Run Like an Olympian: 4 Tips to Your Fastest 5K

By , Samantha Clayton, Olympic sprinter and certified personal trainer
Whether you are a seasoned athlete, a stay-at-home mom, or a true weekend warrior, setting your sights on running a 5K is an achievable and rewarding goal. The second you sign up for a race you become an athlete. And once you start thinking like an athlete, your training plan and overall goal are easier to achieve.

Athletes approach every training session, every meal time and every activity with our end goal in mind. Asking themselves the question, “How will this help me be faster, stronger and more prepared for my competition?" ensures that they make good choices.
Here are four questions that you should ask yourself to think like an athlete, improve your running speed and run your fastest 5K time ever.


Question 1: Is this training plan the best routine for me?

Training for a race is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses will enable you to address the areas of your body that need more work. As an example, if you are constantly tight in your hamstrings and hip flexors adding extra leg stretches for runners to your plan may help you run more freely. In addition, some people can get by—even thrive—with a little extra running or a little less running than their plan dictates. Some might need more rest. Listen to your body and make the adjustments that make sense for you.

Question 2: Do I understand the race and what is expected from my body?

A 5K race involves using your aerobic system (moderate to high intensity) approximately 80 percent of the time and your anaerobic system (very high, breathless, sprint-level intensity) approximately 20 percent of the time. Following a training plan that trains both of these systems effectively can help you shave off a few extra minutes from your time on race day. Training your anaerobic system will give you a confidence boost, too. Knowing you can “outrun” people in the final stretch toward the finish is a great feeling.

Here's a great training plan to ensure that you are working both systems efficiently to help increase your speed:
  • Two 30-45 minute "steady state" runs at a moderate pace each week. This will enhance and build your aerobic capacity.
  • One "tempo" run each week that alternates between five minutes of steady-state (moderate) running followed by a 60-second anaerobic speed burst for a total of 30 minutes. This will train both your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems in the same session.
  • One day dedicated totally to sprinting is a great addition to any program, especially if you use a hill for your sprints. By adding hill sprints, you get the added bonus of improving your running technique; running uphill makes you focus on driving your arms and ensures you build and engage the posterior chain muscles which are essential for running faster. This will be an intense workout to train the anaerobic system, but it can also be a shorter workout than the other days.
  • Finally, one day running one-mile repeats at a faster pace than you run on your moderately paced days will get your body used to running slightly faster over distance. After each mile, you rest and recover until your breathing is back to a resting state (about three to five minutes for most people). For a 5K distance, completing just three or four one-mile repeats on this day should suffice. As you get close to race day, do 1.5 mile repeats. The more you train your body to be comfortable at a fast pace, the easier race day will become.

Question 3: Am I fueled efficiently both before and after my training sessions?

When it comes to endurance running, selecting a good fuel to power your training session and rebuild and regenerate after your workout is important. Just like a car cannot run without gas, you cannot run well on an empty tank. When you are preparing to run a race is not a good time to go on a restrictive diet. Make smart choices and ensure you are consuming good carbohydrates and high-quality proteins.

The great thing about fueling up for a 5K race and training for one is that it is very simple and easy. Unlike running a marathon, you do not need to overload the night before with carbohydrates and fats because a 5K is so short.
Carbohydrates and fats are essential energy sources for high-intensity aerobic exercise, but your body probably has sufficient fat stores to call on if needed. Focus your energy on providing quality carbohydrates before your run. Some ideas include granola, toast with peanut butter or sometimes a banana and graham crackers before a run—they are all light and easy to digest.

For after training, try to feed your body with the nutrients it needs to re-stock, rebuild and regenerate. Taking in proteins and carbohydrates within 30 minutes after your workout can drastically increase the benefits while boosting your energy levels. You might also try a high-quality protein shake made with water and low-fat milk after a training run. You could even add fruit such as banana and pineapple (pineapple has anti-inflammatory properties and it makes your shake taste good).
On race day itself, many races are in the morning, so you probably won't eat a full meal beforehand. Treat yourself to an omelet with chicken and spinach as a post-race meal; add in some whole-wheat pancakes, too!

Question 4:  Do I have the right equipment for me?

Just because your friend loves to run in a certain pair of shoes does not automatically mean they are good for you! Selecting equipment based on your personal needs can drastically improve your time on race day. Did you know that excessive pronation (foot instability) can slow each stride down by 0.2 seconds? It may not sound like much but when you think about how many strides you take in a 5K, 0.2 seconds can translate to a few minutes of time. Go to a specialty running store and get fitted based on your needs. 
In life, we are all competitors. Everyone deserves to feel the joy of self-improvement. It doesn't matter if you are a 12-minute mile runner or a 4-minute mile pro; setting new goals and working hard to achieve them will have you smiling on the inside and running in stride.

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