If you have ever wanted to run a 5km in under 20 minutes, then this is the article for you. Below I will share with you my best running tips so that you can stop searching “How to run a 5km in under 20 minutes?” and actually do it!
I think that a 5km time trial is one of the absolute best fitness tests in the world. What makes it so great is that the 5km running distance offers the perfect combination between endurance and speed. When I was running a lot, it used to be my favorite way to check my progress. I would go to the local Park Run and run the 5km’s as hard as I can. It was always motivating to see if I had improved on my time from a month or two ago, or if I needed to go back to the drawing board. My fastest 5km running time ever was 16:17.
I firmly believe that every runner is capable of running a sub 20min 5km. It may sound incredibly ambitious to you, but just the fact that you are reading this tells me that you believe it is possible.
How to run a Sub 20min 5km:
Choose the correct running route
Choosing the correct running route is a crucial step towards running a fast 5km. You want to choose a route that is as fast as possible. If you want to run your fastest 5km ever, then choosing a route with hills in it is not a good idea. Choose a running route that is pan flat. Anything over 20m of elevation gain during the 5km running distance is too much.
The route terrain is also important. Ideally, you want to run on a surface that is hard and even. Running a 5km on the road is without a doubt the fastest way to do it. That is why attempting to run your fastest 5km running time ever at your local Park Run is probably not the best idea. If you can do it at Park Run, then more power to you! I am just here to lay out the best case scenario, which is to find a flat 5km running route that is entirely on the road.
Run with other people
It is far easier to run a fast 5km if you are running (or racing) against other people. That is why I suggest finding a 5km running race in your area and attempting your sub 20min 5km at the race. Finding a 5km race that is fast and flat, might be a challenge depending on where you live. In Cape Town, where I am from, it is easy. There is a different 5km road race almost every week. We call them “FUN RUNS”. When I was younger, my mom would always joke that there is nothing fun about them, while driving me to a different one of these events every weekend. Eventually though, she also got bit by the running bug.
If you cannot find a 5km running road race in your area, then Park Run will have to do. If you do not have a Park Run either, then you are out of luck! Your only other option is to do the 5km time trial during a training run. Choose the right route and run as hard as you can! There is technically no reason why you cannot run a sub 20min 5km by yourself.
What can often happen during a running race, is that you get carried away by the atmosphere at the event. This could cause you to run too fast at the start of the race, only to fade away near the finish. This has happened to me more times than I can count. When the gun goes off, be sure to stay relaxed and do not sprint for positions with the fastest runners at the race. All you have to do, is know what pace you need to run for a sub 20min 5km and to run exactly that pace. That pace will be around 3:58min/km. I will always give myself at least 2 seconds to work with. That way, if you make a mistake in the final kilometer you will still be on your target time. Besides, if 3:58 feels too slow for you after the first 2 kilometers, you can always increase the pace. It is no secret that the fastest and most efficient way to run a time trial, regardless of the distance, is by running negative splits. This means that you run faster as the race goes on. At the very least you want to run even splits. What you do not want to do, is to run your first kilometer in 3:50 only to run all of your subsequent kilometers so slow, that you miss out on that elusive sub 20min 5k!
My favorite running watch at the moment:
I would strongly suggest that you buy a GPS running watch that will tell you your running splits. For a 5km time trial, I will set the watch, so that it notifies me of my latest 1km split. It does this by making a small beeping noise. This is ideal, because it will only take you a split second to look down at your watch and see what your time was for the latest kilometer run. You want to avoid the scenario where you are constantly looking down and fiddling with your running watch. Every time you do this you disrupt your breathing, which causes you to WASTE energy. A GPS running watch will most likely also be able to tell you your “current” running pace. This refers to the pace you are running at during that very moment. Do not pay close attention to this. Usually, it will spit out a ball park figure that changes every second or so. Instead, just focus on your 1km running splits. If you keep them between 3:55 and 4:00min per kilometer, you can not go wrong.
