Tis the Season for Short Races – Using 5k Races to Keep the Winter Fun and Fast

794 602 Patrick McCrann

On the 5k Run

The 5K is the perfect winter running distance.

Most Type A triathletes seek massive endurance challenges to test their run fitness. The savvy triathlete looks instead to the 5K distance as a tool for creating and measuring the appropriate fitness.

It makes sense: you already spend the bulk of your year running long and steady in preparation for your races. The winter is the perfect time to develop the complementary fitness and mental toughness of the 5k.

But it’s more than just about the logistics, the 5k distance is fun! From silly races, to local races, to running with friends, there is no good reason why you can’t fire up a 5K running challenge this winter.

The Value of the 5K

Inside Endurance Nation we use your 5K time as a functional test. It determines your training zones – both pace and heart rate – that we use for the rest of your training.

We use the 5k to predict your race performance at distances ranging from the half marathon all the way to the Ironman.

The 5K is essentially the common language that we all speak as runners.

One of the reasons why this test works is precisely because running a 5K is easy to do. It’s just 3.1 miles! Anyone can find a race near them, and you can also map out your own. Even running a 5K on a track isn’t terrible.

Getting used to running a 5K as a benchmarking tool will help you be a smarter and more effective athlete.  You will be able to put your training into the relevant zones. And you will avoid the trap of training aspirationally to the fitness they want to have versus training rationally at the fitness they currently have.

Keeping the 5K Fun

Before we dive into too much of the logistics of running a 5K, it’s important that we just focus on the fun part of it.

I love the 5K distance because it’s something anyone in my whole family can do. I can pick a 5K and we can all run it, even my eight-year-old daughter. There are people racing. There are people with jogging strollers. Some folks will just walk it!

The variety of participants makes the event fun and infinitely more social. And let’s not forget the fact that it doesn’t take several hours to complete!

You can make it even more fun by inviting friends who don’t normally run. Or maybe create some kind of a finishing time or average pace prediction challenge.

Of course, there are plenty of races out there which are just plain fun. From Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trots to Jingle Bell runs to St. Patrick’s Day 5ks, there is no shortage of races around the holidays. You can choose to really race them, or you can do it for fun by dressing up in a costume…it’s up to you!

In the winter it’s important to keep things fun because sometimes the weather won’t play nice. While we need your races during race season to go well, not everyone’s race will be awesome in the winter.

There could be snow. Maybe some ice! Could be that the winds are terrible or the temperatures just so cold it’s hard to even get warmed up. So be ready to run, but also don’t take it too seriously!

Where to Find Your Next 5K

There are many different options to find a race, with perhaps the easiest being a local running store. Almost every store has a wall dedicated to flyers in upcoming races. There might be a Facebook or similar social group in your town organized around running. If those resources aren’t an option for you, then use one of the following race search engines:

What Are Your 5K Goals?

As we mentioned earlier, part of the 5K function is setting a benchmark for your fitness. So from a selfish coach perspective I want a 5K that you can run at your best. So initially your goals should revolve around proper 5K execution.

Inside Endurance Nation we define a well run 5K as one where your pace improves every mile with the last mile being your best. This steady, increasing effort will ensure that you don’t go out too fast. It will give us a good trend line which we can base your pace and heart rate target zones.

Don’t be deceived. Running a good 5K isn’t easy. Very few endurance athletes have the discipline to pace themselves over such a short distance.

You may need to make several attempts to get it right. That doesn’t mean you stopped in the middle of your first or most recently unsuccessful attempts. Run it out, there are good lessons to be learned from that data. At least next time you will laugh when we suggest that you write out your plan splits for your next attempt!

Reviewing Performance

Once you have actually completed a 5K, then you can start to set some goals around what it means to really run a 5K. You’ll be able to go back in review your performance and find areas where there may be opportunities for speed.

Maybe your first mile was to slow. Maybe you went out a little too hard in Mile Two and suffered. Maybe the course you picked was no good with too many hills, or the weather on that particular day was bad.

There are many different options around how your next race can be better, and are not all tied to your fitness.

Reverse Engineering a 5k Goal

Everyone has goals related to running faster. These are usually race-specific goals, so we reverse engineer those times down to the 5K.

Step One: We recommend that you first start by selecting your goal run time for your event of choice. What do you want to run for your next 70.3 or Ironman® event?

Using Endurance Nation’s calculators, our members can estimate the 5K time that yields the running zones for their goal race performance.

