Running is a great form of exercise for both your physical health and mental wellbeing. It has multiple benefits, from improving your cardiovascular fitness and strengthening your muscles to building endurance and maintaining a healthy weight. It is also highly beneficial for your mental health, helping to reduce stress and anxiety.
Wondering how long it takes to run a 5K? And how to improve your time and speed? The Recommended has got you covered and has answered all your burning questions below to help you on your athlete journey to nailing a 5K.
Understanding a 5K race and average completion time
A 5K (5 kilometres, 3.1 miles) is a great place to start with running. It is a popular distance, whether a newbie or experienced runner, due to its substantial but achievable length.
It's one of the most manageable run lengths to tackle, and fits into most weekly routines, gradually building up stamina and running technique and enabling you to tackle longer distances further down the line should you want to.
Every runner is unique, and their 5K journeys can look different. This is why it is important to set up a training plan when taking on a race and ensure you are fully prepared pre-run.
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What is a good time for a 5K?
The current world record for a 5K is 12:49 minutes (but that’s superhuman!), and the average running time can vary between 20 to 40 minutes. Your timing will also be impacted by your running experience, and you can gradually work on your end goals, taking time to build up to your desired speed and time.
There is no ‘one time fits all’ for running a 5K. There are a number of factors that can influence your overall time, from your age and gender to your fitness levels and training regimes.
You can calculate your running performance based on your age, gender and body weight using Running Level’s Running Calculator.
Running a 5K: health and fitness benefits
Running is a great form of exercise for both your physical and mental health. According to the NHS, ‘running regularly will improve the health of your heart and lungs’, as well as being a ‘great stress reliever’.
A 5K is a good place to start, helping to ‘boost your confidence and self-belief, as you prove to yourself that you can set yourself a target and achieve a goal’. Running will keep your cardiovascular fitness in check, increase your bone density and help maintain a healthy weight, as well as boost your endorphins for improved mood.
Factors that affect running time in a 5K race
There are varying factors that play a part in your speed, time and overall performance when running a 5K. Taking these factors into account is highly important, allowing you to set realistic goals based on your individual abilities. Remember that no two people are the same!
Your age can affect your running speed and time. As you get older, with changes to your bones, muscles and joints, naturally, your speed and race times start to slow, and recovery time can take longer.
In your 20s, your body is at its peak bone mass, and metabolism is high. As you lean into your 30s and then 40s, metabolism begins to slow, and things will start to get a little harder, with it becoming easier to accumulate fat and lose lean tissue.
From your 50s and beyond, your body goes through certain changes that can affect your running performance, including a decrease in bone density and loss of muscular strength, a higher risk of poor cardiovascular health and increased body fat percentage, and menopause for women.
Men and women often run in different categories during races. This is due to the differences between genders which can impact running time and speed based on our bodies’ biology. On average, men typically run faster than women due to physical reasons such as higher levels of testosterone, greater muscle mass and slightly larger lung and heart sizes.
Weight can sometimes influence running performance. If someone is slightly heavier and has more weight to carry, this may, in turn, make your speed slower.
Fitness levels can impact your running performance. Generally, the fitter you are, the faster you will be able to run, having built up your endurance and being able to last for longer distances.
Newbie runners will obviously perform differently from more advanced runners. This comes down to experience, a running technique which has been learned and improved over time, and training regimes that have been mastered.
Over time, novice runners can build up to these to cut their times and smash their speed and performance.
Having a structured training routine will help with your overall performance. Having goals to reach, with distances to conquer and speeds to beat, will keep motivation levels high, build up endurance and maintain your fitness abilities.
A training regime also includes having the right nutrition and hydration to fuel you pre- and post-runs and getting the right quality of sleep, which is essential for recovery.
Other factors, including weather and terrain, can have an impact on your ultimate running performance. For example, routes that are hilly with greater inclines will be tougher than a flat road, while extreme weather, such as wind, and high or freezing temperatures, can affect speed and timings.
