The Transition from 5k Runner to 5 Mile Runner

stop being jealous of how cute I looked after this 5 mile race!

Since starting this blog, I have heard from many people that they can run around 3 miles, and would like to develop into someone who can run 5+ miles and can I please drop a bit of knowledge on that topic.

It’s taken me a while to get to writing this post because, well, honestly, I don’t really feel confident about the knowledge I have to drop re: this topic. I have no idea what it’s like to be a person who already can run a certain distance and aim to lengthen that distance. I was a person who could not run aiming to transition into a person who could run. But I must know this stuff, right? A year and a half ago, I couldn’t run for 2 minutes and now I can run for as many minutes as my sneakers/body-fuel-system will allow for (to be tested as soon as my leg muscles, sneakers, other obligations, and the weather cooperate enough for another long run). It was this time last year that I was wrapping up the Couch to 5k program and beginning to transition from running 2-3 miles each workout to running 4-6 miles.  Clearly I made this transition–I just guess I wasn’t focusing on it a whole lot.

Luckily, I have that massive excel sheet of all my workouts from 2010 and 2011, so while I wasn’t focusing on exactly what I was doing last year, I can examine & re-visit it now. And I’d like to share the following suggestions for transitioning from being a 5k runner to a 5m+ runner.

1. Just Run!
There are no quick tips for becoming a super long distance, super speedy runner. Just go out there and run. Becoming a different kind of runner than you already are is about conditioning your body (heart, mind, and muscles) to do something in a different way than they are accustomed. While I’m sure there are speedy ways to become a better, longer, faster, whatever, runner, are they ultimately that beneficial? I mean, we become better at anything by doing it more. So just run more and your body will get better at it. Brilliant suggestion, huh?

2. Don’t Just Run
As much as I hesitate to admit/accept it, running is high impact stuff — the pounding of feet to pavement creates, well, a high impact. According to my English Major Background (aka my opinion, as obtained through google & experience) this kind of impact fine for well-conditioned and well-cared for muscles (stretching & resting = muscle care), but since your muscles take more of a beating through this high-impact activity, it’s good to take advantage of cross-training options which are lower-impact than running (just about anything is lower-impact than running — biking, elliptical, etc) so that your can continue to strengthen your heart and muscles without tiring out your legs with high-impact stuff.

When I am incorporating biking and elliptical into my workout routine, instead of just running like a crazy stubborn head rebelling against winter & basement gyms, I can go 6 days before I need a rest day. With running, I need one after the 3rd day. And by need, I mean need.

Point is, strengthen your muscles without putting them exclusively through the high-impact business of running. Any cardio work is great for your heart, as it works to more efficiently pump blood around/supply oxygen to the hard-working muscles.

It’s also important for runners to do strength training that isn’t all leg-focused. Running really is a full-body thing. Your torso twists, your arms help keep the motion going — doing all around strength work is important.

When I was transitioning from 5k to 5m, these were a few standard workout weeks. (Just click on the screen shot to see it bigger — photo captions are currently doing weird stuff.)
And of course each of those workouts was followed by a beautiful stretch session.

3. Focus on Time, not Distance
Your body doesn’t know how many miles it is running, it just knows how many minutes it is running. I recommend trying to synch body and mind as much as possible by making your goals time-based, rather than distance-based.

I can propel my body 5-6 miles in 60 minutes, but some people can propel their bodies 5-6 miles in 30 minutes. Our two workouts, while comparable in distance, are completely different in everything else — since my heart is elevated for twice as long, I’m burning twice as many calories and spending twice as long conditioning my muscles to the act of running.

When you start to become accustomed to running for 60 minutes, your runs will eventually become longer, in terms of distance, which is great. Your mind will be able to focus on aiming to do more in those 60 minutes than it used to be able to. If you becoming accustomed to running 5 miles, your workout times will become shorter as you become stronger, and your mind might work to focus on getting those 5 miles done as quickly as possible, rather than focus on enjoying the 60 minutes of working out.

4. Stay Comfortable For As Long As You Can
If you’ve run 3 miles a million times before, don’t make running those first 3 miles the hard part of your run. Make what should be the easy part as easy as you can–run at an easy pace, conserving strength and energy (both physical and mental) for the unfamiliar miles. Once you know that you can run 5 miles (and, if you can run 3 miles, you probably can run 5 miles more easily than you think), you can work to make them 5 faster miles that you’re psyched to brag about. But for now? Just aim to make them 5 miles. Run the easiest, slowest, most basic 3 mile run that you can, and then go for 5 more minutes. See how it feels. Try to recognize what you feel when you get to that point of not being able to run any more. Are you just thirsty? Are you legs sore? Do you just feel completely empty of energy? Work to figure out how exactly you feel uncomfortable. But try to just stay comfortable as you can for as long as you can as you work to build the length of your runs.

I also recommend interval walk/run/walk/run workouts as you work to build your distance. Run as a casual pace until it begins to feel uncomfortable. Then walk for a bit. Then run again. Then walk again. Giving your heart time to cool down a bit in between is fine (it’s actually great — you burn more calories raising and elevating your heart rate than you do when maintaining a heart rate) and can ultimately help to strengthen your heart. Aim to do some combination of running and walking for whatever length of time you’d practically like to cover 5 miles in — if you want to be able to run 5 miles in 60 minutes, which makes for manageable 12 minute miles,  run/walk for 60 minutes. Eventually you’ll start to not need the walking intervals, and will be able to run for 60 minutes.

