How To Run A 5K In Under 20 Minutes

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Running a 5K in under 20 minutes places you in the certified fast runners club.

If you’re aiming to run the 5K under this elusive mark, you’ll need a lot of dedication and plenty of varied workouts. While it’s not an easy feat, it’s doable.

This we know for sure: you’ll have to be prepared to work through levels of discomfort in the race – and you’ll need a tremendous base fitness – if you want to catch those admiring Kudos on Strava!

To run a 5K under 20 minutes, you need to be able to run faster than 04:00 per km split. 5km = 3.107 miles, so the equivalent would be 06:26 per mile splits. This is not easy for a beginner runner!

To get your body physically ready, you’ll need to follow an intense training plan that includes speed training, interval running, tempo runs, endurance training, a well-balanced diet, and ample rest days.

Even then, a sub 20 5K is still not considered an “elite” time.

Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei’s time of 12:35:36 set in the Stade Louis II in Monaco in 2020 is the current record for the 5000 meters. As for a 5K road race, the record is owned by Ethiopia’s Berihu Aregawi with a time of 12:49:00.

Yep, those are amazing feats that most of us can only ever dream of matching – but running a 5K under 20 minutes is a much more achievable goal, and one that is often used as a benchmark in running clubs.

If you can hit sub-20 5K, you’ll earn a lot of respect from your peers.

How To Run A 5K In Under 20 Minutes

How to run a 5K in under 20 minutes

For most recreational runners, anything under 30 minutes is a good time.

However, if you want to become a member of the sub 20 minutes 5K club, the math is simple:

A 5K is 5,000 meters or 3.10 miles. In order to run under 20 minutes, you will have to be able to run 1,000 meters in 4 minutes or 6:25 minutes per mile. 

Not every recreational runner will be able to run an under 20-minute 5K.

Factors that make this not possible for everyone are age, health, genes, and lack of commitment to reaching their best running potential. Not having a clear goal or plan to achieve this accomplishment keeps runners in the upper 20 minutes echelons of 5K times.

Nothing to be ashamed about. But we know we can do better…

If you are currently running in the low 20s and are ready to reach your running potential, it’s here and now that you need to commit.

So here is how you can run a 5K in under 20 minutes.

Take A Readiness Test

It’s good to have the ambition of beating 20 minutes in a 5K. But sometimes, we have unrealistic dreams and become depressed when it doesn’t materialize as we envisioned.

Ideally, when aiming for the under 20-minute mark, your performance levels should already be in the lower 20s timeframe. 

To test if you are close to being able to run a 5K in under 20 minutes, try the following assessment: 

  • Try to run for seven minutes at a pace about 5-10 seconds quicker than 6:26 per mile. 
  • Jog for 5 minutes after the first run.
  • Try and run farther than the first effort, maintaining a quick pace.

Should you find that you could keep up the pace in both efforts, or were very close, then it’s indicative that you are ready to aim for the quick goal of a sub-20-minute 5K.

If you can’t?

You’ll need to improve your base fitness and work through some more speed drills.

Training Plan Components

Interval training for a 5k

It’s highly recommended that you follow and stick to a training plan when preparing to run a 5K in under 20 minutes.

Your training plan should start weeks in advance and must include the following components to it:

Interval Running

Run 1 mile x 4, 800 x 6, 600 x 8 and a 400 x 10.

These should be varied, and try to run the miles as close to race pace as possible, taking 3 to 5 minutes breaks in between. Try to run the 800s and 600s at 5 seconds per 400 faster than the race pace, resting for 2 to 3 minutes in between.

Aim for 86-92 seconds in the 400s to develop adequate speed, taking a minute and a half rest between every 400.

The idea is to try and run quicker than the target pace.

Run For The Hills

Running up some hills is an excellent method to get you physically ready for your PB time in the 5K.

Choose a hill that takes about 30 to 60 seconds to ascend, with a 20% gradient. Remember to keep your running form when hitting the hills, driving up from the balls of your feet (heels shouldn’t touch the ground), and pick your knees up nice and high.

Tempo Runs

Run at a comfortable pace, speed up for the next 100 meters before slowing down again, and repeat.

Tempo runs increase the speed that you can run at before lactic acid sets in and slows you down.

By training to run faster for longer, your lactate threshold becomes higher.

These runs teach your body to run faster for longer before fatigue kicks in and increase your efficiency at running aerobically over longer distances.

Tempo runs, sometimes referred to as threshold workouts, are performed at a comfortably challenging pace but at 25 to 30 seconds slower (per mile) than your existing 5K pace.

The usual rule is that your tempo pace should fall between your target pace for a 5k race and your pace for a 10-mile or half marathon, or 4.20 minutes per kilometer or 6.56 minutes per mile.

Easy Runs

These easy-paced runs are where you run at 65% of your 5K race pace, around 5:00 for a km.

It’s essential to include easy runs to gain extra mileage without burning out or risking injury.

Endurance Runs

Long runs should already be part and parcel of your running routine.

These easy-paced runs are required to improve endurance and give your body a chance to recover from the hard, intense exercises from earlier in the week. Long runs are between 60 to 90 minutes, or any distance more than 5K.

