Hey all – today’s blog is about running a faster parkrun, which is a fantastic and free weekly timed 5k event taking place in parks across the UK and elsewhere at around 9AM every Saturday. If you don’t yet participate, you can find out more about parkrun here and you can find your nearest parkrun here.
Technically it’s not a race, which the organisers make very clear, but it’s a great benchmark to see what form you are in, so certainly it’s a race ‘against yourself’ for many.
A ‘faster’ parkrun is clearly a subjective term, 30 minutes is a goal for many and for others they are targeting sub-20, sometimes well below 20!
My parkrun journey (my parkrun profile) started when I could finish in a little over 25 minutes, so my initial goal was sub-25. Once that goal was achieved I broke the sub-22 and sub-20 barriers. I’m now sitting at 19:20 and am targeting sub-19, but that’s for the future as I’m focused on marathons and half marathons most of the time this year.
The main purpose of this blog is to share with fellow runners the tips which I feel helped me improve my time from about 25 minutes to just over 19 minutes over the course of a year. Some tips are parkrun specific but others are equally applicable to any other race (not that parkrun is a race, oh no…).
So here goes:
Logistics & Tactics
1. Pick a fast course – if you’re after a PB don’t pick a hilly and muddy parkrun course. Pick one with good, flat paths which are mud free all year round and don’t flood…
2. Pick a less crowded course – many parkruns are increasingly popular which can lead to pinch points costing you valuable seconds, or you may find yourself in a queue waiting to cross the start line. The events don’t use chip timing so the start time is the same for everyone, regardless of when you cross the line. Ten seconds waiting to cross the line is ten seconds on your finish time.
3. Start at the front of your predicted time group – for parkruns which have start positions based on expected finishing time put yourself towards the front of your grouping, but don’t pick the wrong one – nobody likes having to overtake slower runners who have obviously started much too far forward. This is especially true where paths are narrow, as if often the case for parkrun courses.
4. Find a target runner – as you get familiar with your local event you’ll get to know some of the other runners including those who are achieving your target time or a bit better. Pick one and then doggedly try to stick with them using them as your personal pace-maker or just your ‘must beat’ person. Lisa, my wife, used this tactic successfully at our local parkrun but I won’t say who the target was!
5. Try to run even splits – the first half of your race should be a similar pace to the second half. Don’t go crazy at the start and do a lightning quick first mile which you can’t then maintain. The extra time you’ve ‘banked’ at the start will only need repaying through miles two and three, and usually with a lot of interest! Try to achieve an even pace throughout, possibly going slightly faster in the second half if you can to achieve the fabled ‘negative split’.
6. Don’t go loopy – many people (myself included) don’t like courses which are more than one lap of the same course. Some parkruns are three laps or more. If that suits you then go for it. Personally I find it mentally more challenging than a one-lapper or two laps at a push.
7. Know your splits – pick miles or kilometres but know what splits you need to hit to achieve your goal time. Kms are particularly easy to track – just under 5:00/km for sub 25 mins, 4:00/km for sub 20 etc. I like using miles though because there are only three of them 🙂 It makes the maths a bit tougher but you can find pace calculators on my Useful Running Links page.
8. Enjoy it – parkrun is a fantastic, social experience you share with lots of other like-minded runners. The better you get the sooner the pain is over, so enjoy your new found speed rather than focusing on the few seconds you missed your target by etc. Cheer on the others who are still to finish.
9. Target an approximate place and try to keep it – as your times get quicker the field will begin to thin out a bit and you’ll get a feeling for your rough position on the day. Try to use this as motivation for hanging on over the tough final mile and a bit.
10. Rather obvious, but set yourself a goal time. Make it achievable, maybe 30 seconds faster than your current PB. You might smash it, but trying to shave off 5 minutes in one chunk could become demoralising.
11. Track your position on the parkrun ‘leaderboards’ for each event. If you’re speedy you’ll find yourself on the ‘Fastest 500’ list and can target a higher position or possibly just plan to cling on to a position on the list if the competition is fierce. Age-graded tables are also a really good benchmark of your progress and can help you compare your own results against the 20-year olds skipping around in 17 minutes or less. Lists/tables exist for each parkrun event and are automatically updated on the website.
12. Set a goal in your running app – then you’ll know for sure that you’ve beaten it. If you start your timer when you cross the start and finish lines it will be an accurate test of your 5k time, removing the randomness of any start line queue delay as per tip #2.
13. Go for the best finishing position on the day – when you finish a parkrun you’re handed a token which shows your finishing position on the day. Use that as motivation to see if you can get higher up the rankings over time – clearly this depends on the size and quality of the field that turns out each week.
14. Get a running watch – it’s much easier to stop and start a watch than unlocking your phone and trying to click start/stop on the app. You could rely on the auto-start/stop functionality of the app but that will also introduce some delay to your time. You can get a perfectly serviceable running watch for considerably less than £100.
15. Track PBs for each parkrun course – parkrun tourism is a growing trend and if you don’t mind travelling there are many to choose from. But not all are equal (as per tips #1 and #2) so a good time on one may only be so-so on an easier course. Keeping track of your PBs on each course can help motivate you to a good performance even when you know you aren’t going to worry your ‘absolute’ PB. The parkrun website does this tracking for you.
16. Join a running club – if you’re serious about improving your time then I would very much recommend joining a running club, they will generally have one or more weekly meet-ups. Running with other people is much easier than heading out on your own. If you live close to Taunton then please check out the running club I’m a member of – Running Forever.
17. Incorporate speed work into your training – the general idea is to make sure that some of your running (probably once a week) is run at a pace which is quicker than your 5k goal pace. Over time your body adapts to this new higher speed running and it makes your current 5k pace seem a bit easier, at which point you don’t rest on your laurels and enjoy easier parkruns, no – your put in 100% as before and enjoy the pain which leads to your new improved PB. If you join a running club they are likely to have ‘track’ sessions each week, specifically focused on building speed.
18. Build stamina by doing longer runs – mile three is usually the toughest mile in a 5k. Getting your body used to running longer distances (10km+) can help it make physiological adaptations which improve stamina and efficiency, which in turn make mile three more bearable. Once you’ve done some longer runs 5k can seem like quite a short distance so it can help with the mental aspect of completing the distance as well as the physical.
19. Do a warm up – some races it’s ok not to warm up for, the 5k isn’t one of them. The first mile of a marathon or half marathon can be used as the warm up. Take that approach during a 5k and the race is one third over before you’ve properly got going. Do a 10-15 minute warm up before the race so your muscles are ready to go – you’ll be quicker off the mark and reduce your chance of injury.
20. Take some carbs – this one is really down to personal preference but if you get low on energy towards the end of the race you could take a gel or an energy drink 5-10 minutes before the race. Don’t take it too early because your body will start storing the carbs as fat which will make you lethargic, and don’t take it too late because the race may be over before you gain any benefit.
21. Wear ‘fast’ shoes – get some shoes which are built for speed. Not racing flats – the surface won’t be suited to that, but try to get some light and fast shoes. High leg turnover is needed for a good 5k time and the more weight you have at the bottom of your leg the harder it is to move it through quickly and the faster your legs will get tired.