Q: Ahhh! How Do I Break Through a 20+ Year Plateau in the 5k?

Hi Lauren,

I have this ridiculous lofty goal of running a 5k at a 6min/mile pace… to be honest I would love something in the high 5s. (5:59, 5:58 pace would work) The fastest I have every gone is at a 6:24 pace. And I am stuck there. Literally, I mean I have been stuck at this pace since high school… I am now 36! What do I need to do to build speed and drop this flippin’ time already?

-Michelle from Cleveland





Your goal is not ridiculous at all!  You are only 36 years old and have lots of fast running in you, and your consistency for 20 years tells me that with a few training adjustments, a breakthrough is inevitable.

You have been on a plateau for a long time, so you need to change what you’ve been doing to prepare. Over time, if you are doing the same workouts repeatedly, you simply get really good at those workouts; your races no longer improve.  You need to reconnect workouts to racing by changing the stimuli. You need workouts where you are warming up thinking “I don’t know if I can do this. I wonder how I’ll do? I wonder what it will feel like? I wonder which parts will simulate a 5k race feeling?”

The basic ingredients of 5k training are: long runs, threshold workouts, long reps with short recovery, race pace stuff with moderate recovery, and some speed work thrown in there.

There are a million variations of those ingredients, but most people stick with two or three variations of each type of workout.  You have all these “times” in your mind from previous times you’ve done those workouts, and you focus on how you are comparing to the last time, or the last year, or whatever.  Instead, while working out your mind should be connecting to YOUR FUTURE RACING GOAL.

Your old workouts are probably completely useless to you mentally at this point.  Get new workouts and your mentality will have to be present and future focused.

Try getting off the measured surfaces and ditching the Garmin for a few weeks.  Focusing solely on “effort” for a little while requires translating your distance-based workouts to time-based workouts, and you will push yourself to new levels of pain, with no idea how far/fast you are running.  When you get back on the track, you will be amazed at how much easier the paces feel than they did before.  You will realize that you had been limiting yourself by being wrapped up in what you should be feeling at certain paces based on old information and muscle memory.

Here are two examples of workouts to help spice things up off the track:

  1. Do tempo runs, but maybe start doing them uphill using a heart rate monitor, rather than on the same old bike path where you dwell on your pace every 400 meters.
  2. Do something similar to 8 x 1000m repeats at 10k effort, but do them by time rather than distance, and don’t measure the loop. Simply find a place you can run uninterrupted for 3:30, mark a starting line, and go. When you reach 3:30, stop and mark the finish line. This is the distance you will repeat over and over, running out one way for one rep, and back the way you came for the following rep, and so on. You should have no idea how fast you are actually going. Decrease the recovery as you go starting at 1:30, 1:20, 1:10, 1:00, :50, :40, :30. You will be doubting yourself by #5, but you will pull through, and your confidence will soar.

Research some new variations and write a fresh training program for when you get back on the track.  Within 12 weeks, you will be well on your way to achieving your goal, if you don’t simply blow it out of the water!  I’ll leave you with one workout that I find helps my speed endurance in a 5k.

  • 10 x 200m at your mile pace with only 30 seconds recovery, rest for 5 minutes and then do 10 more the same way.  It will burn badly, but focus on relaxing into the pain.  Its only 200 meters, so you can suck it up!

Best of luck!