Training for a 5K: Time for a Mindset Change

For so many new runners, the 5k (3.1) is their first goal race distance. In fact, the “Couch to 5k” training programs have been a fantastic “gateway” to running for folks interested in getting active.

So I feel kind of strange admitting that, after over 30 years of training, running, and racing, I don’t really know where to start when it comes to training for a 5k. Because I’m not coming from the couch; I’m coming from a year where I ran 53 miles in 12 hours, completed two full marathons, and spent a ton of time on either asphalt or trails, running for hours and hours.

At first glance it might seem like I’m over thinking this, right? Like, it’s “just” 3.1 miles right? Only my goal is not just to finish; it is to run that distance as fast as I can at the Carlsbad 5000 in March.

Keyword: Fast!

Not that I take for granted that I can run 3.1 miles, but I did just come home from a 5.5 mile trail run. I was slow, because I’m still healing from a broken rib (that’s another story for another day). But getting through the miles wasn’t a challenge. Just the speed.

“Fast” has always been a big challenge for me. Even at the height of a training cycle where I’m trying to bust out a marathon BQ time, I’m not necessarily running very fast. Because I am not a fast runner; I have endurance, but not speed. If you look at my stats, my fastest recorded mile (8:09) occurred during a marathon I ran back in 2018. And it wasn’t the first mile, either (it was mile 13). At another race, the California International Marathon, mile 26 was my fastest mile for the entire race, run at a pace of 8:15/mile.

Folks, I can barely bust out an 8:15 pace when I’m doing quarter mile repeats. Sometimes I wonder if I actually need to run 25 miles to be properly warmed up to run fast? Let’s hope not.

I haven’t trained to race a short (and fast) distance since high school. This was many years ago. Like, many. And all I remember from those days was having a coach that made us run many, many, many miles. Occasionally we ran up and down the bleachers.

I wasn’t very fast back then either.

So I know I need to change my training – and my mindset – if I am be successful.  I cannot rely on long, slow training runs to ramp up my speed. I’ll need to run fast intervals. I’ll need to work on my form. I’ve been consistent with weekly yoga and strength training, so I’ll keep at that. And I’ll need a good plan.

I’ve decided to follow the 5k training plan from Greg McMillan’s book You (Only Faster). I’ve always liked McMillan’s training plans; I’ve used them for my full marathon training cycles, especially when trying I was trying to meet the BQ standard.

I’ll get into the nuts and bolts of this plan soon. It’s a 12 week plan but the race is 10 1/2 weeks away, so I’ll be starting with the Week 3 schedule next Monday. I’m hopeful that my breathing (currently impeded by my healing rib) will be nearly pain free, allowing me to lean into the speed workouts.

For now, I’m working on changing my mindset when it comes to my ability to run fast. I’m visualizing running a pace that starts with the number “7” (or perhaps even a “6” for shorter intervals).  I’m reminding myself that it takes 2 slow miles for me to properly warm up, and just building that warm up into every “fast” workout. I may need to run a 2 mile warm up on race day, which seems a little crazy for a 3.1 mile race, but if that’s what my legs and lungs need, then that’s what I need to do.

I know there are runners who are similar to me in age and experience, who can blast off at top speeds without any warm up. For the longest time I berated myself for not being able to do the same. And there are other runners who seem to “race” every workout. But I’ve come to understand that for me, I run fast by training slow – at least when it comes to longer distance races.

So this mindset change is also about not worrying about what the runner “next to me” is doing. I’m running my pace, and running my race.

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