5. Don’t Pay Attention to Speed
If you want to build distance, focus on building distance, rather than on speed. Speed will come. Building the strong cardio base is about making your heart more efficient, and being a fast runner is very much about making your body as efficient as possible.  Eventually, you will just be able to run faster.


If your heart and muscles are strong enough to power your body through 60+ minutes of comfortable running, imagine the strength they’ll have when they can focus on giving all the energy they have into moving your body for a shorter period of time. It’s kind of cool. Also, I’m just beginning to see what kind of speed work I can do, so I’m not that great at this section.

It’s REALLY easy, especially when running where other runners run, to become frustrated by speedy runners zipping by you as you trod along, but whatever. Eventually you’ll be the speedier runner and you’ll be grateful for the people who you pass to let you realize that you’re speedier. I remember the first runner I ever passed. I think he was about 75. It was awesome.

6. Appreciate What You’re Doing
Asking your body to change what it’s able to do is a big deal. It takes time and dedication, but it absolutely pays off. Recognize the significance of each workout in ultimately making you a stronger and more efficient runner. Right now, you might think that you’ll be feeling death/exhaustion/etc after longer runs, but I promise you that when you run farther than you’ve ever run before, the feelings of pride and elation will undoubtedly overpower any of those death/exhaustion feelings.

All right, so for not knowing where I was going when I started this, I think that’s a pretty comprehensive overview of suggestions for making the 5k to 5m transition. If you’re interested, another option is to sign up for a race and find a training plan which will help you to build to the distance you need. Here’s my half training plan, covered in my check marks of pride and all that nice stuff, in case you’re curious. Not sure what happened there on week 11.

Doing this training is what made my 5 mile run go from crazy hard work to nice controllable work. I credit a lot of my running abilities to all of those mid-week shorter runs and the simple act of running frequently. As you’re becoming stronger, shorter runs are just as crucial as the longer runs.

However you end up making this transition, make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and your muscles. Stretch. Take days of rest. And for goodness sake, please, please, please, run in the right sneakers.

hah, I just found something really pretty. Since I already posted a crazy face end of race picture, I guess I should post this one, too. After running 13.0999 miles, this is what I look like:

Unrelated Sharing Section Because I Feel Like Writing More:
I tend to write most posts from my favorite chair in my living room while quick-mixing Bob Dylan & “Gangsta Rap” pandora stations, only really moving when my tea mug becomes empty, my bum becomes numb, or my bladder requires attention. I get in the zone, and type like a madwoman. I love it. But today, I’m sitting in the front-full-length-windowed-corner of a Starbucks in my neighborhood enjoying the new Adele CD that they’re playing, watching the many people making their way through this main square on this sunny, brisk day, envying the hoards of happy runners who pass by (my run was cut short, once again, as the calf muscles have not yet recovered from the speed elliptical session last week (10m in 1 hour WHAAAT?)) and getting lost in every possible distraction.

And how can you not, when ten feet from me, a 60-something woman on a red Vespa just almost got hit by numerous cars as she maneuvered herself backwards into this busy intersection. And now she has gone ahead & “parked” it in a very foolish spot, about ten feet from the middle of the intersection. Ah, she was stopping to pick up another 60-something woman friend. And now they have taken off, both in red helmets matching the Vespa. I imagine they’re giving a new identity to the term “ladies who lunch”.

Yes, you’re right — this post was not about okra. The culinary creativity wasn’t flowing this weekend and I didn’t want to force it.


10 Responses to “The Transition from 5k Runner to 5 Mile Runner”

  1. Would it freak you out if I said I love you?

  2. yay! though i’m just trying to be able to run a solid mile atm, i want to say how much i appreciate the info you impart, especially what you’ve learned from experience, & the simple, honest, & humorous way you deliver it.:~)

    “I remember the first runner I ever passed. I think he was about 75. It was awesome.” lol

    oh yeah, & the fact you aren’t above posting the real action shots no matter how goofy they might look. i don’t think you’re supposed to look good while you’re running/exercising.

  3. You’re such an amazing writer, blogger, or whatever you want to call yourself. I could read posts from you every single day.

    I’ve hit a bit of a rut, but I’ve got a LOT going on. I’m in the middle of buying a house, which is GREAT for me (single mom with an 8-year old son). I thought I had my eating/exercise under control, NOT!!!! I’ve only gained 2 lbs and I know I have to quit beating myself up. I’m still down 28 lbs and still working on this journey changing my life to a life lived healthfully (love to borrow that if it’s OK). I actually tried to run the other day even for a few minutes on the treadmill. It’s a start.

    Thank you again for your blog. It’s truly a BIG help to me.

  4. Funny! I can’t wait until I pass my first 75 year old. I’m a 3 miler and seem to hurt my calf muscles ever time and need a week to recover. Got new shoes and go on a dirt trail now and cross train. We’ll see if that helps. I think being 45 (!!!) is the problem. Don’t bounce back like I used to.


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