Want to Run 5k in 22 Minutes - What Should My Third Run Be?

by Lynn

Hi, I am a 39-year-old female who has been doing a bit of running for just over a year now. Before this I was doing competitive cycling, mainly time trials at national level, hill climbing being my strongest discipline.

Sadly, I went on to develop a lower right leg dystonia, which has stopped me cycling as pressure on the pedals causes spasms/circling ankle and tight calf muscle. I went onto doing handcycling and swimming for fitness (which I still do for upper body strength and varied fitness/break for dystonic leg).

To cut a long story short, I’ve had dystonia now for over 5 years in my leg, but I discovered that when walking (as it circles with that too) that if I added a couple of sprints the foot behaved during them and calmed down briefly after each.

Next, I built to a 5k having a headstart with cardiovascular fitness. Last April I did my first parkrun (a flat one) in 22.34. This was after just two 5k runs along the local cycle paths before two weeks hence and 6 short sprints thrown into walks once a week for four months.

Generally, I’ve stuck with two sessions a week, one being either a 5k parkrun or the 6 x sprints over a 3+ mile distance just allowing enough time between sprints for breathing to settle. The sprints are 1+ minutes in length.

The other session is a 40+ minutes run, roughly a mile an hour slower than race pace.

The thing is, the faster I run the less the dystonia is there!

achieving a sub-22 5k with a third run

I have been a bit reluctant to add any more sessions/volume in case of tipping the balance and making dystonia worse.

Other sessions I do a week are:
  • Two handcycle sessions (usually around 1hr 30 mins, sometimes some resistance intervals thrown in)

  • Two sessions of pool swimming (the crawl and leg kick with float), one session I swim outside

  • One circuit session, abs and squats (no weights).

  • Now I’m pondering on adding in another run session (but that would be my max) to see if I can shift to under a 22 min 5k.

    So if one session a week is parkrun/intervals and the second a steadier 40+ minutes run, what would be worth doing for a third? Thanks, Lynn

    Answer by Dominique:
    Hello Lynn!

    It's great to hear about your dedication to staying fit and active even in the face of challenges. Your determination is truly inspiring. Now, let's work out what the best way forward is to get to that sub-22 minute parkrun.

    I'll break my answer down as follows:

  • Let's start with a caveat

  • When adding in an extra run, always start easy...

  • ...Then add a bit more variety to your running

  • Let's Start with a Caveat

    achieving a sub-22 5k with a third run
    I am not familiar with dystonia. I imagine it to be very challenging and I imagine every person to have their own unique challenges.

    As we are working on building in that extra run, working out what works for you is going to be important. I'll come at it from a general running coaching perspective. My recommendation may impact the dystonia. So, that makes me a little hesitant on what to tell you.

    But you are an elite sportsperson. You have done cycling at an extremely competitive level. So, you know what it is like to train hard and how to hurt, but also how to listen to your body.

    I trust you can experiment with the possible workouts I'll provide you with and work out what is best for you.

    When Adding in an Extra Run, Always Start Short and Easy...

    achieving a sub-22 5k with a third run
    Moving onto your aspirations of improving your parkrun. First of all, great you found parkrun. I love it. I am doing parkrun almost every week. It is a fantastic way to run a fast 5k, be part of the community and build friendships.

    When adding in an extra run, I always recommend to do a short, easy run. For you especially, your running at the moment is pretty intense. What is lacking is an easy run.

    Given your fitness, the swimming and the handcycling I think you could add a 30 minute run quite easily (fitness-wise). Then build it up over time. It would be fantastic if you could build it into a 60 minute run, or even more. I don't know if that is possible. But running long at an easy pace and building a strong aerobic base, will make you fast. Add in some strides at the end of an easy run and you are cooking with gas.

    If the easy run is problematic with your condition, not to worry. With all those other activities you are doing, I am pretty sure your aerobic base is excellent. But, that would be my first thought. Short and easy, build it out to make it long and easy. Another thing I'd like to suggest is a bit more variety in your running.

    ... Then Add a Bit More Variety in Your Running

    achieving a sub-22 5k with a third run
    Like with cycling, different types of workouts will provide you with different stimuli.

    The sprints are good. I'd recommend mixing it up with somewhat longer intervals, again if that is possible. A standard preparation for a 5k would be a 12 x 400m intervals at about 5k pace with 90 seconds rest in between. You can play around with lengths of the intervals, keeping the total intervals at about 5k of work, e.g. 8 x 600m, 6 x 800m, etc. If 12 x 400m is too much to start off with, you can build up to it. Start by doing 4-6 x 400m and build up from there.

    The 40+ minute steady run at a pace one mile slower than race pace, sounds like quite a tough tempo session. Tempo workouts are really good for you, but you could make this workout somewhat more pleasant by doing tempo intervals, e.g. 4 x 8 minutes w 2 minutes easy in between, 3 x 10-15 minutes with 3-4 minutes easy in between, etc.

    I hope that provides you with some ideas.

    I'll leave you with two links to explore further:

    Running Pace Calculator - A calculator that tells you what your approximate interval, tempo and easy pace are based on your current race performance.

    Running Workouts page - A page with a summary of different running workouts you can do.

    Finally, Lynn, it's great you're seeking advice, don't forget that you are the best judge of your body. Particular workout doesn't feel right? It's okay to adapt it in a way that works better for you. Keep chasing your goals, and remember to enjoy the journey.

    Let me know when you are breaking that 22-minute 5k!

    Kind regards,

    5k running tips

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