is essentially more costly as we start to use more carbohydrate. We start to see rises in lactate and accumulate fatigue. However, time at this pace can be very different for different people depending on previous training experience, but typically a 5-10k distance is often run at and just below threshold pace. This is roughly a 6-8/10 intensity or 70-85% of your max HR.

  • 'Really bloody hard' is well, obviously really bloody hard. This is just above your threshold pace where it feels like you're hanging on, trying to chew up the pavement before you fall into a pit of discomfort. Essentially threshold is where we can no longer use ventilation to offset the acidic environment the body is in; pH has lowered and signals are being fired off to the brain to shut stuff down, otherwise we're toast. Hence these are at paces you can't sustain for very long, which is why we usually perform intervals at these intensities. Intervals are usually performed between 2-10 minutes followed by periods of rest, and often you see HR's at 90% and above of max HR.

What's good about RPE is that it is relevant for the individual. So no matter your starting point, it's a simple and effective measure.

But how much easy, moderately challenging and really bloody hard should I do across the week?

This is obviously dependent on the individual. The precise methods change based on previous training experience, current fitness, goals, and time available to train. If we zoom out from the specific nuance, the answer is perhaps more about principles than methods. I often argue that the guiding principle behind training should be a minimal effective dose approach. Why go 0-100 when you can get great improvements without putting the pedal to the metal? It is purely logical to add some slower easy paced runs to start with across the training week. Reasons being, initially adopting slower easier runs enables you to build up your tolerance to the task.

It also helps improve your aerobic fitness e.g. your ability for muscles to utilise oxygen during exercise. The development of the combination of systems (respiratory, cardiac, metabolic) has shown not only to help us improve performance but to improve our ability to recover faster, which also can enable us to perform harder more intense efforts more regularly. It also helps develop and build the prerequisite neuromuscular qualities. Running is a plyometric activity. People often forget every ground contact experienced through one leg whilst running is 2-4x more than your bodyweight. The faster you go the more force you put through the limb into ground contact. When you think about that in a 'contractile-muscular-force-lifting-weight-in-the-gym' point of view, that's a lot of weight on a barbell going through one leg. When you get more accustomed to the demands, you can start to increase your intensities or add some interval sessions. For me, even though I was still training consistently in the gym and commuting on the bike (and a high training age) I only started with running once a week at an RPE of 5-6/10 for about 30-45 minutes. Even with this relatively small dose, that's all I needed to see improvements to begin with. My lower limbs felt more comfortable on ground contact every session, my lungs and breathing felt more co-ordinated. This was reflected over 6 weeks with a consistently lower average HR for similar speeds over that time frame. What was happening here was a broad spectrum of physiological and neuromuscular improvements. Additionally familiarisation with the task. I also felt like it was getting easier, which meant I could be consistent with it and also enjoyed it.

Often as things progress in endurance sports a polarised 80/20 split (80 easy and 20 hard) is often advocated for a few reasons. The main reason being to keep most of your training easy so you can recover, and keep some of your training really hard so you can maximise your output in the harder sessions / reap some of those specific adaptations you get at higher intensities. As I mentioned in the 'time on feet article' though, this is just a purely logical approach when you have such high running volumes. You need to make sure you're managing training load appropriately so you can spend more time on feet, and thus more time spent training and improving performance. Many have taken this 80/20 rule and extrapolated it to recreational runners who perhaps only partake in something like 4hrs of weekly training. This is questionable in my opinion for that demographic, from a 'maximising training time' perspective and maximising our adaptations to training. For me, instead of adding another slow easy run, I decided to add an interval session (9/10 RPE). You could probably say on average if you took away warm ups, my volume looked like 10k slow and easy, and a total of 5k was fast and hard. So, more like a 65/35% split (65 easy 35 hard).

The reason perhaps this approach is also a better approach for me is because I already had a good training foundation. So much can be said for consistent general training which raises the bottom level. We love to become hyper-focused on training prescription and then find the most appropriate type of training to achieve X outcome, it has influenced much of how we train, and how we think about training prescription. It becomes absolute. As I have said before though, looking at it from a perspective of attempting to understand what tools are best for the job is ok. However that doesn't automatically negate everything else in the tool box outside of "most appropriate". If you only did strength training for example, you would still see an improvement in your 5k time vs. not strength training. If you have never lifted a weight in your life and decided to do 8 weeks of hill walking for 30 minutes 3x a week, the force you could put through the floor would improve. So if we put you on a force plate, your ability to produce maximal force would have improved. A rising tide raises all ships.

The foundation that I have built over the best part of 20 years consistently makes something like the outcome possible. I had strength trained and spent many hours on the bike developing some of those structural aerobic adaptations. So for someone who hasn't got high training age, and has only a bit of running experience, then this might look a bit different. I would suggest sticking with the slow and easy pace runs, slowly building up the volume. If you wanted to mix it up and push the intensity a little, perhaps utilising hills for your interval session would be a good idea. The reason being reduced impact / speed, but still working at those higher intensities. This leads me nicely onto the second point... strength training.

Strength training.

The muscle is the motor. Producing force through the floor or an external object. Improving the quality of connective tissue, the development of strength over greater ranges of motion (improved mobility), improved neuromuscular co-ordination, bone density, neuroplasticity, skill acquisition and increased movement literacy; the list goes on. Strength training is a great supplement to your running, so consider having some exposures to strength training across the week.

Agility in programming.

It's great having a plan... but everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. The famous Mike Tyson quote is a great one for mapping out your training schedule. And nothing hits harder than life. Point being, totally have set goals, have outcome measures, but be agile in your training week. This was largely a mental block for me, as I put pressure on myself to always perform to a certain standard. But I've learnt over time it's not about being at a peak all the time. In actuality, your ability to scale training when and where appropriate will largely dictate the consistency of your habit, and thus your performance outcome. Meaning, when you feel a bit shit, you adjust the stimulus. Again, RPE, resting HR, heart rate variability are all things I use to help manage my training and make appropriate decisions. FYI, just because you don't achieve a target pace or time doesn't mean you're losing fitness! It doesn't work like that. We are naturally undulating creatures, you will have ups and downs but doing, and adjusting things when appropriate keeps the show on the road. And that's what matters.


What is great is that many of you have been training in a hybrid way and perhaps not even realising it! Lots have taken up running, and it's awesome to see the progress. So perhaps take some of these tips on board, have a read of the other articles regarding structuring your training week and let us know how you get on... run club soon?!


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