During the past year I set a personal record in the 5K (19:12). Setting a PR may not be considered big news for most people, but considering the fact that I am 56 years old and have been a runner for almost my entire life, it is pretty surprising. Another surprise is that I set the 5K PR without specifically training to set a PR in the 5K. So, how did this occur?
I believe my simple answer will help most runners seeking to improve their race times. First, let me provide perspective on my PR, recognizing that each person’s goals will be different. I moved to New Jersey in 2000 (I was 44). During the first couple of years the best I was able to do in a 5K was 20:24. I longed to break 20 minutes again (I had run my previous PR of 19:18 in my late 30s). Instead, I was slowing down. By the time I turned 50, I couldn’t break 21 minutes. I envisioned a continued decline in performance over time.
Then two things happened. I trained for and ran my first marathon at the age of 52 and about a year later I started running with a running club that had a coach. Given my new found desire to run and improve in marathons I changed my training on the advice of the coach. Basically, he said I had to run more miles (not faster miles) if I wanted to improve my marathon time. I had trained for the first one on about 25-35 miles per week. So, on the next training cycle I upped my miles to about 40 per week and topped 50 a couple of times.
The first sign that my 5K performance was improving due to my marathon training was that just prior to my second marathon in the fall of 2010, I ran a 20:47 in a local 5K race. It was my first time under 21 minutes in more than 4 years. I ran my marathon that fall and for the spring marathon training cycle I increased both my miles and the number of days per week I was running in order to try to improve my marathon time. That winter and spring I averaged about 45 miles per week and 6 days/week.
A week before my spring 2011 marathon I ran a 5K to see how my training was influencing my performance in shorter races. I ran a 19:34! I surpassed the New Jersey PR by 50 seconds. Since then I have upped my mileage to more than 50 miles per week and I run 7 days a week (as of the date of this post I am at 203 consecutive days of running). This past summer I ran that 19:12 beating my previous best by 6 seconds. I intend to break 19 minutes in 2013.
I am not saying that everyone should train for a marathon to improve their 5K times or that you should aspire to run every day. What I am saying is that a secret to improving dramatically in shorter distance races is no secret at all. 5K races are still distance races and the strength and endurance that comes from running farther and more often will cause an improvement in your times without trying to run your training miles faster. So if you are running 3 days per week, run 4. If you are running 4 days, run 5. If you are running 15 miles per week run 20. If you are running 25, transition to 35. Your times will improve!