For example, your Ironman® predicted run performance is between Zone One and TRP pace.

Step Two: Use the calculator to modify your 5K time and dial in the desired Zone One pace. With that set, you can easily find the 5k target for that number!

Similarly, 70.3 athletes can reverse engineer their Zone Two pace into a 5k goal time.

Managing the Run Fitness Gap

You have many choices to make depending on the gap between your current fitness and your target 5K fitness. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that these winter 5K’s are an accurate representation of your current fitness. They are not the ultimate line in the sand for your future fitness.

In other words, there is a great deal of work between now and race day — much of which involves you getting back into shape. You will see times improve just through the fact that you will be consistently training from here on out.

Depending on the size of the gap between your Current and Desired Time, we recommend that you break your steps down incrementally. If you are running a 24 minute 5K and want to run a 23 minute 5K you might strive to take 20 seconds off, per race, over the course of your next three races.

How to Improve Between 5K Races in the Winter

It’s very important that you don’t overachieve with your run training. If your body is going to break down anywhere, it’s on the run. As such, we can’t run at faster paces then we are able to maintain for sustained periods of time.

There are three ways that running in the winter will dictate your improved run performance.

The first is running consistency. Can you lock in a sustainable mileage every week and hit that target for consecutive weeks? Your body will absorb that running stress level and adapt. Contrast this fixed mileage with training plans that are constantly upping the mileage every week (10% anyone!?) forcing your body to struggle with increased training duration — instead of adapting to a static training load.

The second element to improve 5K performance is targeted interval training. We do this one day a week in the form of run threshold intervals. Sure, the steady state run at TRP is the bread and butter of your winter training program. But there’s always room for one quality session to continue to move the needle forward.

The final element to running faster is doses of top end speed also known as “strides.” This is a 30-second burst of 5K pace running at the end of your workout.

We recommend anywhere between 6 to 8 stride repeats, each followed by 30 to 60 seconds of walking recovery. Strides are an opportunity to stimulate your fast twitch muscles without experiencing any of the downsides of accumulated stress and fatigue.

How to Do Strides on a Treadmill?

This is a little challenging, so practice first before you go out at top speed. Not for the faint of heart!

Once you have completed your regular run and you’re prepared to do strides on your treadmill, stand with your feet on either side of the belt with the belt moving at speed.

Use the treadmill controls to increase the speed to your desired pace.

Place your hands on the bars on either side of the treadmill. Lift yourself up and lower yourself down with your legs moving at speed so you can catch up with the moving treadmill belt. It should take one or two steps but you’ll quickly be running at speed.

Do that for 30 seconds and then placing your hands on the bars again lift yourself up and place your feet on the side. This allows you to keep the treadmill moving at speed and enable you to simulate those short bursts without waiting for the treadmill to speed up and then slow down on either side of the interval.

The Ideal 5K Warm-Up

If you are excited about the 5K – and how could you not be? – Then it’s really important that we talk about a good warm-up.

Running in the winter is challenging because many of us are stiff and not as active as we are in season. Coming from offices or cars or early in the morning to the gym. As such a warm-up is super important.

Here’s how we recommend you warm-up for your next 5K or any high intensity run this winter.

Start by Walking for 3 to 5 Minutes

Begin with 3 to 5 minutes of walking building from easy up to a brisk pace. For me brisk is approximately 3.3 mph.

Jog for 3 to 5 Minutes

Once your heart rate is up, you can transition to a slow jog. This is typically 1 to 1 1/2 minutes slower per mile than what your outdoor steady run would be. Used to running seven minute miles? Then your target is in the 8:00 to 8:30 range.

I will run here for about three minutes. Then I use the controls to increase the speed by half a mile an hour every 30 seconds until I’m running it my steady pace. This usually takes anywhere from three to five minutes.

Run at Steady Pace for Five Minutes

I will then run about five minutes at that steady pace for a sustained period of time. When done, I usually get off the treadmill or step to the side of the road. There I’ll do a few more stretches in preparation for the full effort.

For those of you who are actually doing a 5K, now is the time to do a few repeats of strides before jogging to the race start. A normal run warm-up should take about 15 minutes, while a race day warm-up will likely take closer to 20 minutes.


Don’t underestimate the power of consistently running at a fast speeds once a week. Most athletes are either obsessed with running fast or committed to never running fast. You can get the best of both worlds with intermittent 5K racing. Pull up the calendar, book those races now and start recruiting your friends… it’s going to be a great winter, and an even better next year!

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