Improving running time and performance in a 5K race: strategies and techniques
Feeling ready to take it up a notch, increasing your speed and maybe even smashing out a PB? Once you have mastered the distance of a 5K, there are several strategies and techniques which you can start to play with in order to improve your running time and performance. We've got some tips below...
Increase your speed
Running faster may feel daunting, but with a few techniques to help you, you’ll be able to reach your desired speed in no time. Adding in short sprints to your runs is a starting point, pushing yourself to go that extra bit faster towards the end to gradually build up speed. To kick start this improvement journey, begin by trying to shave off about 30 seconds on each run. You’ll be surprised how this can gradually add up to take a couple of minutes off your final run.
Interval training is also recommended by running experts Asics, who claim that ‘interval training helps improve running speed by gradually increasing your body’s efficiency at clearing lactic acid from the muscles – which means that, over time, you’ll be able to run faster for longer.’ Building up strength is also beneficial to increasing your speed.
According to Asics, ‘adding in some basic weight training into your routine will make your body stronger and more powerful, and able to burst forward at speed. Common running strength-training exercises include weighted lunges, jumping squats and burpees.’
Increase your stamina and endurance
Building up your stamina and endurance will help improve your running time and performance, as you will be able to run for longer without getting tired. World-famous sports brand Nike explains the importance of consistency in your training plan in order to increase your stamina and endurance, running as regularly as you can and sticking to your goals. Nike also suggests increasing your distance gradually ‘by no more than 10 percent per week. Small mileage increases help to prevent injury and give your body a chance to adapt without feeling overloaded.’
Adding HIIT (high-intensity interval training) into your running regime is also a great way to boost your endurance. According to Nike, ‘this type of interval workout strengthens your heart and lungs to handle the demands of longer races. Training at a high intensity will also help your muscles better handle lactic acid, a chemical byproduct of anaerobic respiration.’
Similarly, strength training is recommended to ‘develop muscle and joint strength, allowing you to activate key muscle groups more easily. The better muscle recruitment, the better physical performance. This translates into running faster’.
Improve your running form and technique
Nailing the right running technique can hugely impact your ultimate performance and steer you away from any unnecessary injuries. A couple of pointers include:
- Good posture: Run tall, with your head upright and your eyes looking ahead.
- Relax shoulders: Keep your shoulders down and avoid hunching. This will prevent any upper body tension.
- Arms at side: Maintain a back-and-forth motion for your arms, creating a streamlined movement, not side to side.
- Straight back: Keep your back straight and core tight. This will provide the correct running posture and help with easier breathing.
- Bend knees slightly: This will take the pressure off them and make you more agile.
- Small strides: Taking light strides will provide a soft landing, increase your balance and control, and enable you to sustain longer distances and higher speeds.
Track your progress
If you stick to a running regime and all goes to plan, over time, your running ability and performance will start to change. You will become stronger, faster and more capable of going the extra distance.
You can keep a track of your progress with useful technology such as smartwatches and apps for your smartphone, including NikeRunClub. These will keep a note of your timings, distance and heart rate, so you are able to set goals and progress with your running journey. Check out our guide to the best fitness trackers for some top recommendations.
Remember to rest and recover
Carving out rest days in your training plan is essential for recovery, allowing your body to recover from running, grow stronger and fitter, and consequently optimise performance. Popular fitness coach Joe Wicks, also known as The Body Coach, highlights the importance of rest days for several reasons, including that ‘they help you get stronger, they help you avoid injury, they help you make fitness progress, they mean you can train harder, and they help you build long-term habits’.
Why not try out several speciality products to complement your recovery, including foam rollers and massage guns for a deep tissue massage to ease tension and muscle pain post-run, improve circulation, and accelerate recovery? Epsom bath salts are great to soothe tired and aching muscles.
Want more guidance and tips on well-being and fitness? Check out our wellness and fitness sections, with guides including yoga vs pilates, posture tips, and the best multi-gym equipment for working out at home.
Cordelia Aspinall is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media, working across brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeForMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. She has previously worked and written for digital publications including Condé Nast Traveller, The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, and several other lifestyle brands.