Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Talk to any number of coaches or athletes, and read all of the books, and you will come away with a diversity of training plans for racing the 5k distance. Some of them are quite elaborate, with months meticulously scripted with different workouts for each and every day. This is great, except for the fact that no two people are exactly the same. Following the exact same training plan will likely have vastly different results for two different individuals. This is because we are all a mix of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, with variable levels of red blood cells, different bone structures, and so on. People are as different as their fingerprints, and cannot just be lumped into a one-size-fits-all training routine.
As a coach, I want to get a feel for my athletes as individuals, and train them accordingly. What gets me faster for a 5k race is not necessarily going to have the same effect on you. That being said, there are some universal principles to training for the 5k distance from which all individuals can benefit. I firmly believe that there are three workouts every individual should work into their weekly routine: 1) threshold work, 2) interval training, and 3) speed/strength work. Individualization comes in when you discern what type of threshold work, interval training, and speed/strength work gives your body the biggest boosts.
For example, my body tends to go more towards the fast-twitch than the long muscle fibers. Just ask any high school sprinter who has had me for a coach. I don’t care if they are sub-11 in the 100m dash, they are going to feel me the whole way on a 60-100m sprint, and maybe even trail me for the first 30 meters or more. No high school student likes to have me jump into 300-400m repeats, because they know I’m going to keep them honest. That’s the way my body is naturally bent, so I don’t really have to work to get myself moving fast.
In order to get myself running 5k’s at my peak pace, however, I need to stretch out my speed. My threshold runs might be some 2-mile repeats at threshold pace with 2 minute standing recoveries or even 10-mile nonstop runs trying to break 60 minutes. The simple 5x1 mile repeat with 1 minute breaks that works so well for a lot of the athletes I train just doesn’t have the same effect on my type of body. I have to stretch it out more.
Same with interval work (repeats at around my 3200m pace). For me to do 600m-800m repeats at interval pace is really not all that productive of a workout. I need at least 1000m to get that sick feeling in my stomach. Really, 1200m to 1600m is optimal for me when I am in top shape. I need that much time running to really feel the full effect of the workout. I complete the intervals faster than a lot of other people, and therefore need longer intervals to do the trick.
Now, for your individual who can run 5:30 miles all day long but could never break 60 in the 400m dash, I’d be tempted to lean more towards the fast-twitch in a workout program to get them where they need to be in the 5k. They obviously have the genes for long distance running, and a 5k would be a challenge for them in that a 4:30 mile would tap out their muscles and other systems and leave them unable to finish the race at the pace that they otherwise would have, if they had focused their training a little differently.
The job of a coach is not to lump people into groups doing the same workout, but to study individuals and figure out what makes them tick. There will always be a place for private coaching in the running world, as a good private coach will be able to specify workout routines for individuals much better than a coach who has 50 kids to worry about. I guess what I’m saying is an athlete should not settle for the one-size-fits-all workout plans. Demand that your coach give you individual attention, or else find a new coach. You may be similar to other individuals on your team, and therefore it may be good to group you for certain workouts.
If you are an 800m runner who is constantly grouped with the “distance runners,” doing the same workouts as the 1600m runners and the 3200m runners, a red flag should go up. Those distances demand very different training plans. Also, if you are a cross country runner, maybe the seventh man on the team, and you are constantly grouped with the top runners on the team in workouts and cannot maintain their paces, a red flag should go up. You are not necessarily going to improve by doing the same workout as a guy running 14:30’s if you are running 16:30’s. He may be able to break 9:00 in the 3200, and you may be able to but out a 1:55 in the 800m. You obviously are not built the same, so demand a different workout scheme for cross country, the same way you would for track. It’s the only way you will improve at the sport.