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How to Run a 20-Minute 5K (Sub-20 5K)

Wondering how to run a 20-minute 5k? Maybe you’re unsure if it’s a realistic goal. Or maybe you’ve already committed to it but aren’t sure where to start.

Wherever you are currently, we’re here to help. This article will discuss how to run a 20-minute 5k, from training to race day to recovery post-race. If this is your goal, you need to be committed – a 20-minute 5k is not for casual runners!

Follow the advice you find here, and you can expect to reach your goals. You’ll need patience and determination, but it’s perfectly possible!

How Fast Is a 5K in 20 Minutes?

To run a 5k in 20 minutes, you must run at an average speed of 9.3 miles per hour—15 kilometers per hour. That means you need to be able to run 3.1 miles at a 6:25 min/mile pace.

To make it easier to work out, you need to run each kilometer—0.6 miles—of the 5k race in 4 minutes. To break it down even further, you need to be able to run a quarter mile in a minute.

Who Can Run 5K in 20 Minutes?

Anyone can work their way up to running a 20-minute 5k race! However, your current fitness level will play a large part in how quickly you can reach that goal.

In order for it to be an immediate and reachable goal, you should already have a personal best time of around 22 minutes. And you should be able to run one mile in 6 minutes and 10 seconds, even if you can’t yet sustain that for 3 miles.

You’ll have the best chance of running a 20-minute 5k if you’re already running 20 miles or more a week. If not, you’ll have to work up to running 20 miles or more per week for at least several weeks before attempting a 20-minute 5k.

You will also need to be able to commit to training for three to six hours a week for at least two to three months before your race.

What Are the Key Factors to Run a 5K in 20 Minutes?

A 5k is a relatively short run. If you want to reach this goal, you need to focus on interval workouts, hill repeats, and tempo runs in your training. This will build up your fitness and speed to help you reach the goal quickly.

You should also be prioritizing correct form, optimizing your nutrition, and paying attention to recovery. If you can get all these right, you’ll be in the best position to reach this goal.

Workouts to Run a Sub-20-Min 5K

Training Tips

Find a Track

A track is an ideal place to work on your 5k training, as it’s easy to do interval workouts on a track. It’s flat, well-marked, and usually free from crowds.

Focus On Good Running Form

If you want to improve your speed and maintain it throughout a full 5k race, your form needs to be close to perfect. Adding a few minutes of running drills into your warm-up routine is a good idea to focus specifically on your form.

Factor Recovery Into Your Training

Recovery should be an active part of your training, not an afterthought. You should reduce your mileage/intensity every fourth week and have a recovery week.

You should also focus on getting better sleep, foam rolling, using compression gear, and eating healthy.

Test Your Pace Every 2 to 3 Weeks

You won’t be doing all your training at the required 6:25-mile. However, in order to run a 20-minute 5k, you will need to be able to run all 3 miles at this pace.

Test yourself every two to three weeks during your training to see if you can maintain this pace. Start with one mile. Then go for 1 ½ miles, then 2 miles, then 2 ½ miles, and finally 3 miles.

Warm Up Properly

Some dynamic stretches, running strides, and running drills are excellent ways to warm up. Running strides are sprints at 85 to 90 percent of your full effort. Running drills focus on form and get the muscles warm. You should spend 5 to 10 minutes on these.

You should also cool down properly. Jogging or walking for 5 to 10 minutes after a run, followed by stretching for 5 to 20 minutes, should be enough.

Cross-Train

You can add a day of strength training into your schedule, which can count as an “active recovery” day. On this day, focus on strengthening your legs and core.

These muscle groups will play the biggest part in powering your forward and maintaining your form as you run your 5k.

Workouts

Interval Workouts

Intervals can be a great way to increase your pace and endurance. Start with shorter intervals and increase them by 10 percent every week.

  • 400s

8 to 12 400-meter intervals with a 200-meter walk/jog in between. Aim to run this in a minute and a half.

  • 800s

4 to 6 800-meter intervals with a 90-second walk/jog in between. Aim to run this at a pace of 6:25 per mile.

  • 1000s

3 to 5 1000-meter intervals with a 90-second walk/jog in between. Aim to run this at a pace of 6:25 per mile.

Tempo Runs

Focus on time for these runs. You should aim for four 6-minute intervals at a pace slightly slower than your 5k pace—6:50 to 7 minutes per mile.

As you progress, you can move on to three 7-minute intervals, two 10-minute intervals, and then one 20-minute run at the same pace.

Hill Repeats

You can do these on a moderate hill near you or on a treadmill. The hill should have a moderate elevation, and you should be able to run up the gradient for at least 100 meters—110 yards. You can set a moderate elevation on your treadmill for this as well.

Run six to 10 intervals. You’ll run up the hill with around 90 percent effort and then jog back down.

If you’re on a treadmill, sprint for the equivalent of 110 yards—your treadmill should measure distance. Then, jog for the next 110 yards and repeat.

Fartlek

Fartlek training runs are less structured training runs. You should try to do them on varied terrain, which will make them more fun and add an element of challenge to your training.

You can structure your intervals however you like, but make sure that you’re continuously running all the time. You should not walk or stop between intervals.

