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Forget the marathon ... it's time to focus on breaking your 5k record in summer


'The truth is, there’s a lot more to running than just the marathon, and this is the perfect time to go out and run your fastest 5K'

'The truth is, there’s a lot more to running than just the marathon, and this is the perfect time to go out and run your fastest 5K'


'The truth is, there’s a lot more to running than just the marathon, and this is the perfect time to go out and run your fastest 5K'

So what now? When this year's Dublin Marathon disappeared from the calendar, that question was on the minds of many runners. A giant 26.2-mile void opened up in their lives.

For so long, every mile was done with a goal in sight: that finish line at Merrion Square, smiling through the pain alongside 25,000 others. But 2020 had other plans.

Let's be honest. The new normal sucks. We want our routines and races back, the satisfaction of setting it all up just to knock it back down.

It's the difference between truly living and simply existing.

Because of this, many runners will carry on as before. They'll do long runs every Sunday over the coming months, hammer a half-marathon in August or September, then run 26.2 miles on October 25 because, along with everything else, they'll be damned if the pandemic is taking that from their lives.

It's no harm, but there is a much better way to use this time. The truth is, there's a lot more to running than just the marathon, and this is the perfect time to go out and run your fastest 5K.

Why the 5K?

Granted, finishing a 5K won't offer the same sense of achievement as a marathon, but here the satisfaction won't come from simply doing something, but doing it well. Training for a 5K is more varied and takes up less time (this one's for you, pandemic parents). Because of Parkruns, most runners know a 5K loop in their locality and those without can create their own one using MapMyRun or a GPS.

The prospect of mass-participation marathons happening in 2020 looks remote, so this is the perfect chance to get faster at shorter distances, which will give your future marathon times a huge boost.

Just ask national champion Stephen Scullion, who clocked 2:12:01 to finish second in Dublin last year: "I believe to be a better marathoner, you need to be a better 5K, 10K runner. The longer you hang around doing the marathon stuff, you're not as good at 10K. You fall into this trap of either recovering from a marathon or training for a marathon and you're never pushing anything else forward."

With the Boston Marathon postponed and Dublin cancelled, Scullion has focused on improving over shorter distances for the past two months.

"It's risk-free, you're not missing any (racing) opportunities and it will lead to a faster half marathon," he says. "When marathons exist again, you can start a build-up in a better position than ever before."

Challenge yourself (and others)

The goal is to get faster, but that will be a lot easier if you involve others.

Get friends, family and fellow runners on board. Set up teams and challenge each other, averaging overall times for virtual relays or comparing percentage improvements. Stage a virtual 5K once a fortnight or once a month and - if Government guidelines allow - a real-life, socially distanced and extremely unofficial race against each other.

How to smash your 5K PB

If there is one sure-fire way, it's to train once a week at lactate threshold, which is roughly 82-88% of your maximum heart rate. For most, it's the pace you can sustain for an hour at maximum effort. For an elite, it's between 10-mile and half-marathon pace, while for ordinary runners it's closer to 10K pace.

At the risk of getting all sciencey, it's the point at which for every pace increase, the level of lactate in your blood starts rising exponentially. Often described as "comfortably hard", if your face looks like you're chewing a lemon then you're running too hard.

"The fitness buzz is if it doesn't hurt, you're not working," says Feidhlim Kelly, coach to many of Ireland's best distance runners. "But if you've done a session and you're bolloxed, then you've trained too hard. You should be pleasantly tired and able to go again."

A good way to calculate your threshold is to run a fast 5K then put the time into the Runner's World pace calculator, which gives your threshold or "tempo" pace. For a 20-minute 5K runner, it's about 6:52 per mile. Once you know this, work at this pace for 15 to 30 minutes once a week.

Kelly has his athletes do sessions alternating paces just above and below threshold, which improves lactate clearance. He recommends doing 60 seconds at 5K pace followed by 30 seconds at 10K pace for seven minutes, then take a three-minute rest before repeating. This should be built up slowly to 2x10 minutes, then 15 minutes straight, with the final goal being 20 minutes of continuous running alternating just above and below threshold pace.

If used to doing two sessions a week, he recommends adding a Kenyan-style fartlek: two minutes fast, two minutes easy for 20-30 minutes. Speed, efficiency and running mechanics can be improved by doing four 10-second hill sprints once a week after an easy run, he says.

"Running is discipline, if you do that for at least 10 weeks I guarantee you'll run a PB. Consistency is number one, then volume, then intensity. It's better to do 20 miles a week for 20 weeks rather than jumping to 35 miles a week and getting injured."

To run faster, slow down

The rest of the week, Kelly advises runners to go easy - literally. "The answer to most people's problem is to run slower. Mo Farah can run 26:40 for 10K, but he doesn't go on a regular 10K and run within three minutes of his best. Yet you have normal runners who do that."

After a couple of months of the above training, Kelly says runners can introduce specific 5K workouts like 5x1K at goal race pace with 2-3 minutes recovery.

Scullion believes marathoners should tread carefully when transitioning to 5K training.

"Realise you're almost going into a different sport because the intensity is higher. I'd increase stretching, strength stuff and do some of the harder intensity on grass or up a hill which takes some of the pounding out. I wouldn't dive in head-first."

For Scullion, the recent focus on shorter distances has paid huge dividends.

"Eight weeks ago I went to the park and did a tempo 6-mile averaging 5:08 a mile, but now I can average 4:45 a mile at the same heart rate.

"That's what happens if you work at that (threshold) and devote time to it."

And if you still want to run a marathon . . .

There are many good reasons to do so, particularly if you planned to run for charity. If you still feel the need to scratch the marathon itch come October, Kelly recommends doing one in your local community.

"Do it on a five-mile loop and have family and friends supporting - it'd be more special to do a marathon that way. Ask yourself: why do I need the medal? The buzz of Dublin is great, but why are we running? The validation should come from within."