How to improve your 5k time: 12 expert tips

Want to smash your PB? Here's how to improve your 5k time, according to the pros...

Woman crossing the finish line in a race, after working to improve 5k time
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're keen to know how to improve your 5k time, the good news is there are various things you can try to help you smash your target.

So if the figure you're seeing on your best fitness tracker or fancy running watch isn't the one you want, read on to discover how to shave seconds - or even minutes off your current PB.

It can be easy to get into a rut when you’re running. Whether you’re running 5k every day or once a week, you might find that your time never seems to improve, which can be annoying - especially as you consistently keep putting in the effort to lace up your best running shoes and go and run.

So how can you improve your 5k time? We asked the experts to share their top tips for speeding up and steaming ahead. Here's what they recommended...

1. Try run intervals

Interval running - where you alternate between running at an increased intensity and lower intensity or walking - is a great place to start if you want to increase your 5k time.

‘A weekly interval session is key should you want to get faster,’ says Ben Parker, Head Coach at The Run Buddy. ‘During an interval session we will run above our usual, more comfortable pace, forcing our body to adapt, improving our running economy and making the body more efficient at running faster off less energy.’

He adds that although run intervals aren’t easy, the feel-good endorphins that are released during a run interval make it all the more worthwhile.

You could try running five lots of 600m with a 30-60 second rest in between and then increasing the distance or number of reps, or decreasing the rest time.

2. Track your sessions 

Be sure to track your training by having a record of the speeds, heart rates and distances you run. ‘This is a very useful measure of your progress,’ says Parker. Not only will it help you see how and when your time improves, but it'll also act as a motivating factor.

Within a few weeks of training you should hopefully be able to look back on where you have come from and feel a sense of achievement in the hard work you've put in whilst also being motivated to keep moving forwards. Try using a fitness tracker to measure your progress as you go.

A lot of trackers also allow you to share your stats with friends, which in turn can help make you more accountable. Strava is a great app to compare running stats.

3. Get enough sleep

You're no doubt aware that it's important to get enough rest each night (the National Sleep Foundation recommends adults aim for between seven and nine hours) in order to perform in our day-to-day lives.

It follows then that not getting enough sleep can impact your 5k time quite considerably.

A classic 1981 study published showed that missing even just one night of sleep decreases performance, cardiovascular endurance and perception of effort.

The last point was backed up by a 2007 review paper. It concluded that, whilst lack of sleep didn't drastically alter the body's oxygen demands, it did impact perceived effort. 

And when your run feels like extra hard work, it's no surprise to find that your output might not be what you'd like it to be. So the message here is to make getting enough sleep a priority if you're serious about improving your 5k time.

4. Follow a personalized plan

Woman working with a running coach, which can help improve your 5k time

(Image credit: Getty Images)

You could step things up a notch and get a training plan designed specifically for you. ‘Following a plan is a great way to optimize progress and minimize the risk of injury,’ confirms Parker. 

To do this, you could work with a personal trainer or specialist running coach to create a plan that's right for you, or else use a dedicated app such as Nike Run Club or The Run Buddy, which has an 8-week plan designed specifically for improving your 5k time.

‘Our plans are tailored specifically to every user, to ensure they are getting the perfect balance at different intensities, the optimal mileage, all structured around the users availability,' says Parker. 

5. Focus on mobility

Mobility - quite simply the ability to move - is important for all of us, but particularly runners. When we're unable to perform the full range of movement in any area of our body, the body finds ways to adapt. This is when niggles begin to form - which, over time, can ultimately lead to injury.

As such, Parker recommends that all runners look to do a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes mobility work once or twice a week.

Vanessa Gebhardt, Mind Coach and Training Specialist at Freeletics recommends these stretches...

For your quads: Stand upright and pull your leg behind you with the corresponding hand. Tuck your pelvis and pull your shin towards your thigh. Keep your knee pointing downward as you do this stretch to protect your knee joint. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then switch legs.

For your hamstrings: Sit on the ground and extend your left leg. Move your right foot toward your inner thigh, so that it touches the top part of your left leg, if possible. Lean forward, bending but not rounding your back and waist toward the left foot as if reaching for your toes. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.

For your calves: Stand with your right foot behind your left. Bend your left leg forward while keeping your right leg straight. Be sure not to bend the right knee and to keep your right foot firmly on the ground, pointing straight ahead. Straighten your back and hold the pose for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.

Also take a look at our guide to flexibility stretches, which includes a simple five-minute routine.

6. Breathe right

Breathing seems straightforward and is something you do unconsciously 24/7, however, when you are running it can be hard to catch your breath properly. 

'Improper breathing is the number one mistake made by beginner and intermediate runners. The good news is that anyone can improve their breathing with some basic awareness,' explains Gebhardt.

'Every day, try focusing on your breathing at least twice. A great technique is to put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdominal area, taking deep breaths for 1-2 minutes.

'Make sure you spend as much time on the exhale as on the inhale – as many athletes tend to inhale deeper which prevents your body from expelling all the C02 in your lungs.'

She adds that while you are running, try to breathe through your nose. 

'In doing so, you can take in 20% more oxygen than if you were breathing through your mouth. The more you practice breathing, the greater control you will have over it in the long run.'

7. Eat plenty of protein 

‘All areas of our nutrition are going to help us on our quest to become a better runner, however protein is arguably the most crucial,’ says Parker.

