When you’re new to running, the thought of carrying your body around 10K is pretty daunting. Fast forward a few years and it’s the kind of distance you might knock out for a Monday morning recovery run – or, for some of us, it becomes our race nemesis.
Running a fast 10K race is a pretty brutal business: it’s long enough to require seriously spot-on pacing but short enough to force you to push your heart, lungs and legs to their limits. But it’s a really satisfying race distance to target, too, with its neat number of kilometre splits making pacing a doddle (mentally, at least). What’s more, if you can focus on building speed over this relatively short distance in the summer, you’ll be in a great position to try for a marathon PB this autumn. So what does it take to break the magic 40-minute barrier and be one of the first women across the line at a 10K?
Ten kilometres may not seem very far if you’re an experienced runner, but to really focus on that race performance, you should allow a good build-up. Richard Coates, running coach at Full Potential (fullpotential.co.uk), suggests a 12-week build-up. “People say you can do it in eight weeks but I would allow 12, primarily because of illness and injury – there’s always a bit of faff factor.”
Following a 12-week build-up also allows you to progress through different phases of training, so you’re really well prepared.
While threshold work (at around 85% of your maximum effort) will be a cornerstone of your training throughout your 10K preparation, Coates says that your first consideration should be building up strength in your legs. “To run fast, you need to be physically strong. I’d be doing some hill work at the start of the training, whether it’s doing Kenyan Hills – so up-and-down repeats at threshold effort – or whether it’s uphill efforts only, where you’re running the uphills fast then jogging back down, to develop power and technique.”
You can also use the early part of your training period to build up strength in the gym, ideally using a specific programme designed for you by a coach or personal trainer (if the latter, make sure they understand your running goals and training load). You can keep some of this work in as you progress towards your race, cutting down the load and number of sessions as you do more speed-focused sessions, so that your body is not overloaded.
If you are aiming for a fast 10K then you should already be able to cover the distance easily but you need to maintain your long runs through training. Coates says you don’t need to cover more than 60 to 90 minutes (or up to about 12 miles, depending on your pace), though. Keep your effort level fairly easy in these longer runs, saving your intensity for the threshold and speed sessions you do down the week.
Over long training blocks, speedwork is often referred to as the icing on the cake; you add it when you’ve built your base of endurance, strength and threshold training. “To run fast you’ve got to train fast,” says Coates.
He advises doing a mixture of ‘medium-sized’ speedwork and then super-fast efforts. “You could start off with doing 800m intervals or 1K intervals where you’re doing them at 90% effort – either at or faster than your target 10K pace. If someone wants a 40-minute 10K, they might do kilometre reps that are slightly faster so they really get the effort up there. You might start with a longer recovery and then reduce that recovery, or you could start at 800m but then build up to doing 2K intervals.
“As well as doing those 800m to 1K reps, there’s no harm in doing 400m reps where you are really gunning it at 3K [race] effort. You need to have all the gears in there.”
He also advises racing a 5K as part of your preparation. “Maybe four weeks before your 10K, do a parkrun or something and race that hard. That’ll give you a good idea of where you’re at and whether it’s going to be feasible or not to run 40 minutes [in your 10K race].”
The final ingredient in your recipe for 10K success is pace judgement, and this will be absolutely critical on race day. At speeds of six or seven minutes per mile, there is little margin for error. Now here’s the bad news: you may need to learn to live without your precious GPS unit.
“I’m showing my age a bit, but when I used to race at a good level, I used to run with a Casio,” says Coates. “People can get too obsessed with looking at a GPS watch. They’ll look at their watch and it’s showing 5mins 15secs per kilometre, and they think, ‘I’d better speed up!’ Then the next time they look down they’re running at 3mins 20secs.”
Using a GPS in training can be helpful, but the more you can learn to run by feel, the better. “The way to do that is to go to a track and run two-and-a-half laps, running four minutes for a kilometre,” says Coates. “You start to build up your understanding and feel for how that pace is. And then on the day, you don’t need GPS. GPS watches are good to record data and look at it afterwards, but on race day they can be a bit distracting, especially in a 10K when there’s not much time. Just run fast and look ahead!”
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