Dominate the End of Your Next 5K

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

With the crowd cheering, adrenaline pumping, and a competitive attitude, it's easy to cruise through the first miles of a 5K. For many beginner runners, though, the cruise ends here. With 1 mile to go, things unravel: legs cramp, arms flail, and your lungs feel like they will burst. Now people—including those with baby strollers—are passing you. Sound familiar? Many culprits can lead to an awful race finish, but the most common by far is going out too fast. However, by incorporating smarter pacing, having a race strategy, and doing the right kind of training, you can finish out even a toug...

With the crowd cheering, adrenaline pumping, and a competitive attitude, it's easy to cruise through the first miles of a 5K. For many beginner runners, though, the cruise ends here. With 1 mile to go, things unravel: legs cramp, arms flail, and your lungs feel like they will burst. Now people—including those with baby strollers—are passing you. Sound familiar?

Many culprits can lead to an awful race finish, but the most common by far is going out too fast. However, by incorporating smarter pacing, having a race strategy, and doing the right kind of training, you can finish out even a tough race blowing by your opponents. (For more tips on becoming a stronger runner, check out the musclemorphosis.com.)

Train to race well
Two great workouts that will get you ready to crush the second half of your next race are progression runs and cut-down intervals. Do each workout once every couple weeks leading up to your race, and you’ll learn the specific demands of running harder over a prescribed distance. They will also help you pick up the pace without running out of gas before the finish line and prepare you to set personal records.

A progression run is fairly simple: Start out running a few miles easy, then gradually accelerate your pace each mile by anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds. Another strategy is to do an out-and-back run. If you normally run for 40 minutes, you can run easy in one direction for 20 minutes, then turn around and see how much faster you can come back on the same route.

To do a cut-down interval workout, you should find a track, short loop, or a grassy field that takes you 1 to 3 minutes to run around at an easy pace. Warm up with a few minutes of easy jogging, then run the loop at a moderately hard pace and mark the time of the lap. Rest for 2 minutes, then run it again and try to cut off a few seconds. Shoot for 6 to 10 repeats with the intention of running each lap slightly faster, and aim to make your last one the fastest. 

Pace yourself
By now, you’ve done previous workouts and races that give you a rough idea of what kind of time you're ready to run. Let's say you're trying to break 21 minutes for a 5K. With this knowledge, you know how fast each mile should be to hit your goal—in this case, under 7 minutes per mile (6:45 to be exact). Memorize this pace or even write it on your hand if you need to. If you have a GPS watch, check your pace at each mile marker so you can see how close you are to your planned pace.

One note: If you have no idea what kind of shape you're in, or if it’s a new race distance for you, it's best to start slow. You can always speed up if you feel good at the halfway point.

Have a plan
You’ve done the training and know your pacing; now it’s time to figure out a race strategy.

You can break down the 5K into three 1-mile segments, plus a 0.1-mile "kick" at the end. If you're running it right, the first mile should be pretty manageable, so your focus should be staying relaxed and hitting your pace while being able to make small adjustments on the fly. If you came through your first mile 10 seconds faster than goal pace—or slower—don’t panic! Just take your foot off the gas or accelerate a bit so mile 2 is more even.

In the second mile, stay relaxed but take note of where you can start to slide up in the field by passing people who went out way too fast. You don't want to drop the hammer and increase your pace by 15 seconds yet, but keep your eyes peeled for stragglers who you can chase down as motivation.

The third mile is the toughest one, so you should focus on running strong and increasing the pace the closer you get to the finish line. Because of your training at faster speeds near the end of workouts, you should be able to pick off dozens of runners as you shift into a faster gear—and then sprint when you eye the finish line. Running a personal best will never feel as good as this.

John Davis is a writer, high school coach, and head of running research at musclemorphosis.com.