How I Became a Sub-19 Minute 5K Runner

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4 years ago, I wouldn’t dream of running at all. Let alone getting a sense of enjoyment (which I currently do) from it. 3 and a half years ago, I decided to give running a go and I quickly found that I liked it. Fast forward to today and I’ve got lots of running achievements to my name. These achievements include:

Why becoming a sub-19 minute 5k runner was an important achievement for me

Despite all of these achievements, you might be surprised to know that being able to run a sub-19-minute 5K is my proudest.

When I first got into running, I started to attend my local parkrun every Saturday morning. Parkrun is a free timed weekly 5k hosted in the community, by the community, for the community. After a month or so, I broke the 20-minute mark and I quickly reset my eye on breaking the 19-minute barrier.

However, for the next 34 weeks I would try and fail to smash through this frontier. Week in and week out, I kept finishing in the 19-minute zone and sometimes I even reverted to the 20-minute zone. After 30 or so weeks of frustration, I realised that something needed to change.

How changing my running process moved me from a sub-20 to a sub-19-minute 5k runner

After 30 failed attempts at becoming at sub-19 5k runner, I made some changes in my lifestyle and training methods. I took the time to take stock of the situation, my lifestyle, daily habits and routines. It was then that I realised I had some sub-optimal elements in my day-to-day life which were holding me back. I then made a few changes, which I will discuss in this blog post.

It took a while for the results to show after implementing these changes, but after 5 weeks the changes paid off. On a cold Saturday morning, 35 attempts after my entry into the sub-20 category, I finished the 5k run in a time of 18:50.

How I became a sub-19-minute 5K runner

What did I do to improve my 5K running time? Without further ado, here are the various methods and lifestyle changes that I implemented and maintain to this day.

1. Getting 7-9 hours of sleep


‘Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting.’ – Dr Matthew Walker, sleep expert and neuroscientist, and author of Why We Sleep


 

Before I took my running seriously, I neglected the importance of getting quality sleep. I’d stay awake late at night, often scrolling through social media or watching a film on Netflix to keep me entertained. What I didn’t realise was that by keeping myself awake with these unimportant time fillers, I was robbing myself of not only better running performance but also better health.

Sleep is essential for all aspects of our health. As our health is directly linked to athletic performance, sleep is essential for runners and achieving better times.

Sleep serves many important purposes for human beings. It improves learning, helps the formation of long-term memories, staves off harmful diseases, aids creativity and improves mental cognition.

Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours is the recommended amount for an adult) has numerous benefits for runners including:

  • Faster and more effective muscle recovery
  • Reduced likelihood of injury
  • Improved performance
  • Increased motivation (important for training)
  • Better immune system
  • Regulated stress levels

Your sleep is a Superdrug. Not only for running, but also for your health in general. The best part about it is that it’s free, can be enjoyed every night, and its totally legal.

After having switched from someone who didn’t care about sleep to now prioritising it, I can attest that getting enough is a must.

Prioritise your sleep and get between 7-9 hours a night. This must be non-negotiable

For more info on the topic, check out this excellent post: https://medium.com/performance-course/sleeping-for-performance-c0ef12d3cfad

2. Eat and drink a healthy diet

‘Sorry, there’s no magic bullet. You gotta eat healthy and live healthy to be healthy and look healthy. End of story.’ – Morgan Spurlock, documentarian, filmmaker, and producer.

Before I ran my sub-19 5k, my diet was poor. Crisps, chocolate, fizzy drinks, sweets and alcohol were regular staples, and I rarely ate fruits and vegetables. Even though I was putting in a decent amount of training, my performance was not improving, and it’s no wonder why.

It was only when I started removing the processed foods our of my diet and replacing them with natural foods that I noticed an improvement in performance.

When it comes to nutrition and sports performance, there are no cheat codes. A healthy balanced diet is an absolute must and non-negotiable.

I always use the metaphor of a sports car. If your body is your sports car, you will want to make sure that it’s fuelled correctly. Ferraris must be fuelled with premium grade fuel rather than regular, low-octane fuel. This is because the Ferrari needs the best possible grade fuel to perform at its highest level in a safe manner. Your body is no different.

