Today, we’re going to be showing you how to run a 5k in 20 minutes or less.
A sub 20-minute 5k is probably up there at the top of the tree as a goal for aspiring newcomers or seasoned runners alike.
It is a distance that most runners are familiar with and it’s a brilliant way into running for beginners. However, it’s a serious barrier for many runners out there.
But hopefully, if you’re approaching the distance with a really specific target time in mind like 5k in 20 minutes or less, that’s where we’re going to come in to help.
We’re going to be looking at the types of training that you need to be doing, how to structure your week and everything that you need in the approach to race day itself.
If running a 5k in 20 minutes is tougher for you, why not try running your 5k in 30 minutes first.
Let’s dive right into it…
How To Run A 5k in 20 Minutes or Less?
To run a 5k in 20 minutes, it’s good to know what just a 20-minute 5k equates to. It just means you need to be able to run your 5k faster than 4 minutes per kilometer (4 min / km+), or 6 minutes 26 seconds per mile (6 min 26 / mile +), or around 15 kilometers per hour.
But if your goal is a sub 20-minute 5k, you should be aiming for a pace in the region of around 3:55 per kilometer up to say 3:58 per kilometer, which will give us a finishing time of 19:35 up to 19:50, which, is perfect.
And regardless of your distance, these targets are all about our ability to pace and crucially knowing the pace that we need to hit.
That means you’re going to need to get comfortable with how that pace feels. So, even running a little bit faster than that will help you towards that goal because we always advocate being able to run either side of your target pace.
Now, before taking a look at the types of training that you need to undertake, you need to respect the 5k distance…
Related: Best 5k Running Shoes
Respect the Distance
People often talk about respecting the marathon distance. While it is a very different challenge, you still need to respect the 5k for a very different reason.
While it’s mainly an aerobic event just like the marathon, you need to be ready for a very different kind of sustained hard effort.
If you’re really pushing for a 5k PB, then it’s going to feel pretty hard from early on and that’s something to mentally prepare for.
It’ll also start to feel harder the longer you go on as well to try and maintain that same pace.
Again, I’m really afraid to say it’s going to be quite tough and painful because 5k distance tends to be pretty brutal. It’s short, but 20 minutes is a long time to be running at that top-end speed.
Build a Base
Before even thinking about paces or specific training sessions, you need to consider the overall training volume that you already put in.
We’ve already talked about the fact that the 5k is a mainly aerobic event so you need to be aerobically fit.
That means that things like long slow runs and your overall mileage are things you need to still consider.
So, how you approach this 20-minute 5k target kind of depends on the type of runner that you or already are.
So, maybe you’re out running four times a week already but you’re frustrated with your 5k time and seem to have hit a bit of a plateau and you can’t get that little bit faster.
In that instance, it’s the types of run that you’re doing during training that you need to look at rather than increasing your volume.
If you’re someone that thinks that running a 5k in 20 minutes could be a realistic stretch target, perhaps you’ve got this point running twice a week on average.
And don’t go crazy throwing in tougher harder sessions before you’re ready.
Your focus to start with should be adding in a few extra runs a week at an easy or steady pace. Don’t do too much too soon.
The key thing here is to give yourself enough time even if you’re really close to breaking that 20 minutes over 5k.
Adding these harder sessions in isn’t going to give you an immediate effective response.
So, you could end up being disheartened or getting injured if you do end up doing too much too soon, which is why you should give yourself at least 10 weeks, and then you can adapt as you see any progress week on week.
Related: How Do You Run A Training Base?
Types of Training
First up, you need to be able to run repeated efforts at your target race pace with relatively short recovery.
You can mix up the sessions week on week, but overall, you’re aiming for a total of around 5k of cumulative hard efforts.
If you do repeat the session later on in your training block, then look to keep the same pace but reduce the overall recovery.
So, we’ve put together 5 sessions for you to try out. Maybe try them out in a five-week block and do a different session each week.
Then, you can repeat that five-week block and have a look back at how you’ve progressed doing the same sessions.
You want to allow yourself plenty of time to do this. You want to do around 10 to 15 minutes and maybe finish with a couple of accelerations to really wake those legs up.
- 3 sets of 3 min, 2 min, 1 min + 60s recovery + 3 min between sets.
Try 3 sets of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute with 60 seconds recovery and 3 minutes in between sets.
