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How To Improve Your 5K Time--Tips For The Casual Or Amateur Runner
Tips for the Casual or Amateur Runner
My husband and I are amateur runners who run for fun and to keep fit. We have participated in six 5K and two 10K charity runs within the past 6 years, as evidenced by some of our finishers’ medals below. We spend no more than 30-45 min each time at the gym, 3 days a week max. The races we join serve as a strong incentive to keep us going to the gym even on the days when we don’t feel like it. We also enjoy our growing collection of finishers’ medals. Especially for someone like me who never got any prizes at school for sports or athletics, they serve as validation for my efforts and a reminder that we can do anything we set out minds to. Of course, I also like to show them off to visiting friends and family.
All runners, even a casual one like myself, like to improve our time, pushing ourselves to a better and better ‘Personal Best’. However, since I’m doing this for fun and personal fitness, I don’t want to expend too much time and effort in order to do so. In other words, I don’t want to kill myself or make the process so unpleasant that I put myself off. To this end, I have found 3 foolproof and do-able techniques to improve my time, techniques which, when undertaken conscientiously and consistently, can shave minutes off your Personal Best.
- INTERVAL TRAINING
This can be done easily on a treadmill that has a program for Interval Training. You just input the highest and lowest speeds (your sprint and recovery speeds), the highest and lowest inclines, and the overall time you want to train for, which includes the warm-up and cool-down periods. Say you want to train for 20 minutes. Setting the overall time to 20 minutes should give you 3 min of warm-up, 7 alternating cycles of sprint and recovery for a total of 14 minutes, plus 3 min of cool-down at the end.
If you don’t want or like to train on a treadmill, or if the treadmill you use does not have this function, you can still do interval training, e.g. on a 400-metre track. Just sprint as fast as you can for 100m, then jog for 300m. Aim for 8 sets.
If you’re training for a casual charity race and going to the gym 3 times a week, don’t do the full 5K each time. Inserting one Interval Training a week into your training schedule will see you improving your PB in less than a month.
- TRAIN ON AN INCLINE
For those of us who train exclusively on a treadmill, running on asphalt can come as a nasty shock, and not just to your feet and ankles. Treadmill running is usually done by amateurs like me at zero incline, i.e. completely flat. The route where you will be running your 5K road race will definitely NOT be completely flat. Depending on where the race is held, a 5K route can even incorporate a hill or two. Word of advice—do NOT choose as your very first 5K race one that ENDS on top of a hill. You may not die, but you may wish you did. You will certainly suffer. You will be huffing and puffing up that hill, expending superhuman effort, and out of the corner of your eye, you will see other participants WALKING past at a faster pace than your shuffling.
To avoid this embarrassing and soul-destroying eventuality, you must train on an incline. Amateurs like me freak out at the thought of running on an incline. Hard enough running flat, isn’t it? But trust me, training on an incline is the sure-fire way to increase your speed. Start small. Push that incline button to 0.5. By the end of a week, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about. Push it up another notch to 1.0, which is what most flat-seeming road-running really is. By the time you’re comfortable with 1.0, start at 1.5 and do that for just the first K, then go down to 1.0 for the remaining four K. By the end of a couple months, you’ll be doing the first K at 1.5 or even 2 (no need to go beyond 2 as you don’t want to injure your lower back). By then, you’ll notice that running flat is so easy that you’re flying at zero incline.
- PRACTISE THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE WHILE RUNNING
This is the easiest and most quickly rewarding technique of the three. I included it last lest you do only this and avoid doing the other two, but even if you did, you would still improve your time. The lifework of Australian actor F. M. Alexander, The Alexander Technique is a skill-set embraced by performing artists like actors and musicians, but applicable to all areas of life, including athletics. Basically, by practising it, you become aware of unnecessary tension held within your body and become adept at releasing this tension, freeing valuable energy to perform the task at hand, e.g. running.
It was my violin teacher (who’s also taking lessons to become an Alexander Technique instructor) who introduced it to me. I did not even take any lessons. I merely went to the library, checked out a couple of books on the subject, and the next thing I knew, I was walking taller and my neck felt less stiff. To my astonishment, my PB went down the first time I tried it out on the treadmill. I was elated, but also shocked and horrified at the amount of tension I had been carrying in my upper body, especially my neck and shoulders. Energy is needed to build and hold all this tension, energy that can now be diverted to making you run more at ease, a sure-fire way to improving your PB.
While the following will not improve your time per se, they are also important points to consider while training for your 5K or 10K races.
We all know that stretching is important, but we often ‘forget’ to do it, or just lean against a wall and bounce a few times on one leg and then the other, and call it a day. Well, my massage therapist (who’s also a trained osteopath) tells me that it’s best to stretch AFTER your work-out, when your muscles have been warmed up, and instead of bouncing, try to hold the stretch for at least 30s, since the body’s muscle memory will not take effect in less time than that. Do it, because you don’t want to pull a muscle while training, or worse, during your race.
We may be casual runners, but we really, really love to run. We don’t like to do anything else. But wait! If you only do one thing, you only ever work one set of muscles. Get on a stationary bike once in a while. Walk up and down flights of stairs. Do some yoga or Pilates. Play a racquet sport. By taking care of and building up those muscles you don’t engage as often, you protect them from injury and give the over-trained ones time to heal and build.
I have seen amateur runners near the end of a 5K race with their arms held as low as their hips, as if they’re too heavy a load to bear. If that is a problem for you, the answer is weight-training. No, you don’t need bulging biceps, and no, women do not bulk up when we lift free weights a few times a week. I’m only suggesting, for women in particular, to start off with a few sets of 3lbs dumbbells (or lighter if you wish) and gradually build up to 5 or 7lbs. By the time you’re on 7lbs, you’ll be shocked at how feathery-light the 3lbs weights feel. And you’ll never even think about the weight of your arms while you’re running. Instead, you’ll be running tall, with perfect form, striding along with ease and speed.
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