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Breaking 19 Minutes for 5k

The Question

This question is from Darren, who has a barrier in his sights:


“Simple question really: I want to break 19 minutes for 5k. But it doesn't seem that simple to do. I've been stuck around 19:30 for about a year now. I do a club session on Tuesday (usually hill reps or intervals), a parkrun on a Saturday, and a longer run on a Sunday. On Thursday I either do a road run with the club lasting about an hour or do a hard 30 minutes on my own.”

Simon's Answer

Simon - running coach
Simon Loughran - Middle-distance runner and UK Athletics Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF) and Athletics Coach

“These plateaus are quite common when people go and do the same thing week in and week out.

It's a common mistake to think that you need to train hard all the time to get gains. In fact, while hard sessions do have their place, it's the easy running that plays the biggest role in bringing about long term gains, and you're doing very little of this at the moment.

Going hard at every session will bring you benefits for a while, but as you've discovered for yourself it doesn't work forever.

I would focus on laying off the hard sessions for a little while and work on building your mileage instead.

Here's what an example week could look like:

  • Tuesday: Club run
  • Thursday: 1 hour easy
  • Saturday: parkrun sandwich. 5k easy, then a moderate parkrun effort (about 21 minutes), 5k easy
  • Sunday: Long Run

You've still got a club run in there (social runs are important) and you still get to do your parkrun, but there's more volume, you're not exhausting yourself all the time and have more opportunity to recover and adapt.

Try that for 5-6 weeks and then you could experiment with adding another short run once a week or gradually increasing the length of the long run.

It may seem a counter-intuitive approach at first but stick with it and you'll end up fitter, stronger and faster as a result.”

Matt's Answer

Matt - running goach
Matt - Athletics coach and distance runner

“The great news is that you have a fantastic foundation on which to build. To get you to the next level it'll be a case of tweaking what you are doing, while adjusting your race strategy so you can get the very best result.

Looking at your current training, I wouldn't change this too much although I'd certainly avoid a tempo run on a Thursday two days before a 5k you are looking to target a fast time on. You can replace this with a steady run of an hour.

Race strategy: if it's a parkrun you are aiming to achieve this at, it's important to not get in the mindset of trying to beat this time every week. It's extremely difficult to do this for a variety of reasons, including external factors such as the weather and how your week has been in the build-up. Instead, space out the 5k runs that you'd like to target, so that you give your body the best possible chance of getting the time you want. So, for example, you might target a sub-19 parkrun once every 2-3 weeks. In the intervening weeks you can treat the parkrun as a steady run or add it into a longer workout (by running a mile or two to and from the parkrun venue).

Longer runs: For a 5k, 60-90 minutes is sufficient. These should be at a steady pace and hopefully at an even heart rate. You may wish to spice up these runs by doing the last 5-10 minutes at a faster pace.

It is also worth considering cross training such as yoga, core work and strength and conditioning. They are excellent additions to any training regime.”

Phil's Answer

Phil - running coach
Phil - Marathon coach and parkrun fan

“Not much to add to what Simon and Matt have said, except that when you do your next race it might be worth entering a proper race instead of a parkrun.

The atmosphere at a race event is slightly different and that may give you the extra push you need. Or, go to a different parkrun. There are lots of fast courses out there and the change of scenery could really help.”

Our Member's Answer

Ben thinks it might be worth looking at your long run.

Ben - 5k and 10k runner

“if you've been stuck at 19:30 for a year then something probably needs to change. How long is your long run? That might be your key to improving. I was doing 75 minutes on most Sundays but found that when I was training for a half and built up to a two-hour long run my 10k and 5k times came down as well. Maybe entering a half and training for that would work well for you as well?”

Thanks, Ben. There's no doubting the importance of those longer runs.

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