Race day nutrition
You may be wondering, what race day nutrition could you possibly need for a running race that only lasts 20 minutes? Well, the answer is not much at all. The biggest mistake athletes make with their nutrition the morning of a 5km running race, is that they eat a meal that is too big. If you eat a big meal of oats or eggs on toast an hour, or even two hours before your race, it will not have enough time to digest. It will not even provide you with much, if any, energy during the race. What it will do is sit high up in your stomach and make it hard for you to breathe efficiently during your run. A 5km running race does not last long. You need to be able to transport as much oxygen to your lungs as possible during that time. So, do not eat a big meal before your 5km time trial.
Instead, what you should do is that when you wake up, have a cup of water and a piece of fruit. My favorite fruit to have before a short running race is a banana. If I do not have a ripe banana, then I will have 2-3 medjool dates instead. Nothing more. It is only when the running race lasts for longer than 1 hour, that I will wake up early in the morning and have my normal breakfast. Let me stress again, that having a big meal before a 5km running race will do more harm than good.
Have a good pair of running shoes
This should go without saying, but have a good pair of running shoes! Choose a shoe that will suit the terrain you are going to run on. If you take my advice, you will be running on the road during your 5km time trial. That means, you will need road running shoes. The good thing is that road running shoes tend to be faster and lighter than any other pair of running shoes.
These are my favorite running shoes, which I can personally recommend:
Listen to music
Listening to music while running is a great idea! If you can find a motivating soundtrack that you like, it will almost certainly help you run faster. With that said, I need to make this public service announcement:
If you are going to run with earphones, do not have the music so loud that you can not hear your surroundings. It may sound like the whole point of listening to music while running is to “zone-out”, but if you cannot hear what is going on around you, you could put yourself and other runners in danger. Have your music loud enough that it will motivate you to run faster, but not that loud that you can not hear someone coming up from behind you.
A relaxed runner is a fast runner. Pay close attention to your breathing and your running posture during your 5km time trial. It may sound silly, but these things will significantly impact the speed at which you can run.
Belly breathing, also known as “abdominal breathing”, is widely considered the most efficient way to breathe while running. It is even more important to do belly breathing when you are running as hard as you can, because you will need as much oxygen as possible. I found this video online, which explain what abdominal breathing is and how to do it:
What a lot of runners do when they are running hard, is they tense up their shoulder and neck muscles. You need to practice relaxing these muscles when you are running hard in training. A running coach once said to me, what you do in training is what you do on race day. Watch what professional runners look like while running on YouTube. You will notice that even during the final lap of a running race, at the OLYMPICS, they have a relaxed running style. Eliud Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon is another good example of this. Look at how comfortable he appears in the final few minutes of that run. It is almost tempting to shout at your computer screen, “RUN HARDER!”, because it does not look like he his running as hard as he can, even though you know that he is. Staying relaxed when the going gets tough is an extremely important skill runners and cyclist need to master.
How do I train for a sub 20min 5km?
I have shared with you all the race day advice I can possibly think of to help you run your first sub 20min 5k. There is nothing more I can tell you, other than run as hard as you can for as long as you. I am not your running coach and I can not give you a 12 week training program to run your first sub 20 min 5km… at least not now, but it might not be a bad idea for a future ebook. What I will do, is I will give you my favorite workout to hep you train for your first sub 20min 5km.
6x1KM RUNNING REPEATS:
There are various ways you can do this workout. If you are training for a fast 5km, the best way to do it is to run a little faster than race pace, with as little recovery in between as possible. You can start out by doing 6x1km repeats at 3:59min/km pace with 5 minutes of recovery in between efforts. This might be too fast or too slow for you at the moment. If it is too fast, then you are not ready to be thinking about running a sub 20min 5km just yet. If it is too slow, then you can increase the pace and decrease the recovery time. Do this workout once a week and every week decrease the recovery time by 1 minute and increase the pace pay 1-2 seconds. After 3 weeks, take a recovery week during which you do a lot of easy running. This will give your body time to absorb the hard training you have been doing.
If you can do 6x1KM repeats with 1 minute of recovery in between efforts and at a pace that is 3:55min/km or faster for each effort, then you are ready for your sub 20 minute 5km run. Good luck!