Training

Tips to improve your 5k and 10k time

Apr 24, 2020

Nick Bester tips

Keep the easy days super easy, so you to push harder on hard days

If you feel strong on an easier training day and feel like going faster, don’t! It really is hard to hold back sometimes when you’re feeling good but just remember that if you don’t allow your body to fully recover then you can never push to your maximum ability on your harder training days. I’ve always followed a training structure that incorporates one easy day followed by one harder day and so on.

I’ll admit that I’ve previously fallen into the trap of pushing too hard on recovery runs. Don’t fall into this trap. Recovery should feel easy and your heart rate should remain below at least 76% of your threshold heart rate.

On the flip side, when you are doing harder training sessions (track, tempo, hill sprints, time trials), be sure you push your hardest, leaving nothing in the tank at the end. It’s always better to progress within a session, finishing stronger and faster than when you started. Having said this, never be scared to hit the dreaded ‘wall’ during training. Yes, it hurts and yes, it’s not fun, but it is one way of finding out exactly where your limitations lie. Rather hit a wall in training than in a race.

Incorporate at least 2 track/interval sessions a week to build your speed and running efficiency

When it comes to marathon training, I like to incorporate one big track session a week of at least 8kms track volume. But when it comes to increasing speed over the shorter distance, it’s a lot more beneficial doing two track/interval sessions per week with reduced volume, allowing you to push for faster speeds. Say for example, 2 sets of 4km track volume, with shorter sharper intervals and slightly longer recovery times. It’s also nice to mentally change the sessions up where in one session you run to a distance target (eg. 10 X 400m) and then in the next session you run to a time target. (eg. 10 X 60 seconds). Be sure to warm up and cool down for at least 10 – 15 minutes before these sessions. This is as important as the actual sessions. Warm up should be a series of dynamic stretches and cool down can be a light jog, followed by static stretches. Warm up on race day should be at least 20 minutes long so that you’re ready to hit your splits from the first km.

Hill Sprints over Hill Repeats

Longer hill repeats are great if you’re training for a marathon or especially an ultra-marathon like Comrades. However, if the 5km and 10km distances are your main focus, then hill sprints are the way to go – shorter bursts of sprint efforts up a hill and then recover on the way down. A hill sprint session would look something like this (16 X 40 seconds) compared to a hill repeat session that would look something like this (8 X 1km)

Shorter tempo sessions compared to those when training for a marathon

During marathon training, big tempo sessions are one of the most important, which are anywhere between 14 to 30km long. However, for shorter distance targets, reduced volume tempo sessions are much better for when it comes to keeping your speed and sharpness there. A session such as 4–12km tempo is sufficient enough volume. Your tempo pace for a shorter session should be just a tiny bit slower than your 10km pace, whereas in your longer sessions this should be in or around your half marathon pace.

Remember tempo isn’t full on racing – don’t fall into this trap. Often these sessions tend to turn into a race when done in a big group with competitive runners, but the trick is to stay disciplined and not ‘empty the tank’ – save that for race day. You should be able to talk at your tempo pace but not enough to have a full conversation. It’s a great idea to practise your race pace within certain sections of these sessions so your body gets used to the speed you’ll be running atin your race.

Less miles means more time for strength/explosive power training

I prefer to do this strength work on the harder training days to keep the easy training days easier, not just physically but mentally too. I tend to do strength work on the same days that I do track, tempo, hills and time trials. Explosive training really activates those fast twitch muscles. Exercises such as jump squats, jump lunges, box jumps etc. are a lot more effective that just doing the usual squats and lunges.

Introduce ‘Hot Spots’ within your training

A ‘Hot Spot’ is a pick-up done as fast as possible, in the middle of your easier runs. The run overall should feel easy, but when it comes to the hot spot, this is business time! I usually make mine 1km and push as hard as possible. The point of this is to get your legs turning over as quickly as possible and yourheart rate as high as possible – preferably done on a slight downhill, allowing you to get your leg speed up. Doing these consistently over time improves your running mechanics as well as increases your efficiency. 1km hot spots also give you a great indication of where your current fitness levels are at, as well as the times you should be targeting. Below is a breakdown of the formulas I use to gauge current fitness levels and the times I should be targeting;

– Current marathon time = 1km hot spot as fast as possible, then minus 20 seconds = this will give you your potential marathon time. (For example, if you do a 1km in 3:40 then your current marathon time is 3h 20 mins).