They should be between 30 and 120 seconds long. You can set a rough structure for them; for example, run for 5 minutes at a fast pace, then a minute at a recovery pace, followed by 2 minutes of sprint intervals.

Or, you can cater your training to your environment. For example, go hard up the hills, slow down on the way down, sprint to the corner, do intervals between lamp posts, and so on.

This type of run should be 45 minutes to an hour long in total, including your warm-up and cool-down.

Easier/Longer Runs

You should do at least one long run per week. This should be between five and 10 miles and at a pace that’s 20 to 30 percent slower than your 6:25 per mile pace. The aim is to build endurance.

Example 1-Week Training

  • Monday: Shorter, easy run, 4 to 6 miles
  • Tuesday: Interval training
  • Wednesday: Active recovery/mobility work
  • Thursday: Tempo run
  • Friday: Cross-training
  • Saturday: Long run, 8 to 10 miles OR fartlek run
  • Sunday: Rest

Tips for Recovery

Recovery is as important as the actual training process! If you prioritize your recovery, you can expect to reach your goal faster. Follow these tips for the best recovery.

Check Your Resting Heart Rate Every Day or Two

Most smartwatches show second-by-second heart rate data, and many of them also show a daily average. This is a great way to monitor your own recovery and general health.

If your heart rate rises significantly—by 10 percent or more—then we advise taking the next day off from training. A rise in heart rate could indicate that you’re getting sick, or it could be a sign that you’re overtraining.

This will allow you to get ahead of potential problems before they turn into injuries that force you to take more time off.

Cold Showers/Ice Bath After the Run

Note that you should never get straight into a cold shower after a run. Rather, run a lukewarm shower and turn it down gradually to give your body time to adjust. The cold can act as cold therapy for the muscles and joints, making them feel better after a hard run.

If you want an ice bath, we recommend doing so from room temperature and not immediately after exercise. When your body is warm after exercise, going straight into a cold shower or ice bath can be shocking and do more harm than good.

Stretching/Yoga

Stretching is an excellent way to loosen up the muscles. Yoga can stretch out the muscles while building strength at the same time. It’s easy to do anywhere and gets the blood flowing effectively throughout the body.

Sleep

You should get 8 to 9 hours of restful sleep every night. This is an average, and some people can do well on 6 to 7 hours, provided its quality rest.

Make sure your room is at the optimal temperature, quiet, and dark. It’s also a good idea to avoid blue light— like the TV or phone—for at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep.

Nutrition & Hydration

During your training, you should focus on eating fresh, whole foods. Avoid processed foods, sugar, and alcohol as much as possible.

Healthy carbs for runners include wholewheat pasta, fruits, and vegetables. You should also eat lean protein with every meal to assist with building muscle and keep you fuller for longer.

Make sure you’re also staying hydrated, even when you’re not running. Keep drinking throughout the day. Fill up a large bottle and try to make sure you empty it before the end of the day.

Incorporate Active Recovery

You should have at least one full day off every week. But on the other days you don’t run, incorporating cross-training activities will keep your fitness up and help you build muscle.

You can do other cardio-based activities like cycling, swimming, rowing, jumping rope, or elliptical. We also recommend including strength training once or twice a week.

Tips Before the Race

1 to 2 Weeks Tapering

Don’t forget to taper a week or two before your 5k race. It may be a short race, but a taper will still give you the best chance of reaching your goal.

You should decrease your mileage and intensity during these two weeks to around 60 percent of what you did before.

Two weeks before your race, stop including long runs in your training. Stop intense speed training a week before your race. You should be focusing on mid-length, easy-pace runs.

You should place more emphasis on recovery in the week leading up to the race so you can be ready for the race.

Eat Easy to Digest Food 24 to 48 Hours Before

To prevent gastric troubles during your race, you’ll want to avoid high-fat foods for a day or two days before your race. These include dairy and rich meats.

You should increase your carb intake during these two days. Not only will this lower your chances of developing unpleasant gastric symptoms, but it will provide your body with easy-access energy for your race.

Plan Your Race Day

Plan in advance for the day of the race. Will you need to travel? How are you getting there? Who are you running with? What time do you need to leave the house? Do you need to pack provisions?

Knowing this and planning ahead will reduce stress on race day and help your day go smoothly.

Tips for Race Day

To make race day go as smoothly as possible, follow these tips:

  • Arrive early: this gives you time to prepare and ease your nerves
  • Study the course: having an idea of the course before you run it reduces stress
  • Nothing new on race day: not gear, not food, not routine. Stick to what works!
  • Warm up properly: Warm up away from others if you’re self-conscious, but do it!
  • Relax: You’ve done the work; all that remains is to put it into practice!
  • Start strong: Aim for 6:16 to 6:30 for your first mile and adjust accordingly
  • Stay focused: Many people lose focus on km 3 or 4. Keep your focus and remember your goal!

Post-Race

If you hit your 20-minute 5k goal, congratulations! You’ve reached a milestone and can now continue training to hit this goal every time you run a 5k.

If not, analyze your race. Where did you lose time? What could be improved? Perhaps adding race nutrition or changing your shoes would help. Learn from this race and start planning your next one!

Ben Drew

Ben Drew

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.

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