I started doing the parkrun in 2012 and soon got down to low 20s. However, I hovered just above 20 minutes for several months before finally cracking it. Then I let up and I couldn’t break it again for nearly 3 years. It started to build up as a mental as well as a physical barrier.

I started to wonder whether it had been a fluke on the day, or if getting older was a contributing factor. I saw other people improving and breaking 20 and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it.

At the start of 2016 I broke 20 minutes another 3 times in 2 months. The last couple felt much more controlled rather than a frantic dash at the start followed by trying not to die.

Most of us have targets, if not to compete with others then at least to better ourselves. Sometimes we might feel like the target is unrealistic and either we get frustrated or worse still, give up.

However, most of the time, our targets are absolutely achievable, but we set ourselves up for disappointment because we don’t do what is required to get there.

Sometimes we don’t know what we need to do, so we blindly prepare and hope for the best. Other times we do know what we should do, but we don’t do it and just hope for inspiration on the day.

I fell into bad habits for months, even years and more recently I’ve been much more structured in my training. I know that by making a few adjustments, you can become more confident, reduce your times and smash your targets.

Avoid ‘Groundhog day’ training

I imagine most people have either seen or heard of the film ‘Groundhog Day’. In the film, Bill Murray wakes up every day to find it is the same day as yesterday.

I used to do the same 5 mile route from work most days (at considerably slower than target 5k pace) and then wonder why my 5k time didn’t improve. However, by changing the types of run or session I was doing, my times started coming down again.

You’ll also hear lots of advice saying – “You must do at least X miles a week”. But you could say – “I’m going to do 50 miles every week” – and then you break it down into 7 miles every day doing the same route and the same pace.

That isn’t going to make you any faster over 5k and worse still, you may get bored and give up on it completely.

I typically now do 4 sessions a week incorporating:

  •      One longer run at a slower pace to build up stamina
  •      One session of speedwork where you will run bits of it at around 5k pace
  •      One tempo run where a good chunk of your run will be slightly slower than 5k pace
  •      One session or run incorporating hills to build up strength

However, even by doing just 2 or 3 of these a week, you will start to see some improvement. If you’re putting in the effort to go for a run anyway you may as well put the extra bit of effort into planning different types of runs or sessions so you get the maximum benefit.

The importance of rest

For some people including me, this is absolutely no problem. I love days when I’m not running, but mainly because I know I’m putting in hard work the rest of the time. For some people though, this is incredibly difficult.

It is easy to think that more running equals better training but if you overdo it then you won’t be able to perform at your best. Your quality of training will reduce and ultimately you may get injured or give up.

You must rest! And if you pick up an injury it is even more important to rest before aggravating it more. Here are the golden rules of rest:

  •      At least one non-running day a week (I prefer two)
  •      If you think you may be injured, rest up rather than running and see how you feel the next day
  •      Don’t try to cram in extra training sessions to make up for ones missed. Accept that you missed it and move on.
  •      Don’t go for your PB every week. This is especially important if you’re a parkrunner. Once a month gives you plenty of opportunity for a PB but means you’re fresh enough to have the best chance of actually doing it.

One word of warning: It is perfectly fine to take time off for injury or other life interventions but if these span more than a few weeks, you need to make an active plan to get back to training. After three weeks, not training will become the norm so you have to reform the habit of training.

I stopped running altogether for a whole year around the birth of our first child and consequently added 4 minutes to my 5k time, which I had to work to get back off when I restarted training.

Plan your race

Your training is going great and you’re getting some valuable rest in too. However, the wheels can still fall off in the race itself.

Here is my original thought plan for doing a 5k:

  1.     Start – “run as fast as possible”
  2.     1 minute in – “feel wrecked, try not to die”
  3.     X minutes later – “finished and alive, just – I am never doing that again”
  4.     X + 10 minutes later – “what I didn’t get a PB? When’s the next one?”
  5.     Next week – repeat steps 1-4

Can you see what I did wrong? Actually, most of the plan isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I did actually do my first couple of sub 20s by going out as fast as I could and trying to maintain it. But it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience. The crazy bit is just repeating it again and again, especially if it didn’t work or wasn’t very enjoyable.

But at least it was a kind of a plan and better than the following:

  1.     Start – “oh I’m running a 5k race today – what time am I going for? What pace does that mean I need to run? How far is 5k anyway? Oh I forgot my watch. I’ll just follow these guys, they look like they know what they’re doing.”

Now let’s not sugar coat it, if you do a PB, there is probably going to be some point during the race that you’ll have to dig deep and get through a physical or mental barrier. There are lots of ways to do this, but you don’t want to be trying to make basic decisions during the race. Here are some things to think about before the race:

  •      How many laps are there in the course?
  •      Are there any hills? If so, where?
  •      Break the race down into separate km or miles. Are you going to run the same pace throughout or start faster or slower than your overall target pace?
  •      Where are you going to hold back and where are you going to push on? Are you going to see how you feel or have an idea before you start?
  •      How close to the front should you start? Think about number of people, relative pace and whether the race is chip timed.

That’s quite a lot of information you already have to be able to make some decisions before the race. For example, if you know there is a big downhill at the start and a big uphill at the end then it’s probably unrealistic to say you will start slower and finish faster.

Pacing yourself during a race is crucial because it can be easy to get carried away following people who are much faster than you and burn yourself out too quickly. I’ve done this several times and not enjoyed the race at all.

Alternatively, it is possible to be too cautious and run too slowly at the start and have too much to make up at the end. Pacing is easier with a GPS watch but you can still do it with a normal stopwatch as long as there are km or mile markers on the course.

I work in miles. Here is a comparison of my mile times for my first sub 20 in 2012 and a more comfortable sub 20 in 2016:

2012: 6:11, 6:27, 6:40, 0:39 = 19:57

2016: 6:28, 6:28, 6:15, 0:35 = 19:46

Firstly, it shows there is more than one way to try and beat your PB and different approaches might work better for different people. I thought the only way I could beat 20 was to run as fast as possible at the start but as you can see from the times above, that adversely affected the time I could run towards the end.

In the second example, I didn’t run as fast at any stage of the race but took 11 seconds off the original time.

I much prefer my latter approach of having enough left after the first two miles to attack the last mile. To me, it feels better to finish stronger. It also says to me that I could be slightly less cautious in the first two miles because I’m able to run faster in the last mile.

There are lots of different options so see what works for you. But know beforehand what you need to do.

Finally, I said before that it is not a good idea to go for a PB every week for rest and recovery reasons. I love parkrun, which is a free 5k timed run every week, because it gives you a chance to test out these pacing strategies.

However, I found that I would regularly “go for a PB” and then halfway round talk myself out of it. I’d say things like “I’m not feeling it today” and “I can have another crack at it next week”.

By restricting yourself to one PB attempt a month, not only do you give your training a chance to kick in and make a difference but you take it more seriously and give it all you’ve got because if you don’t get it, you’ll have to wait another month.

There are lots of ways to improve your 5k time and you will be surprised at how much small changes in training and race preparation can help.

However, rest is just important – after all if it is a PB you are looking for you will need to give everything on the day to get it. Try these techniques starting today and see your times fall within weeks.