How to Run Your Next 5k Under 20 Minutes

Endurance sports legend Mike Trees lays out a training plan so you can break the 20 min barrier on your next 5k race.

Run 5km in Less than 20 Minutes: Training Plan

The 5k is a staple for all endurance athletes. It is the most popular road running race and given its distance, it’s also the most accessible to all fitness levels. 

Even if you do not specialize in the distance, it is used as a benchmark test for many training programs. And for good reason. With an average finish time of 20 to 30 minutes, the 5k is perfect for testing an athlete’s pace, endurance and mental toughness. 

One of the signature milestones is breaking the 20 minute barrier. Completing a 5k in under 20 minutes takes not just commitment but smart structured training as well. 

To help you achieve that, legendary formable coach Mike Trees sets out a 12-week plan for you to achieve that target. 

Important Disclaimer: 

  • We must be realistic with our goals. Breaking 20 min is not something you do in a single training block. We’d like to be in the ballpark (21 to 22 minute range) to have a real opportunity to break 20 minutes within this plan.
  • If your times are a bit slower, this plan can still be helpful. You should pick a target time about 90 secs faster than you can currently run and and adjust the times to your target pace. 
  • Biomechanics play a key role in increasing performance. If you’ve never been coached before, now is a good time to schedule a proper run form analysis. You can book coach Mike Trees himself, or a number of other incredible run coaches at 

Run 5km in less than 20 Minutes: The Plan

Achieving this goal is no simple task, a proper training plan is the first step towards hitting your mark. If you are new to structured training, this may seem like a bit much at first, but the majority of committed and competitive athletes have their training programs scheduled weeks to even months in advance. This way you know exactly what work needs to be done and eliminates the guesswork. 

Keep in mind, there will be days where deviation to the schedule will happen. Life has a way of throwing curveballs our way. But as long as you can keep a mission driven mindset on the goal you are looking to achieve, you will be on the right path towards achieving your goal. 

With this in mind I am writing this schedule for anyone who is desperate to break 20 mins for 5km, while also balancing the other responsibilities of life.

  • Firstly you will need to commit at least 4 to 7 hours to your running training a week, this is the minimum to make any real improvement.
  • I have based the training with the main load on Saturday and Sunday, when most people have more free time.
  • Finally I have split it into three blocks of four weeks so that there is progression over a total of 12 weeks

Run 5km in less than 20 Minutes: The Theory

If you have been training for longer races in the past such as a marathon or Ironman triathlon, this plan may seem a bit different. The training theory applied here is for shorter distance racing. It is based around the idea that speed is initially more important than endurance. 

In order to go race pace, an athlete must run at race pace during training. If you can not achieve your target pace in training, you have no chance in a race. Once you have the right pace then it is time to build up stamina. In each block of training I add a bit more distance.

If you are focused on the 5k distance, it is a mistake to start doing long slow running with this schedule, as this will just tire you and make it harder to run fast.

  • You will need to increase cadence, (leg speed), this is done by running with the wind on the flat for about 75 m
  • Track work or interval training, that gets progressively harder, will increase stamina
    • Intervals combine leg speed with a longer stride and simulate block race pace
  • Between each short phase it is important to take an easy week
  • The stamina will come from track work or interval training, that gets progressively harder.
    • Intervals combine leg speed with a longer stride and simulate block race pace
  • Between each short phase it is important to take an easy week.
    • I always say, training makes you tired and slower. Rest and recovery make you stronger. Don’t miss this easy week is is very important.

Run 5km in less than 20 Minutes: The Phases

Training phases are groupings of specific types of workouts over a set period within your total training plan. The purpose of each phase is to develop a specific area which will be needed for the following phase, as well as to build in recovery periods so your body can develop the necessary adaptations. 

The phases in this plan have been set as three weeks hard, one week easy. This is because the shortest time span that any physiological change can take place is three weeks. 

The other purpose of phases is to keep the body guessing. If you were to train on one phase for more than six weeks, progress will plateau.  Without change and variety, our body adapts to the program, and improvement stops.

Run 5km in less than 20 Minutes Training Plan

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Additional information: 

ATP- CP– adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and phosphocreatine (PC). It is one of the three main sources of fuel your body uses during exercise. Put most simply, your ATP-CP system is the quickest and most powerful energy source the body has. It uses Phosphocreatine that is pre-stored in the muscles to produce quick high power movements. However it is in short supply and does not last very long. Use during quick sprints vs longer efforts.

MAF–  Maximum Aerobic Function, made popular as MAF training and represents your heart rate target for aerobic runs.
IMAT- Individual Maximum Aerobic Training and is another calculation/approach to figuring out your aerobic heart rate target. Put another way, these runs should be in your easy/Zone 2 heart rate.

. . .

Mike Trees is a running/triathlon coach (NRG Coaching) and all around elite endurance athlete. As a runner, Mike competed at Britain’s top sports University, Loughborough. He went on to race and coach all over the world, most recently in Japan. After 15 years racing as a professional triathlete, Mike eventually took up coaching triathlon and has coached Olympians and world champions, as well as National level and top amateurs.