How fast one is able to run 5km is dependent on multiple factors including running gait efficiency, injury history, cardiovascular capacity, state of hydration, glycogen storage capacity in the muscles, running experience, body composition and a plethora of neurological and vestibular factors. This article covers cardiovascular capacity and the glycogen storage capacity. Training these two offer the greatest bang for ones’ training buck if one is clear of disabling running gait inefficiencies, has no injury restrictions, has no serious movement restrictions, is hydrated and can already run 5km in about 30 minutes or less.
First assess active heart rate and current 5km performance.
Cycle through the following three sessions for about six weeks:
Recovery programming session. Run 5km. 03:00/00:15. Jog for 3 minutes, sprint for 15 seconds, repeat. Over the weeks gradually increase your jogging pace. Sprint pace remains constant.
Blood flow restriction session. Run 5km. Perform one set of push-ups every 3 minutes. Over the weeks, decrease your overall time.
Glycogen storage session. Run 5km. 1km fast, 1km slow, 1km fast, 1km slow, 1km fast. Record your fast kilometer times and compare each to your next session. Aim to decrease the fast times while the slow times remain constant.
Then reassess your active heart rate and 5km. Expect a significant decrease in time.
Step one: Measure active heart rate
Measuring active heart rate (AHR) following a constant repeatable activity indicates how hard the heart must work in order to send oxygenated blood to the required muscles. Having the active heart rate measurement is very handy for future reference because it tells you if your cardiovascular program has worked, and by how much.
For any assessment to work accurately, constant variables must be in place. For this AHR assessment I suggest the following constant variables:
First thing in the morning, pre-coffee, no hangover
Fully hydrated. The blood is made mostly of water. Blood volume drops significantly when dehydrated, meaning the heart must pump faster to supply the required amount of oxygenated blood. It takes three days of drink enough water to reach hydration. Generally, “enough” water is 2 – 2.5 liters per day for women and 2.5 – 3 liters of water per day for men
Activity. The actual activity is less important than the ability to repeat it perfectly during future assessments. It should mimic the activity one is training for if there is a specific goal in place. For the specific goal of running 5km I suggest either double marking time for 2 minutes or a 2-minute step-up assessment:
2-minute double mark time assessment:
Double marking time is a British naval term for running on the spot. However, the amount that you raise your knees per step has an enormous effect on your heart rate. Double marking time specifically means that your knee has to reach hip height on every step. It’s also important to maintain a constant cadence from one test to another. The cadence I recommend is 160 beats per minute. Use a metronome app to achieve this. Measure your heart rate immediately after this two-minutes. If this is too tough, use the step-up assessment.
2-minute step-up assessment:
Use a bench or box that you will definitely be able to reuse for future assessments. The height of this should be as close to the base of your knee cap as possible. Step up 20 times per minute for two minutes. During the first minute lead with your left leg then switch to leading with right leg for the second minute. Set the metronome app to 40 beats per minute to help keep cadence. Measure your heart rate immediately after completing the two minutes.
Measure the heart rate either by using a HR monitor or the good old-fashioned way of counting pulse beats, immediately following the activity. If you’re counting beats, do so for the first 30 seconds after the activity then multiply by two.
Step two: Measure current 5km best effort time
Use www.mapmyrun.comto measure a 5km loop. For the sake of assessment this loop must be repeatable, it should be flat and as uninterrupted as possible (no busy roads to cross, no pedestrian bottlenecks and no obstacles).
Then, for the following six weeks, cycle your way through the following three training sessions. You don’t have to use the same 5km for the training sessions, just for reassessing. The more variation the better. Take 1-2 days off running between these sessions. The more conditioned you are, the more frequency you’ll be able to handle. Listen to your body and take more than 2 days off if need be. Feel free to partake in other training between these sessions if energy allows, such as strength training.
I have not included warm-ups or mobility training at all below but for the sake of injury prevention and training longevity, all sessions should start with a bare minimum of 10 minutes joint lubing (A.K.A. mobility) followed by a further 5-10 minutes of activation (warming up the appropriate areas). This training program will not work if you live in a state of dehydration.
