“How I shaved nine minutes off my 5km PB“

Want to run faster? Well, you might want to give one of the 10 tips that writer L’Oréal Blackett used to shave nearly 10 minutes off her 5km PB.

One of my most Googled search terms of 2020 was: “how to run a faster 5K?”. Back in March 2020, when one hour of exercise became the UK’s only window of freedom, I decided that I was going to become a “runner” in a bid to keep me both physically and mentally occupied during lockdown. Blame my Caribbean background but each of my daily runs soon became a passionate bid for a gold medal: I didn’t just want to run well, I wanted to run fast.

I proceeded to the roads with gusto but thanks to a lack of proper preparation, I took some dramatic tumbles which resulted in umpteen pairs of ripped leggings and a bruised ego. A year later, those fading scars are a reminder of where I started and how far I’ve come. I completed my first lockdown 5k in over 36 minutes (and in pain), disappointed that as a regular gym-goer, I wasn’t a natural Mo Farah. I now manage to run a sub-27 minute time – and I haven’t fallen over in a while. 

Last year, I was quite literally running before I could walk and quickly learned that to get a faster personal best (PB), it wasn’t a case of just moving faster. There’s so much more that goes into beating your PB…

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I’m comfortable admitting that I’m a runner largely motivated by getting faster and, well… winning (albeit a solo race). As I started to rack up the mileage, it became vital for me to figure out what kind of runner I wanted to be. Was I driven by a desire to see myself progress or simply by comparison and other runners’ speedier times? In the end, I’ve decided that I’m mostly competing against myself in the hope of becoming stronger, and that realisation has made my running journey a happier experience.

Sports psychologists consider people like me to be “task-orientated” athletes. “Task-oriented athletes set goals about doing their best and making some improvement,” explains Dr Eva V. Monsma, from the University of South Carolina. They “experience success more frequently, persist at tasks for longer and are more confident,” than those athletes who are driven by the desire to beat other competitors.

At a time when we’re constantly being told to “smash goals” and hit targets, it seems entirely alien to go into a sport like running with no ambitions to compete and beat. But for those runners who do manage to detach themselves from times, the rewards can be vast. Blogger Tabitha Warley, 30, is currently training for an ultra-marathon. She says that she has absolutely no interest in beating her times as completing her race is achievement enough.“I think it’s the way people’s brains are wired because my body just doesn’t want to go fast. I run every distance at the same pace,” she explains. “I always get people asking me ‘why is your 5k pace the same as a half-marathon? But it’s a mad discipline to have to push faster and faster…”

But that’s not to say that wanting to work towards a time-orientated goal is a bad thing. For me, hitting my PB did wonders for my self-confidence during a period when all my other life goals had been put on ice. As the world slowed down, I was speeding up and the gradual improvements in my overall fitness were, at times, my only wins during the pandemic. 

Even if times mean nothing to you, improving your overall cardio capacity, endurance and form are great goals to have. So, here are the 10 things that I did to reach my PB and ensure that I can keep on running for years to come:

1. Active stretching

It’s tempting to skip stretching before and after a run but the more you run, the more you’ll increase the risk of injury (if you don’t properly warm-up). Dynamic stretching such as lunges, butt kicks, high knees and leg swings are generally considered better than just static stretching. 

2. Slow down

Yes, really. Running too fast and too far for every single run is a surefire way to halt your progress with injuries and fatigue. I learned this the hard way.

“You’ve got to run slow to run fast and a lot of people overlook this in the beginning,” advises Coach Mike Olzinkski, via The Run Experience blog. “Even on an easy run, our muscles and our tendons really feel that.” He adds that learning to run slow and steady “becomes a springboard for future workouts.”

You may have of tempo running — a pace that’s a little slower than your fastest 5k pace but faster than a jog. Developing your comfortable running pace (easy, low-impact runs where you are a little breathless but not panting) can help build your foundation for faster workouts. Slower runs are also great opportunities to work on your form, breathing techniques and to take in your surroundings.

3. Strength training

5ks can be tough – you’re running as fast as you can for the best part of half an hour. It’s worth, therefore, prioritising strength sessions into your workout regime. One study recommends “low to high-intensity resistance exercises and plyometric exercises performed two-to-three times per week” for those wanting to improve their times.

I currently take virtual strength classes with BlokLondon twice a week with lots of controlled lunges and squats. The gym group recently spoke to Nike trainer Cory Wharton-Malcolm about his top disciplines for running faster, and he said that “strength training makes you stronger, and becoming stronger can help to decrease your risk of injuries, while improving balance and coordination.” He went onto explain that “weighted exercises can also improve your running form and running efficiency, which in turn can help you run faster and for longer.”

4. Interval training

When I started taking running more seriously, I took the advice of Ben Parkes, a 2:36 marathoner, who swears by interval training to improve running times. It’s pretty common advice but it took hearing it from Ben to get me going. I started running 6 x 800m at my fastest pace before catching my breath in the two minutes of active rest in between. Not only did interval training help me gradually improve my times but it also prevented my daily runs from becoming monotonous.

5. Running longer

When my triathlete friend of mine encouraged me to run a weekly 10k to help boost my cardio capacity, I groaned. But I have learned to love that distance, and running for longer has really helped when training for a 5k. For one thing, 5k feels significantly shorter…

6. Breathing

I have a tendency to hold my breath when I run, which is obviously not a good idea. The breathing advice from this Strong Women article has been really helpful; it encourages you to “master your inhaling and exhaling” to help your body go faster and further. The more I’ve focused on my breathing, the more relaxed I’ve become during intense runs. 

7. Active rest days

I take dance classes online, I do yoga to help open tight hip flexors and virtual boxing classes are a great way to boost my cardio capacity without putting more pressure on joints and tendons. There are plenty of other ways to build endurance that don’t just involve pounding the pavement. 

8. Consistency

Running is a sport that doesn’t discriminate against your current fitness level; it doesn’t matter where you start – you can only become a better runner by running. I made it my mission to get out there when I can. I try to run on most days, changing up my routes and distances to keep things fun. 

9. Mantras

It’s the final sprint, my music is blaring and I can feel my legs getting a little fatigued; it’s at this point that I like to repeat the mantra “why quit now?”. In general, mantras are said to regulate blood pressure and stabilise heart rate and adrenalin production, and for me, they help me to refocus. Sometimes I even say my mantra out loud mid-run. Sure, I may look odd but it really does work for me.

10. Tracking

If you’re not already tracking your runs, I would wholly recommend you start. I currently use the Nike Running app and track my runs using a fitness watch to stay accountable. By seeing the progress I’ve made over the past year, my self-belief has increased tenfold. I can run faster and I’ve got the times to prove it.

 L’Oréal says that she massively benefited from doing strength training twice a week – something the running experts often advise as a means of staving off injury and helping those powerhouse muscles to fire more effectively. Have a go at a goblet squat, the perfect move for strengthening quads and glutes – two of the most important muscles for running.

Check out more of the SWTC How-To videos for plenty of pre-run warm-up ideas and exercises to include in your S&C sessions.

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