How Long Does It Take To Improve a 5K Time?

As the popularity of running continues to see exponential growth, a certain little question has begun to find its way into our general conversations: What is your 5k PB?

For some, the 5k represents the top of the physical activity mountain, where reaching the distance in one piece is the goal. For others, it can become the ultimate measure of fitness and peak physical condition.

So, why are 5ks so popular? Well, the simple answer is that almost anyone can do it. 5km is an achievable distance for exercisers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and fitness conditions.

The introduction of popular training apps like the Couch to 5k have opened the doors to so many who may have previously deemed the achievement impossible.

But you might be wondering – how long does it take to improve a 5K time? And what is the fastest way to see progress?

Let’s take a look at some ways to get results!

How Quickly Can I Improve My 5K Time?

How long does it take to improve a 5k time?

Now, the results that you desire from your 5k depend on a plethora of factors. Your beginning fitness level, gender, and age will all help you to find a suitable 5k benchmark to aim for.

A simple search will be able to tell you what an “average” 5k time is for someone like you. A steady walking pace will give you a 45 min-1 hour finish time. Most new runners will fall somewhere in the 30-40min range. For budding athletes, breaking 25 mins can be seen as the holy grail.

For those at the fitter end of the scale, getting into the low 20s and even breaking 20 minutes are achievable numbers. The current World Records for 5k are 12:35 for men and 14:06 for women.

So, as you can see, there is a huge range within the 5k world. Where you start, and where you hope to be, are completely subjective to you. This is what makes 5ks so interesting and fun!

Beginners See Faster Progress

Now that we’ve determined that the improvement in your 5k varies so much from person to person, what should be deemed a realistic improvement?

For most regular 5k participants this is one of the most burning questions.

The honest answer is this: what you put in = what you get out. Decades’ worth of studies surrounding fitness, nutrition, and athletic performance tell us that we improve our body’s respiratory system by working it harder than when it is at rest.

Doing more exercise, and more strenuously, increases our respiration rate and our system becomes more efficient at shifting oxygen from our lungs to our muscles. Therefore, the more 5k practice (or any other anaerobic exercise for that matter) we get, the better our body becomes at handling those exercise loads and, in theory, the easier the exercise should become.

As a beginner, especially transitioning from walking to jogging to running, it is not unheard of to shave minutes off your PBs on a weekly basis. As the body adjusts and improves, the times should also start to show improvement.

With regular 5ks, the results will be tangible and measurable. However, if you take a couple of weeks off and hit the fridge hard, don’t be surprised if your times aren’t what they were beforehand!

For those at the more athletic end of the scale, the improvements might not be as drastic. Rather than minutes, you might be aiming to shave 30 seconds or even 10 seconds off your previous PB.

For elite athletes, it may take many months of training to reduce a time by just a few seconds. And the better you get, the more susceptible you’ll be to going backwards with your times – through small injuries, sore legs, burnout, or simply getting older.

For a beginner runner in average shape, hitting the 25:00 mark should be within reach after 2-3 months of training.

See more: 5K Race Day tips

It’s Harder To Improve 5K Times As You Get Better

By now it should be becoming clear that the improvements in your 5k time can vary a lot. The better you become at running 5k, the finer the improvements and margins will become.

You may start off cutting minutes from your time, but after a series of improvements, the cuts you are able to make will become smaller and smaller. To some, this might be discouraging. 6 months ago you were able to go a minute faster, week on week.

Now, you have some weeks where your time barely changes at all and sometimes goes backwards. This is all part of the process. 

Think of a 5k time like eating a cake (warning: eating excessive amounts of cake may harm your 5k time); if you start with a full cake and you want to cut it in half you have to eat a huge piece of cake.

After that, you know how to eat that cake better, and in order to cut that piece of cake in half again you don’t need to eat as much as the first time. Repeat the process and you find yourself cutting smaller slices of cake and devouring them.

The task becomes easier, but the result of how much cake you ate isn’t as noticeable or impressive to others. You may also start to feel full and eating those tiny pieces will become more difficult. The gains you make as a beginner may be huge, but as you improve, the margins become smaller and smaller until…

Why Isn’t My 5K Time Improving?

Have you hit the 5k race time wall?

You hit “the wall”.

Yes, we all know about the Wall in marathon terms (when the body physically runs out of fuel) – but it can apply to the 5k times of many beginner and intermediate runners.

The wall is an imaginary boundary that we often encounter in life. We may experience this at work, in relationships, but most commonly, in our athletic endeavours. The wall is the point that we feel we can’t possibly get past, no matter how hard we try. Our fitness capacity. We can’t go any further, any faster, any longer.

As our improvement margins become smaller and smaller, the wall gets closer and closer. This is a common demotivator for many runners, where no matter how hard you try the times just stop getting faster.

At this point, we may have to accept that our body just isn’t able to make any improvements at our current fitness levels and we need to start looking at other factors to help us break through the wall.

How Do I Improve My 5K Time?

If you’ve reached a plateau where your 5k times aren’t improving, it most likely means that you’ve erased all of the ‘low hanging fruit gains’ that are possible with your current lifestyle and fitness levels.

You’ll need to level up your training methods.

This can include changing nutrition, equipment, recovery methods and even reaching out to a sports scientist.

It may also require developing a smarter 5k race strategy.

It is important, if you wish to get the best results from your exercise, that you fuel your body correctly.

For a 5k, this may mean loading the body with carbohydrates leading up to the race/event and then adding some simple sugars right before and during the run for an extra energy boost.

Hydration and salt are obviously key here too, to keep the body functioning at its best. Correct nutrition and hydration may be enough to get you through the wall but, more often than not, upgrading your running shoes/running wear can also be a game changer.

New shoe technology, especially, is making it easier for athletes to shave off those valuable seconds from their 5k time.

Top athletes around the world are also consulting sports scientists for gait analysis in order to improve their running style and ultimately become more efficient. This can be very helpful for professional runners and those wishing to compete, although it may prove too costly or poor value to a beginner.

If we’ve learned one truth though, it’s this: persistence pays off.

Unless you are already an elite athlete, or performing at the very peak of your powers, there will always be dietary or training changes you can make to continue shaving seconds off your 5K time.

Side note: Our pace charts and VO2 Max Calculators are a good way to plan your next PB attempt.

Start The Training Today

So, how long does it take to improve your 5k time? How long is a piece of string?

Some beginners may see improvements on a day-to-day basis. Others, where margins are finer, may struggle to shave even a second from their PB. It all depends where you start and where you want to be, and that depends on you. Just you.

Regardless of whether you’re just starting out or looking to give Mo Farah a “run” for his money, getting out there and challenging yourself with a 5k is the first step.

As you start to see improvements, you may wish to invest in some better gear so that you can get a truer measure of your capabilities. Getting out there is the hardest part though, it’s plain sailing from there. Lace those shoes, get a move on.

We’ll see you at the start line.

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