For many new runners, a 5K seems daunting. However, the more miles you log, the more you’ll see your 5K pace becomes a valuable training tool. Even if you are preparing for a marathon, knowing your 5K pace is crucial for speed workouts and race-day pace predictions.
But why has this distance become the predictor to use for a baseline training pace and what’s the best way to test it? We talked to two coaches to break down why your 5K pace matters and how to use it in training.
WHY YOUR 5K PACE MATTERS
Though just one distance, Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, coach at I Run Tons explains the 5K is the perfect test of three key factors: speed, endurance and will. Because it tests all of these things simultaneously, it offers runners the ability to see what their body can do in an all-out effort in a reasonable amount of mileage.
“Though the 5K distance is the first racing step for novice runners, it isn’t merely the “bunny slope” of race distances,” Gallagher-Mohler adds. “Once you’ve truly pushed the pace in a 5K you now have valuable data points regarding your current and potential fitness.”
According to NYC-based, former NCAA distance coach, Sean Fortune of Central Park Coaching, this data can be used to calculate hypothetical race results at other distances, which can help with your race plan and pacing. Also, knowing this pace can help you throughout training to hit paces in specific workouts and help you stay on track as your race gets closer.
“The intensity is closely associated with the VO2 max intensity, or the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense effort,” shares Fortune. “This is used very effectively for interval training to improve endurance and speed endurance for a wide-range of competition distances and general physiological fitness building.”
HOW AND WHEN TO TEST YOUR 5K PACE
Runners need a solid base when deciding to test 5K pace and, though it can be helpful at the very beginning of a training cycle, Gallagher-Mohler recommends waiting at least four weeks before performing your initial test; you don’t want to test too close to your race due to the exertion of the time trial.
“[Base-building is recommended] prior to this type of assessment to avoid injury and to obtain the most accurate results,” she explains. “Then, re-testing 6–8 weeks later can help to gain insight into the training adaptations that are, or are not, occurring.”
To find out your 5K pace you actually don’t have to run a full 5K, though that will be the most accurate. Fortune notes you can either race the distance or simply perform a time trial on a flat course. If you aren’t able to sign up for a local 5K, Gallagher-Mohler adds that you can even run a 30-minute time trial going as fast as you can at a sustainable pace you can hold throughout the distance. No matter what distance you run in that 30 minutes, you can turn to an online pace calculator to find out exactly what your 5K pace is predicted to be.
“Though there are other variables that impact a true race performance, this assessment offers a good place to start when racing isn’t the best available option,” she notes. “Hydration, nutrition and stress all impact race and assessment performances, so to obtain accurate measures of your current fitness, be sure to address these needs.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Though you should test your 5K pace to have an accurate benchmark for tempo and interval workouts, you don’t want to live and die by the numbers. Know that other variables will be at play any given day — even a headwind could alter your results — so it should be used as a guide and predictor versus the end all be all in training. If you don’t hit your predicted marathon time based on your 5K pace, you didn’t fail.
“I think runners should always have fun with their training and try not to get too caught up with numbers,” concludes Fortune. “That said, knowing your 5K pace and working to improve upon it while utilizing VO2 max interval training can be very effective and rewarding.”