Training Session A: Recovery Programming (RP)
Run 5km. Set Gymboss interval timer to 03:00/00:15. During every 3-minute period run at your recovery pace. On hearing the bleep, increase your pace to near maximal and sustain this 9/10 pace for 15 seconds. On hearing the next bleep slow down and hit your recovery pace again. Continue in this fashion for the full 5km. Your total time is irrelevant. What’s important is your ability to maintain the constant variable of 9/10 pace for the duration of each 15-second period. Monitoring the total time and aiming to decrease it, tends to encourage a slower 15-second pace and reduces the effectiveness of the session.
Remember that this pace during each 15-second period is your constant variable. The programmable variable is your recovery pace between work intervals.
RP Session 1: The purpose of this session is to feel it out. After the first few work intervals you might be surprised at how fatigued you become. Over the course of the next six weeks your aim is to slowly increase this recovery pace. In order to do that it needs to be constant throughout each session. I suggest starting really slowly to set a baseline. If you are experienced at using RPE as a measurement, run at 3/10 which is a slow jog. Remember that the goal is to be able to hit 9/10 during each 15-second period. Don’t run so fast during the recovery periods that this becomes impossible.
If you aren’t able to manage your pace by feeling, use a pacing device (such as a Garmin Forerunner).
RP Session 2: This should feel more smooth than session one because you are aware of the recovery pace you must drop to in order to recover from the 15-second burst. Try to keep this constant.
RP Session 3 onwards: Increase your recovery pace between work intervals.
By RP session 6 this pace should be so fast that it’s a real struggle to hit the same maximal pace during each 15-second period.
This is lactate threshold training. It trains the lactic acid energy system and increases lactate threshold. When training for events most runners, swimmers, and cyclists tend to ignore their lactic acid energy system and only train their aerobic energy system. To word that statement differently with the same meaning – people tend to ignore their cardiovascular capacity and only train endurance. They train long and slow, neglecting the need to increase their heart, lungs and blood vessels’ ability to deliver oxygen and remove lactate.
Your 5km running pace depends greatly on your bloods’ ability to remove lactate from the muscles at the same rate or faster than it’s being produced. As your pace increases there’s a point when the rate of removal drops below the rate of production. This is called your lactate threshold. As the lactate builds up signals are sent to your brain telling you to slow down. By increasing your cardiovascular system’s ability to remove lactate you increase the pace at which you can run without receiving the “slow down!” feeling.
The RP training session involves frequent intervals of 15 seconds running at close to maximal pace. This sharp increase of pace spikes lactate production within the muscles. Your body adapts to any stimulus that is regularly applied and, in this case, it becomes very efficient at removing lactate while you’re still running.
Instead of frequently increasing pace to near maximal (9/10) for 15 seconds, could you increase pace to less, say 7/10 for 40 seconds? Or 6/10 for 60 seconds and achieve the same result? Yes, but not nearly as quickly. The higher the variation in pace, the faster the adaptation. However, bear in mind that the duration of the work interval has to be long enough to cause a lactate spike. Sprinting at 10/10 pace for 5-10 seconds is less effective because it doesn’t offer enough time to spike lactate levels. 8-9/10 pace for 15-25 seconds is most effective when running training. Each training modality (swimming, rowing, cycling, running) holds different optimal variables because each produce lactate at different rates.
Training Session B: Blood Flow Restriction (BFR)
Run 5km. Set Gymboss interval timer to bleep once every three minutes, continuously. Every time you hear the bleep, perform a blood flow restriction exercise, then get up and carry on running.
The most effective BFR exercise for this goal is push-ups (I’ll explain why later). The number of push-ups to do at each interval is 50% your max reps in one set, so if you can do 40 push-ups fresh, you’ll be doing 20 push-ups every time you hear a bleep. If your 50% max reps number is less than 15 (so you can’t do 30 push-ups when fresh), then restrict blood flow by using one of the following:
10 push-ups, 5/5 leopard crawl
5 push-us, 10/10 leopard crawl
15/15 leopard crawl
Record your overall time. Try to beat it next time by running faster between BFR intervals – this means less BFR intervals in total so there’s a great incentive!
You could use any exercise that restricts blood flow back to the heart. In any case, the set should take 20-30 seconds.