- 12 x 400 at 90s pace + 60s recovery
Then, 12 times 400 meters at a 90-second pace with 60 seconds recovery.
- 2X (4 x 600m) at 4.00 km pace + 90s recovery + 3 min between sets
Another session to try is 2 sets of 4 lots of 600 meters. Aim for 4-minute kilometer pace with 90 seconds recovery and 3 minutes recovery between sets.
- 2X (7 x 400) at 90s pace + 60s recovery.
This is an extension of an earlier session split into two sets. Two sets over 7 400-meter efforts at 92-second pace with 60 seconds recovery and 3 minutes between the sets.
- 5 x 1km at 3:55 pace + 2 min recovery.
Finally, 5 times 1-kilometer efforts at 3:55 pace faster than your target race pace with 2 minutes recovery throughout.
Threshold & Tempo Runs
A vital part of training for a 5k is threshold or tempo runs. That means running a sustained pace that’s harder than your normal runs but slower than your target 5k race pace.
This is one of the most efficient ways of training your aerobic system.
There’s no need for these runs to be intimidating or boring even. You can mix them up and why not try out some of these sessions and you can change it up week on week.
- 8km / 4:40 km pace
First up, do a nice and simple 8k threshold run at 4:40 per kilometer pace.
- 3 x 2km / 4:20 km pace + 3 mins jog recovery
Then, try 3 sets of two kilometers at full 20-kilometer pace with 3 minutes jog recovery in between.
- 8km / 4:30 km pace
Look to go back to a solid 8k threshold again but increase it slightly to 4:30 per kilometer this time.
- 2 x 3km / 4:20 km pace + 4 mins jog recovery
Let’s finally drive 2 times 3k at 4:20 pace with 4 minutes jog recovery.
Yes, you’re only racing for 20 minutes, but you do still need to incorporate longer runs into your training.
Everyone has a different definition of what they can sit along, but in this context, we’re looking at 60 minutes or more.
Long runs = 60 mins+
They don’t all have to be at the same pace but do look to run some of them easy or maybe even consider incorporating some as a progression run. Progression runs mean starting off pretty easy and then looking to increase the pace every 15 minutes or so.
You still shouldn’t be running even quite as fast a threshold pace when you finish it, so don’t go crazy.
So, interval runs, threshold runs, and longer runs are really important for your training but so are your easy and steady runs.
Broadly speaking, easy steady runs are going to be your runs that are in between your harder days of efforts.
And make sure you listen to your body.
Listen To Your Body
Don’t feel like you have to rigidly stick to schedules and certain types of runs. So, work out how your body is responding to that type of training.
If you feel like you need to rest, then have a rest. And if you feel like you need to run a little bit more slowly, then it’s okay to run a bit more slowly, too.
If you feel okay at the end of one of those runs, then throw in some strides. By that, I mean 100-meter efforts faster than your 5k target pace. Aim to run four or six of them and progress the pace throughout.
So, those are all the different types of training to do to try and hit that sub 20-minute 5k. But, “how am I going to fit all of those in my week?”, which brings us to how you can structure your week…
How To Run 5k in 20 Minutes Training Plan
Bear in mind that most of us are juggling work and family life and what we said earlier on about not doing too much too soon.
But if we work on the fact that we could be training four or five days a week, then now we’ve got a good start for you.
Most of us are familiar with doing our longer run on a Sunday, so let’s put that in there on a Sunday aiming for 60 minutes or more.
Monday & Tuesday
Then on Monday, you’ll have a rest day before Tuesday doing your interval sessions whether that’s on the track, the road, or on the trails.
On Wednesday, you look to do an easy recovery run at between 30 and 40 minutes.
Thursday & Friday
Thursday is another rest day and on Friday, do your threshold run.
Then on Saturday, you can rest or potentially do some active recovery, which is going to be another easy recovery runs 30 to 40 minutes. And if you feel okay, run those strides we talked about.
So, now we know what training to do, what it looks like, and how to structure your week. Is there anything else that you should know about race day itself?
First of all, NOTHING NEW on a race day obviously. I’m talking about food, sports drinks, running shoes, shorts, bras…
Don’t worry about other runners around you either. This is all about you and that sub 20. This early phase of the race is critical for hitting that goal.
Try not to make any spikes in pace or erratic surges that other athletes might influence.