Workout Sessions

Strength training is very important to factor in when training for a 5K, as running places a lot of tension on the body. The stronger your body, the better the running. These workout sessions should include lunges, planking, squats, dumbbell row, press-ups, yoga, and glute leg raises.

See our guide to lifting weights for runners.

Cross-Training

Cross-training is a good way to keep training less mundane. Great cross-training options include walking, swimming, cycling, and low-resistance gym training.

The main idea is to get all these training components into a balanced training program (typically 6 weeks, but can be extended until targets are met), increasing your running performance to the sub-20-minute level. 

Example 6 Week Training Plan for a Sub 20 5K

A good training plan is a mixture of the training components above, divided into training days, with a balance of rest and recovery days to ensure that your body copes with the demands.

Your training plan might look something like the following:

TimetableWeek 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6
MondayRestRestRestRestRest1K/0.62 miles x 3 at 3:45 per km – 60 seconds recovery time
TuesdayRun 1K x 4 in 4:00 per km – 90 seconds recovery timeHill sprints for 30 minutesRun 400 x 10, aiming for 90 seconds per 400m – 60 seconds of recovery timeRun 1K x 4 in 3:55 per km – 60 seconds recovery timeEasy run for 25 minutesEasy run for 30 minutes
WednesdayRestEasy run for 30 minutesEasy run for 35 minutesEasy run for 20 minutesComplete a 5K in 4:10 per kmRun 5 x 600 fast, with 300m sprints – 30 seconds recovery time
ThursdayRun 800 x 6 in 3:15 per km – 2 to 3 minutes recovery timeRun 400 x 10, aiming for 90 seconds per 400m – 60 seconds of recovery time Workout sessions or cross-trainingRestRestEasy run for 20 minutes with 5 minutes of hard running in the middle section
FridayHill sprints for 20 minutesTempo runs for 20 minutesRun 800 x 6 in 3:15 per km – 2 to 3 minutes recovery time Run 400 x 10, aiming for 90 seconds per 400m – 60 seconds of recovery time Tempo runs for 20 minutesRest
SaturdayWorkout sessionWorkout sessions or cross-trainingWorkout Session Workout sessions or cross-trainingWorkout sessionEasy run for 15 minutes
SundayEndurance Run of 8KEndurance run of 10KEndurance run of 15KEndurance run of 11KEndurance run of 7KRace Day

Remember to Eat Healthy 

If your diet is not as healthy as it can be, then change it when you start with your 5K training and stick to it after. 

A healthy running diet isn’t simply stocking up on carbohydrates the day before the race. While training for a PB in the 5K, ensure that your diet consists of the following foods:

  • Lean proteins: Protein is food for your muscles, and a daily intake of lean protein is recommended – skinless white meat poultry, lean beef, white-fleshed fish, low-fat cottage cheese, etc.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Aim to eat 2 kinds of fruits and 5 types of vegetables daily as they are excellent sources of vitamin A, C, and E, magnesium, zinc, folic acid, and phosphorus.
  • Unsaturated fats: Nutritional facts are good unsaturated fats that include avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, nut butter, etc. Try to eat a portion with every meal.
  • Stay away from saturated fats: Saturated fats are not good for your body and must be used in moderation. Red meat, ice cream, butter, and cheese are a few examples of foods with saturated fats.
  • Skip processed foods: Skip any processed foods when training for your fastest 5K. These foods are typically high in sugars, packing unwanted calories and massive energy swings that will interfere with your running plan. Stick to buying fresh food from farmer’s markets, health stores, meat counters, and fresh produce stores.
  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are your body’s primary fuel, as they quickly turn into glucose, providing the body with energy. Increase carbohydrates gradually instead of going big the night before the race, as the steady increase in uptake will increase your glycogen stores (2-3 days before the 5K)
  • Water: Keep your body well-hydrated with water throughout the training sessions and on rest days.
  • Sodium and electrolytes: When exercising for more than 60 minutes, ensure that you take in a drink that restores electrolytes and sodium. 

Get Enough Rest While Training

Rest on your rest days.

Go to bed early, constantly aiming for 7-9 hours’ sleep. Your body will thank you later.

Training for a 5K in under 20 minutes is no joke. Better yet, book massages on your rest days (or invest in some massage pads and percussive guns!).

Make sure to stretch properly before, during, and after training. 

If you pick up an injury, postpone your training until it’s healed; the 5K is going nowhere, and you won’t get near the 20-minute mark if your body’s full of niggles and lingering injuries.

The Prize of the Sub 20 5K

Completing a 5k in under 20 minutes is all about speed, stamina, overcoming fatigue, and fighting any doubts in your mind.

You will quickly realize if you are on course to running a sub 20 minute by looking at the required times in the training exercises. The training never lies.

If you’re not close to running 6:25 per mile, continue the training until you can.

Training, eating healthy, and getting regular rest will change your life for the better while you improve your running, so even if it takes you a couple of months to reach the milestone, your body will be stronger for it.

Be sure to visit our additional 5K guides:

And good luck!

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