The three food groups that became my three pillars of a healthy diet are carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. I base all my calorie intake around these three food groups.

Some examples of what I eat are:

  • carbohydrates – Brown rice, fruit, oatmeal, porridge, vegetables, whole grain bread.
  • Protein – eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, lean red meats, chicken, turkey.
  • Fats – Nuts, seeds, peanut butter, hummus, oils.

 

3. Increase weekly mileage but run at a comfortable pace 

When I was struggling with improving my 5k time, I was running about 10 miles a week. To challenge myself, I gradually upped this mileage to approximately 24 miles a week and I very quickly noticed an improvement in my results.

To run a faster 5K, your body needs to be conditioned for it. By clocking up more miles on a weekly basis, you will become physically fitter, and it will quickly become easier for you to maintain faster paces.

Notice that I haven’t said that you should run these miles fast. On the contrary, most of your training miles should feel slow to you. In other words, they should be well within your comfort zone.

The reason for this is that you want to gradually decrease your heart rate zones over time so that you’re able to stay in a lower zone whilst running quicker.

Rather than constantly spending all your energy running as fast as you possibly can, you should be focusing on heart rate zones.

Heart rate zones are used by athletes to measure the intensity of training by measuring their current heart rate to their maximum heart rate (the hardest possible effort).

There are five heart rate zones based on how hard you are running. These are:

Heart Rate Zone Intensity Percentage of HR Max
Zone 1 Very Light 50%-60%
Zone 2 Light 60%-70%
Zone 3 Moderate 70%-80%
Zone 4 Hard 80%-90%
Zone 5 Maximum 90%-100%

 

Heart rate zones are relative to your maximum heart rate, so everyone’s heart rate zones will be slightly different. For example, a runner who has a maximum heart rate of 190 when going as fast as possible will have a lower zone 2 heart rate than someone with a maximum heart rate of 200.

The reasoning behind running to heart rate zones is that you can control the amount of effort that you’re putting into your run. Dependent on what your maximum heart rate is, you can run in either a very light, light, moderate, hard, or maximum fashion, depending on the type of running you’re doing. This is how you ensure you’re running slow in a way that is relevant to your ability.

As you gradually start running more miles each week, you will become physically fitter. As a result, your heart rate zones will decrease relative to your heart rate and you will find running faster easier.

For more information, check out the following blog post:

 

4. Start doing hill run workouts

Hill runs are what they say on the tin: running up a hill. Of course, I’m not talking about just any hill but rather a hill with a steep, challenging incline.

Before changing my lifestyle and training habits, I used to train exclusively on flat roads. I felt comfortable running on these paved, flat surfaces so saw no reason to change things up. What I didn’t realise was that by not doing hill run workouts, I was depriving myself of many benefits to improve my 5k time.

To do a hill run, you need find a steep hill with a flat incline and run up it as fast as you can. Once at the top, return to the bottom with a light jog and repeat 2 or 3 more times.

Hill sprints are excellent for improving 5k run performance as they develop cardiovascular strength, improve stride length, develop leg muscles, and condition the body faster.

5. Warm up before hand

Before, when I struggled breaking through the 19-minute mark in my 5Ks, I never used to warm up. I would drive down to the carpark where parkrun was taking place, take a gentle walk over to the start line, and go. Not only was this bad for performance, but it was also risky as I could have easily caused myself an injury.

It was only when I ditched the care and took a very gentle walk and light jog down to the local parkrun that I started seeing an improvement in my times.

Warming up beforehand gets the blood flowing, the muscles warm and the body ready for physical exertion. Without a warmup, the body goes from being static to moving in a split second in a 5k scenario which can risk an injury as well as poor performance.

What warm up should you do? It doesn’t have to be anything flashy or overly complex. A gentle walk to get started, which gently increases in pace before breaking out into a light jog will suffice.

A top tip is to not do static stretches to warm up for a run and to ensure that you do dynamic stretches beforehand instead. Static stretches are those done in a stationary position (on the spot) whereas dynamic stretches incorporate some movement. For more information, check out the following blog post:

 

All photos by Pexels 

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