So, lock into your pace and don’t be pressurized by others around you. Be confident in your strategy and really try to keep it consistent.
Again, the most important thing is pacing.
Pacing is incredibly important on race day, particularly from the start. I have seen countless people shoot off as if they’ve left a cannon only for them to parachute backwards a few minutes later.
Try not to be that person.
The sessions that we’ve outlined should give you a really good feel in your training for the pace that you need to hit on race day, but beware of adrenaline.
Don’t be tempted to go off too hard to bank extra time and burn all your matches in the first couple kilometers.
It’s very easy to get carried away and you do want to use that adrenaline to some extent, but make sure you keep a cap on it.
Let’s say you were targeting the top end of that range we talked about before and gunning for a finish time of around about 19:50. That gives us a pace of 3:58 per kilometer.
So, from the start, you need to limit yourself to say a 3:50 for that first k, and that with some simple math tells us we’ve got an 8-second buffer, which, believe me, is going to be useful towards the finish.
Once you’ve established your rhythm and pace, make sure you settle down into that as quickly as possible. Otherwise, if you do this for too long, you’re going to start creating some damage.
So, ideally, settle down within the first kilometer.
When you get to 3k, then you can start pushing between 3 and 4K, which is when nobody wants to push because you can feel like you want to take a little bit of a breather. Don’t, because you’re going to lose a lot of time.
Recce The Course (if possible)
Of course, the terrain and location of the event is definitely worth taking into consideration when you’re making your plan of attack before the event.
If it is your first time at this event, then you’ll want to maybe check online and see if there’s a course profile there.
Otherwise, you can wait until race day when you’ll be doing your warm-up before the event to do almost a little bit of a recce of the course.
Check out and see if there is inclines, declines and if there is, then you might want to adjust your pace accordingly.
And if there is going to be some hills in the race, you just need to make sure that you back off your pace accordingly as you approach one because you don’t want to go too hard.
Rather, try to focus on good form and posture and try and really push on over the top of that hill rather than going, “Oh, I can have a little bit of a break now.”
So, you need to try and capitalize on that effort and momentum you’ve built on the upside so that on the downside you can really try and let yourself go and use that momentum.
You can also try and catch up on a bit of the time that you might have lost before on that climb but within reason.
And on that note, try not to fall into the trap of hammering the downhills.
You really want to try and relax and really get into that mindset of letting yourself go, and I guarantee you will be catching people.
Running To Heart Rate
On another note, if you’re going to be running to heart rate in your race, do try and maintain it. It’s something that really can make a huge impact on your pacing.
And a good tip is if you’ve got a watch that has an alarm function, set it to the upper limit that you know you can cope with.
Do of course listen to it in the race because burning all those extra matches early in the day really isn’t going to help at all.
5k & Hydration
Admittedly, although it may not feel it at the time, 20 minutes is a relatively short span of time. So, we really don’t need to be concerning yourselves with hydration during the race really whatsoever.
However, if you are in a hot climate, then you might want to take some sips of water, but really that’s all we’re talking about.
Although, you could say that if you are racing in the summertime or in a hot climate, then the event is probably going to be making provisions for this.
So, just check the event information beforehand and find out where those aid stations are going to be and where you can take liquid on board.
And of course, we do need to think about hydration and fuel in the immediate hours before the race. So, whatever it is you’re going to be taking on board, be it some food or some liquid, you’ve got to give yourself some time for that to digest and settle in your system.
I personally always like to have that done two hours before the start time. So, just work yourself backwards from there.
If you really are gunning for that sub 20 5k and you’ve executed that pacing plan perfectly, then I’m fairly sure you’re going to be hanging in for dear life in those final stages of the race.
I’m afraid it’s really going to hurt at the end.
So, in that final half of a kilometer, just give it a little bit of a nudge and push on. And once you can see that finish line, let’s say the last 100 meters or so, just get after it and sprint to the finish really.
Hopefully, that’s giving you guys plenty of tips and advice to go out there and train to smash your sub 20 5k.
What are your goals for the 5k? We’d love to hear about how your attempts at sub 20 have gone.
Let us know in the comments below because a lot of these things that we’ve talked about today can be adapted to fit any time goal over 5k as well.
So, that’s it for today, this was how to run a 5k in 20 minutes or a sub 20-minute 5k.