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20 minutes

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds

So you want a straightforward sub 20 minute 5k program?

A plan that will get you there quickly?

One for someone who probably only has 3 or so hours to run each week? (it’s further on in the post…sub 19 is the same training but harder to achieve).


For mere mortals doing 5k in less than 20 minutes is an achievement. For top athletes and even for relatively casual amateur athletes it is a trivial achievement.  But you didn’t want to hear that. You wanted to know how to do it!

Can YOU realistically EVER do a sub-20 5k?

Firstly get an idea of just how easy or difficult it is going to be for you. This depends on whether or not you are male or female and how old you are. I don’t want to be sexist or ageist but those are key factors. For a 48 year old woman it is a heck of an achievement, much less so for a 20 year old man where very many of you should be able to do it from a good fitness base.

Here is a table showing the approximate age graded time that 20 minutes represents over a 5k. Most people can achieve a 70% performance with a bit of hard work and time. An 80% achievement is another kettle of fish totally. If you are just averagely fit now then to get more than 80% will probably take you a few years of hard work and continuous improvement … maybe 4 or 5 years if you are ‘getting on a bit’, whatever that means. If any of you competitive types want a 5k goal it would be to do an 80% Age Graded 5k time, it’s hard.

So 20 minutes for a 5k equals approximately:

vm45-49 71% age grade MOST DO-ABLE
SM35-39 67% age grade
sm20-24 64% age grade WALK IN THE PARK

vw45-49 82% age grade VERY HARD
Sw35-39 75% age grade
sw20-24 73% age grade

So now you know how serious you need to be in this little escapade of yours.

 Click (here) for short-term tips and tricks for a PB this coming weekend. Can’t hurt?

A Rough Weekly Plan

Here is a rough WEEKLY PLAN of what you should be doing to improve quickly over the next couple of months, to maximise the endurance base you have already built up. The 3 faster exercises should all be exhausting (and you have to know what that word means!), if not exhausting then go faster or rest less. These 3 faster sessions all work. If you are strapped for time AND DEDICATED don’t waste your time doing anything else (such as the slow easy one). Do them and do them HARD. *BUT*. Always, always rest the day after a hard session (ideally 2 days), always have every 4/5th week slightly easier than the previous 3; always have at least 2 days off before racing. Rest is FAR, FAR, FAR more important than you think it is, honest! PS Don’t forget to rest? (Did I mention rest and recovery?)

Obviously I’m not claiming this, or any, plan can perform miracles. If you are currently a flat-out 25 minute 5k runner then this plan will NOT work for you to get to sub 20 minutes in a 3 month time frame. Sure it will get you faster. But you will struggle soon enough as you likely lack a proper endurance base.

So, here is the straightforward plan. Same each week. If you can’t run non-stop for an hour (however slowly) then please do not consider doing this plan. Ideally you will already have a reasonable endurance base and what that very simplistically means is that you can run at an unchanging speed in Heart Rate Zone 2 for an hour.

Always start the new week at exercise number 1. and forget the previous ones you missed:

Day 1. 3-4x1k at >5-10 secs/km faster than next race’s target pace if you can. 2-3 minutes rest in between efforts.

Day 2 or 3. Optional SLOW/EASY recovery run, 40-70 minutes. Focus entirely on technique .You can go further and for the whole duration it should feel like you are able to hold a conversation. 5:00/km is not slow, 6:00/km is .

Day 4.  5 mins at approx. >30 secs/km slower than your target race pace no rest then 3 mins at 10secs (+/-5) slower than target race pace. Repeat both with no rest. Then rest for 6 minutes and re-do all 4 effort periods again with no further rest (5+3+5+3+6+5+3+5+3).

Day 5. Adaptation & Recovery day. Streeeeetch.

Day 6. Short speed intervals, typically 7-10x 1 minute (60-90 secs rest) at faster than target race pace. This should be faster than your 5x1km speed above, say at least 10 secs/km faster. With this one you can INcrease the recovery time up to 2.5 minutes providing you increase the effort-period pace. Aim for consistent maximum speed.

Day 7. Rest or an ‘intensive endurance long run’ of 60 minutes where you push the limit of where you can ‘just’ speak (so, 4 repeats of: 10 minutes in HR zone 2; plus 5 minutes in HR Zone 3; no rest) OR, if you don’t like ‘long’ runs, do 2×20 minutes with 6 minutes rest. Do each 20 minutes at target race pace less 30 seconds/km – this approximates a SWEETSPOT run (minimal damage/speedier recovery) OR, if you’re tired (probable) do an ‘extensive endurance long run’ of 60 minutes entirely in HR zone 2.

Periodic: Re-test your 5k PB once every 5-6 weeks after a 3 day abstinence taper and re-adjust your training PACE accordingly. Taper properly for your big race.

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That’s about it (read the caveats, below, otherwise you **WILL** get injured). I can go on a bit in detail but that should keep you busy for 2 months!! If you are not closing in on achieving 20 minutes with this plan after 2 months then a longer time-frame plan would be wise and this will increase longer mileage training.  If your improvement stops happening with this (or any other) plan then you need to immediately re-evaluate/change your training. If this plan has not worked within 2 months then you will probably becoming psychologically fatigued with the continuous hard effort…take a rest, change your approach, review your stats to see how hard you really were trying and how well you were resting/adapting. Good luck.