Protein helps our muscles to recover and repair, so we can stay strong and keep improving our run time.

But how much should we be consuming? As cited by Harvard School of Public Health, the National Academy of Medicine recommends that adults consume at least 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day (that's just over 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight). 

However, due to the extra demands running places on the body, runners will typically need more than this to help aid recovery. Aim for between 1.2 and 1.6g of protein per kg of bodyweight instead. So, if you weigh 70kg (155lb), you may want to consume up to 112g of protein daily.

Consume protein from several different sources every day. This includes lean meats such as chicken and turkey, as well as eggs, fish, tempeh, tofu, dairy products, nuts and seeds. Protein powder can also help boost your protein intake - take a look at our guides to the best protein powder for weight loss and the best protein powder for women.

8. Never skip warm-ups or cool-downs

If you thought that warm-ups and cool-downs were an optional part of your runs, we're here to tell you differently.

'A quality warm up and cool down before every workout is important,' says Parker. 'This will help to minimize injury as well as aid recovery. Your 5k time isn't going to get quicker if we let an injury creep in is it?’

The aim of the warm-up is to prepare your muscles for the workout ahead and elevate the heart rate. Look to do 5-10 minutes of gentle jogging interspersed with dynamic stretches (those done whilst on the move), especially ones that target the legs such as lunges, hip gate openers, walking toe touches and lateral lunges.

Conversely, the focus of the cool-down should be to slowly lower the heart rate and stretch the muscles to expel lactic acid, which can contribute to post-workout muscle soreness. Run at a slow pace, reducing to a jog and then a walk over the course of five minutes. Follow this with some static stretches (those done whilst stationary, such as standing hamstring, calf and quad stretches.

9. Mix up your training 

People in the gym doing strength training, which can help improve your 5k time

(Image credit: Getty Images)

‘More and more running doesn't always help, and can lead to overtraining,’ warns Ben. 

So, to give your 5k running time a helping hand, you should add in other elements to your training. Our cross-training for runners guide contains more on this subject, but a good place to start is with a mix of other cardio sessions such as HIIT workouts or sessions on the elliptical machine or exercise bike.

‘This is a great way to add more stimulus to the heart and lungs as well as improving strength,' says Parker.

Gebhardt adds that incorporating strength training into your running routine is also important for a number of reasons. 

'Firstly, it makes you a stronger runner and reduces your risk of injury. Running is only hard on your joints if you don’t have the muscle to support them. 

'Secondly, lifting will help you lose weight. This is due to leaner muscle mass burning more calories at rest.'

She adds that performing exercises such as explosive squat jumps, split lunges and pistol squats will increase your cardiovascular fitness and significantly boost your muscle mass faster than running alone.

10. Run with a friend or club

‘Endless miles going solo can get tough and become mentally exhausting,’ says Parker, who recommends syncing your runs up with a friend or even looking to join a local running club. 

‘If you have a friend who runs faster than you they might be able to help push you outside of your comfort zone. Or if you are faster than your friends, they may well be able to keep you from getting too excited on your easy runs.’

In fact, just telling your friends that you’re going to go for a run can boost your chances of achieving that goal. One study found that participants had a 65% chance of completing a goal if they told someone else about it. 

11. Invest in your equipment

Feet sore? Knees hurting? Poor kit choices may be to blame, which inn turn can impact performance, so make sure yours kit is appropriate for your outings - particularly your shoes. 

Spend some time considering factors such as gait, cushioning and the terrain you run on. Our guides to the best running trainers for women and the best running trainers for men contain more information on these, along with our top options.

However, you needn't worry about spending hundreds on fancy kit. ‘Running is a great sport and we don't need a lot to get out the door and move,' advises Parker. 

'Try to avoid letting your running shoes get too worn out or the risk of some injuries will increase.' The experts at Brooks Running recommend changing your runners every 300 to 500 miles, however signs of needing new shoes include worn down soles and general wear and tear in the shoe.

Parker also adds: 'Make sure you have clothes that fit and don't rub, dress for the weather you are running in and make sure you are comfortable.'

12. Enjoy yourself

This final tip is key - because if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, how can you continue to do it? 

Parker advises adapting your running routine in ways that are achievable and will feel enjoyable. ‘Make changes to your routine that you enjoy making, commit to running a number of days that can realistically slot around your schedule without missing all of your favorite social commitments.'

He adds that it’s best not to get bogged down worrying about others either. ‘Don't compare yourself to others as your only competition is you! If you do this, you'll get to the 5k PB with a smile on your face, ready to beat it once more.’

Lucy Gornall
Lucy Gornall

Lucy is Health and Fitness Editor at various women's magazines, and also Editor of Woman&Home Feel Good You. She has previously written for titles including Now, Look and Cosmopolitan. She lives and breathes all things fitness; she works out every morning, and mixes it up with runs, weights, boxing and endless box jumps. She is also a Level 3 personal trainer and teaches classes at various London studios, primarily Digme Fitness. Lucy is pre- and post-natal trained and helps new mums get back into fitness after the birth of their baby. Lucy claims that good sleep, plenty of food, and a healthy gut (seriously, it's an obsession) are the key to maintaining energy and exercising efficiently. Saying this, she's partial to the odd Negroni on the dance floor with her friends.