Too often, when triathletes and runners aim to improve running speed they aim too high. This overambitious aim typically results in running track workouts too fast, workout burnout, a higher chance of injury and the mental fatigue that comes with reoccurring disappointment.
The best approach to improving your running pace is to test your current speed—not the speed you wished you could run, or the speed you were capable of doing five years ago, or the speed your friend is currently running.
An easy test to find your present 5K ability comes from Workouts in a Binder: Run Workouts for Runners and Triathletes, written by top coaches Bobby McGee and Mark Plaatjes.
Run the test in conditions similar to those expected on race day. Warm up thoroughly by walking, running, doing a dynamic warm-up (a series of drills that activate muscle fibers in the same way that running does) and strides (pickups or accelerations).
Run 4 x 1,600 meters at best effort and even pacing. This means the fastest average speed that you can run for all four repeats. Do not start out at a high pace and fade to a slow trot. Take one minute and 30 seconds of recovery between each 1600m run.
Your average pace for the entire 6,400 meters will closely resemble your current 5K ability. For example, if you ran 7:04, 7:00, 7:02 and 6:56, your average pace for the set is 7:01 or rounded off to 7:00 per 1,600m. Dividing by four gives you a 1:45 pace per 400m and translates to a current 5K speed of 21:52.
At the Track
When you go to the track, use the results of the test to determine your interval run speed. Your 5K goal-pace workouts are run two to four seconds faster, per 400m, than your test results. For our sample runner, this means running 5K goal-pace workouts at 1:41 to 1:43 per 400m.
Of course, you can structure several workouts from this one simple-to-do test.
As you head into the summer and fall race seasons, be sure you are doing targeted workouts that make you faster. Knowing your current speed helps you make the best of each track session.
Not too fast, not too slow, but just right.