I was recently asked to provide some research and scientific backup to explain my BFR method of training the cardiovascular system…
During my teens I enjoyed running. It helped me perform better at rugby and skiing. I thought I invented interval running because I found that by including frequent speed and/or activity intervals into runs my rate of improvement increased. As a triathlete in my early twenties I fine-tuned the art of interval training, also within the modalities of cycling and swimming which helped me race at elite level. Of course, I acknowledge that I didn’t invent it. Almost everything in fitness has been done before. It’s just marketed and labelled differently. I digress…
As a Royal Marines Commando in my late twenties and early thirties I was able to test my methods further on people other than myself. We adjusted and experimented with all the possible variables in an effort to find the most effective way of helping us pass physical tests some might consider to be superhuman.
Then during the course of 12,000 hours of personal training over five years in London, training the full spectrum of abilities from elite athletes to fat bankers and senior citizens my methods evolved to suit everyday people. During my time as Director of Athletic Performance for Strength Matters, I programmed for hundreds of people across the globe and witnesses the relentless results.
I love science and have a great interest in understanding why training methods work. But all too often I’ve read research papers and scientific studies that are so flawed they’re worthless. Variables that should be controlled generally aren’t. Many research papers and study groups serve an agenda that is not relevant to the real world. So no, I do not have any scientific studies or research to back up my methods. My cardiovascular training protocols are cultivated from a lifetime of working in the trenches and having an intimate understanding of what works and what doesn’t on a huge spectrum of real people. I can however, hypothesize as to why blood flow restriction works…
When tension is held in muscles, the blood is restricted on its way back to the heart for reoxygenation. Push-ups demand blood to be sent to the arms, shoulders and chest, while tension is held in the legs and torso. Running requires blood throughout the entire body, and the areas that demand the most are the legs and hips. By frequently including push-ups into a run your body becomes more efficient at moving blood from one area to another. An experienced BFR athlete can actually feel this happen. The blood vessels become more elastic and better at vasodilation and vasoconstriction. Following each bout of BFR the heart has to catch up and over time becomes more elastic with larger chambers. The heart is able to pump more blood out per beat thus delivering oxygen and removing lactate faster.
Blood flow restriction works when the amount of time under tension is accompanied by an absolute minimum of five times that of unloaded locomotive activity (running, jump roping, swimming, cycling, rowing). Too much time under tension versus unloaded locomotive activity creates a negative cardiovascular training effect and the chamber volume of the heart decreases over time. For instance, 30 seconds of loaded squats followed by 30 seconds of jump roping for repeated sets will send your heart rate through the roof in no time. But only because the heart is under so much stress with excessive BFR. This is not cardio training. All blood flow restriction training should be avoided in cases of heart health histories unless under supervision from a good coach.
Training Session C: Glycogen Storage (GS)
Run 5km continuously, but break it down into 5 x 1km segments:
1st1km: run as fast as possible
2nd1km: jog slowly, just faster than a walk. Time it and try to keep it constant throughout the program
3rd1km: run as fast as possible
4th1km: really slow, same time as 2ndkm
5th1km: run as fast as possible
Time the first, third and fifth kilometers. Make a mental note as you go and record your times at the end of the session. During the next GS session try to beat your times.
This not only helps you achieve a really accurate feel for 1000m, but it increases your capacity to store energy. The point of this is to not hold back and save energy for the next fast kilometer, but at the same time if you give it 100% you may not complete the workout. Give it just under 100%. Make a mental note of your first, third and fifth kilometer times. Record them and strive to beat them next time. But don’t compare them to each other. If you put in the required effort, the first kilometer should always be the quickest.
After 5-7 weeks of cycling through these three training sessions measure your active heart rate and go run a 5km, best effort. Ensure you’re fully hydrated!
Start your 5km at a steady 6-7/10 pace and try to sustain it throughout. When you have 2km to go, increase just a little bit to a 7-8/10 pace. Blast the final kilometer like your life depends on it. I hope this helps! Enjoy.
PS. If someone were to ask me what exercise to do in order to lose fat and get in shape as quickly as possible I would recommend these training sessions along with one pure strength training session. Blood flow restriction training is especially effective at forging athletic bodies quickly. Eg1. Row 5km unstrapped, push-ups every 3 minutes. Eg2. Track run 12 laps, double kettlebell front squats every 2 laps. Eg3. Jump rope for 30 minutes, push-ups and pull-ups every 3 minutes. The BFR possibilities are endless but remember that you’ll only be training your CV system effectively if the ratio of time under tension to time performing unloaded locomotive activity is at least 1:5.