Achieving a Sub-20 5k on Three Runs per Week

by Dan
(Wiltshire, UK)

I am a 30 year old male. Due to injury I can only run 2-3 times a week (maximum), which consist of at least one tempo session over 3-4 miles and a longer, slower run (anything between 5-10 miles).

My current 5k PB is 23 minutes. What could you suggest to help knock off 3 minutes from that (sub20)?

Answer by Dom:
Hi there,
Thanks for your question about a sub-20 5k.

sub-20 5k
It's a great goal to have. Last year was the first year in memory I actually did not get a sub-20. I had some unexplained fitness troubles. Blood tests did not show any issues. I am suspecting undetected COVID, which may have given me some longer term drop in fitness. I'll accept that as an explanation over the alternative, i.e. now that I am pushing 50 the inevitable decline means sub-20 is no longer in my reach.... :)

Hopefully I have a few good years in me yet. Over the last six weeks I have recovered somewhat and I have been able to get back from a 22 min 5k to a current time of 20:47. I estimate it may take a couple more months to shave those last 47 seconds off (and hopefully I'll be able to shave off a bit more)!

Anyways, on to you. Achieving a sub-20 is possible for many people, especially when you are still young, like you.

The premise of your question - to achieve this with only 2 or 3 runs per week, makes it way, way more challenging.

I suspect that if you had the raw talent to achieve it on minimal running, you would have done it already.

So, we need to rely on something else.... good old-fashioned hard work.

Let's break this up in the following parts:

1. How Many Runs Do You Need to Improve?
2. Achieving Improvement With Minimal Running
3. Key to Success - Fixing Your Injury Problems

How Many Runs Do You Need to Improve?

sub-20 5k
When you are very new to running, I generally recommend you start doing three runs per week. Three times of running per week provides a good base to improve your fitness AND it provides sufficient rest in between to avoid excessive injury risk.

Consistently running three times per week can help you improve for quite a while, months, for some maybe even years.

At some point though the ability to improve on three runs per week becomes more limited. There is only so much mileage you can get out of three runs. In the end, you'll find yourself stagnating. The way to improve your running then will have to come out of running more, moving on to four runs per week or find alternative ways to put in more work.

Achieving Improvement With Minimal Running

Clearly, you are currently in a situation in which you can run only two or three times per week. Let's assume that that has to stay this way for the foreseeable future.

You are doing a good long run and a tempo run at least. That's a decent basis. In terms of running there are some things you could try with your tempo workout, i.e.:

  • Make your tempo workout longer, e.g through tempo intervals.

  • Cycle this faster workout between a tempo run one week and an interval session the second.

  • With the third workout, I'd likely make it an easy run and finish it with strides or hill sprints.

    Some links to useful pages:

    Tempo Running

    Interval Running

    Running Strides

    Assuming that three runs per week is all you can do, we need to get more work out of other forms of exercise. A great start would be to add an additional one or two cycling sessions to your week. You need the additional work in order to improve further.

    As stated before, I think there is only so much improvement you can get out of three runs per week. We could play around with the programming, with the types of tempo runs/intervals etc until we see blue in the face, but in the end, you need to do more cardiovascular work to improve further.

    Key to Success - Fixing Your Injury Problems

    sub-20 5k
    Now, you haven't shared what exactly the injury is that is causing you problems. If it is a typical injury I see in so many runners (shin splints, achilles tendinitis, ITB, some type of knee pain, etc, etc.) then there is no reason to believe things need to stay the way they are!

    A lot of these injuries are caused because we have imbalances, inherent weaknesses in our body. The cure? Strength training! I have had some injuries over the years, especially an ITB problem that stayed with me for a while. Strength training has saved my running and helped me address weaknesses in my body.

    My strong request to you is to not accept that two or three runs per week is all you can do. See a physiotherapist, join a gym, book a personal trainer and start strengthening your body! It may take time, but you can overcome this.

    Check out the Strength Training for Runners page for further info on why strength training is so important.

    I hope that strength training will help resolve your injury issues. And then, with the ability to run more, I have no doubt sub-20 is a strong possibility for you.

    All the best.
    Kind regards,

    5k running tips

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