– Current 5km time = 1 km hot spot as fast as possible, add 15 seconds and that’s your 5km pace. (For example, if you’re doing a 1km in 3:40 then your potential 5km pace is 3:55 per km). Another good way of measuring the time you should be targeting for the 5km distance is right in the beginning of your training block, run 3 X 1 mile efforts as hard as you can with 5 minutes rest in between. The accumulative time over these 3 quick miles is the equivalent time you should be targeting for your 5km race.

– Current 10k time = 1 km hot spot as fast as possible, add 25 seconds and that’s your potential 10km pace. (For example, if you’re doing a 1km in 3:40 then your 10km pace is 4:05 per km).

Train at a pace quicker than your targeted race pace

It’s simple: to run faster, you have to train faster. Training quicker than race pace gets your legs used to your targeted race speed. Your track pace and hot spots should all be quicker than race pace. The more of these you do, the more the body and legs get used to this speed and in turn the more comfortable you feel running at faster speeds within a race.

Work on flexibility

Faster running means that the legs get more fatigued and can be tighter than ever. Running on tight legs can cause injuries. It’s crucial to keep stretching and foam rolling, keeping the muscles loose and the body/legs as flexible as possible. A great way I try stay as flexibly as possible is by doing a morning stretch routine.

Another thing that helps keep flexibility is to cross train on your days off or your recovery sessions. I do a lot of my recovery sessions on the elliptical, bike or in the swimming pool. These non-impact exercises help a lot when it comes to recovering faster. The main things is just to ensure the heart rate and easier effort levels are the same as if you were running on your recovery session.

The right kit/running shoes

Okay, let’s not kid ourselves – the Nike Vaporflys and Next%’s have stolen the market when it comes to faster running. Rightly so, in my opinion but they do come at a cost It’s important to find the right shoes for you. If you run long distances as well, you may want one type of shoes for short and fast runs, with a different shoe for long runs. Visit a specialist runner store and try out different brands.

Pick the right races and plan your peak accordingly

It’s never good to put all your eggs in one basket and luckily when it comes to 5km and 10km races your body recovers much faster than compared to a marathon where it could take months to recover from. I’d suggest you target the 5km distance first. Once you’ve achieved your goal, then use this speed and build the strength you need to convert into the 10km distance. It’s impossible to stay at your peak fitness all year round. I aim to peak around twice a year. So choose your races wisely to coincide with when you’re planning to peak.

There’s nothing you can gain fitness wise during the week leading up to the race so be sure to taper. Allow yourself to line up with fresh legs to have the best possible chance of reaching your goal. I like to do shorter sessions within the week of the race – quick enough to keep the sharpness in the legs but short enough for them not to be fatigued on race day.

Extra rest

Harder training and more speed requires extra rest. Elite athletes aim to get 8 hours + sleep a night. I know we all have time pressures, but in my view 7 hours should be the bare minimum, with the aim of getting 8. Our body’s optimal recovery time is when we are sleeping.

Reduce carbs on easy days, increase good carbs for harder days

Everybody reacts differently to different diets. Nutrition is a completely different ball game and we could talk about it for ages but ultimately you need to find what works best for you.

On recovery days, I reduce the amount of carbs I consume in order to stay as lean as possible, but always keep my protein intake where it needs to be, so the muscles can build and recover. For harder days I increase my intake of good carbs the night before as an increased source of energy. Good carbs include foods like sweet potato, whole wheat pasta, brown rice etc.

Always head going in the right direction – onwards and upwards

Your times won’t necessarily improve week on week.  In fact, that’s near impossible.  However, the main thing is to ensure you’re making gradual progress to your end goals. Some days you feel great and you hit your target times easier than you thought and other days, you might be way off your target times. It’s okay to have these days as long as the effort levels are there.

You should allow yourself at least 3 months of consistent and structured training when targeting a 5km and 10km race.

Good luck with your training!

Nick Bester


Nick Bester is a passionate runner and online coach who has achieved 3 silver Comrades medals, the fastest in a time of 6:28:52. He has also completed 23 consecutive sub-3 hour marathons.

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