Didn’t like that plan? Try this more scientific approach to a 5k plan using VDOT.

The above plan probably is a bit short on recovery time and short on strength and conditioning work with flexibility.


1: Do you think the plan has insufficient miles and no long slow run? Whatever you read; just plodding along in HR Zone 1 will not help you much at all – other than for recovery or technique/efficiency. Z1 is too slow even for a long slow run. Remember the above plan assumes/requires you already have an endurance base or it won’t work!

2: If you are in one of the groups where a sub-20 minute 5k is much more of an achievement then you might want to make the intensive endurance/long run (Day 7. in the ‘plan’) of higher importance each week to make sure you do actually do it weekly.

3: If you are *WAY* off achieving 20 minutes at present then, again, the intensive endurance/long runs will help significantly and maybe this plan is not YET for you. I would say a current level of 23 minutes for youngsters and 25 minutes for over 30s is quite a way off…you guys need to focus more on mileage/running economy…but you probably know best😉

4: The target race pace is your next immediate, interim target NOT your ultimate sub-20 target. Be smart about setting these targets to “just a bit faster” than what you can currently do. Say 10 -20 seconds faster for your 5k time.

5: Ideally; week-on-week, you should change the exercise stimulus you give to your body. So, in my straightforward plan, adapt and complicate the plan by resting a bit less the following week or by going just that little bit faster the following week. Remember to really ease up every 4 – 6 weeks for a week and rest a bit more. Then get cracking all over again. I didn’t include this change in the plan as it complicates the broad thrust of the straightforwardness of what you need to do.

6: Don’t get waylayed by marathon runners telling you to do lots of long slow runs – it’s right for them of course; you are training various bodily systems differently to marathon runners. Basically more LSRs are of no massive, relatively immediate 5k benefit in themselves to your imminent 5k PB (you’ve already got your endurance base sorted, right? I have said that several times). One way of looking at them is to say that they DO benefit you by ‘putting miles in the tank’ this means that you can spend those miles by training more intensely at a later date. This plan is about spending those miles you’ve banked. Also consider that the Zone 2 HR runs that I point to above should not actually be that slow for you – I guess it depends on your definitions of ‘slow’ and ‘long’. & also consider that obviously I do agree and understand that LSRs are important to building up any athlete’s endurance base as well as several other physiological adaptations.

7: You will need PROTEIN and CARBS and WATER immediately after exercise – for the sake of argument let’s just say ALWAYS after every exercise in my plan. Protein repairs, carbs refuel, water metaphorically lubricates – all pretty important really. Do some research on a balanced diet. Glass of milk and a banana will do nicely; whey protein, even better. Proper diet will add noticeably to your improving 5k times – much easier than training for those extra seconds.

8: Your running technique/form is important. HOWEVER, you don’t want to try to formally change it too much in the next 3 months. You’ll get injured. Don’t waste your time on this (yet!!). Over the longer/medium term running efficiency is VERY VERY important. If I said to you to get your technique right now and go for a PB in a year’s time you wouldn’t do it would you?! But that would be good advice. Perhaps you could aim to change your cadence to 90/180 over a few weeks if yours is currently below 85/170.

9: If you find the session nigh-on impossible, even with the maximum amount of rest then instead base them on your last PB. By definition that will be slower than your target PB. Many plans base training speeds on what you have RECENTLY achieved rather than what you want to achieve and that’s not a bad thing. They may well be nigh-on-impossible because you are not leaving sufficient time (2 days) between hard sessions AND BECAUSE you are doing other sessions TOO QUICKLY.

10: This is a hard-to-execute plan, if you keep doing it for longer than 2-3 months then you MAY WELL get injured and, in any case, your body may become adapted to a relatively fixed stimulus – which you would need to change to get better benefits. Lengthen your time frame and perhaps just do two of the hard sessions a week and some easier ones, be realistic.

11: I realise that many people will ignore the caveats and macho-like follow this until they get injured. Sometimes because they ‘feel’ able to push themselves. One of the ways your body can tell you that it is NOT ready for a hard training day OR that in fact it is ready to train HARDER is to use a simple and cheap app like BIOFORCEHRV or ITHLETE or ELITE HRV (there are many others, Google: waking HRV app). You only get ‘better’ when your body is adapting. These apps measure the body’s degree of adaptation each morning. They really do work and for free-to-£5/$5 I would say a VERY wise investment.

12. Over 50? Well assuming you are given the go ahead for strenuous exercise then this sort of plan is suited to you. Research shows that you will reduce the decline in your VO2max capacity by doing these kind of intervals rather than lots of LONG distance work….honest!!! You should also do weights as you get older (well, when you are younger too of course for runners).

13. DNA? Apparently some people respond better to endurance training and others respond better to ‘speed’ training. Which are you? You could tailor your training smarter if you knew. Have a look at 1 Minute Review – DNAFit – Detailed DNA analysis for athletes.

Remember I never said it was an easy plan, just a straightforward plan😉

More Free Plans => *HERE*

Q: How long will SUB20 take me in (detail)?

A: Answer is *HERE*

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