While half marathons and marathons are a matter of resisting fatigue during the later miles, 5K and 10K racing is like fighting off a firestorm for the final third of the race. No matter how comfortable the early pace may feel to you, about two thirds of the way into a fast 5K or 10K a spark suddenly catches fire and starts to spread rapidly as your legs begin to lock up and your stride shortens ever so slightly. Your quads are screaming at you to stop and your upper body tenses up as you seemingly start going backward while you struggle to maintain pace or stick with the runner in front of you. There’s nothing wrong with any of this at the end of a hard race, of course—it simply means that you’re doing it right! While your muscles are inevitably going to catch fire toward the end of a competitive 5K or 10K effort, you can train your body to slow down the burn and better handle the demands of the race in training. One of my favorite ways to do this is with the descending ladder workout. Here are the details:
What: 10-8-6-4-2 minute pickups with 2 minutes jogging recovery between reps. Run the 10-minute pickup at half-marathon effort/pace, the 8 and 6-minute pickups at 10K effort/pace (~15 sec/mi faster than the 10-minute pickup), the 4-minute pickup at 5K effort/pace (~10-15 sec/mi faster than the previous two pickups), the and the 2-minute pickup all-out.
Why: This session is tough, but then again 5K/10K racing is too, and this workout is a great way to simulate the shift in gears and increase in effort that you experience in the final third of such a race.
Warmup/Cooldown: Warm up before the workout with 15-30 minutes of easy running followed by a set of drills and 4-6 x 20-second strides (i.e., accelerate for 5 seconds, spend the next 10 seconds at near-top speed, and then gradually decelerate to a jog over the final 5 seconds. Catch your breath for 40-60 seconds and then repeat 3-5 more times). Cool down after the workout with 5-15 minutes of easy running.
Where: Road, trail, track, or treadmill, this one can be done just about anywhere—if possible, try and simulate the environment you’ll be racing in as closely as possible.
When: There’s never a bad time to use this workout after you’ve built a solid foundation of fitness but I would avoid doing it within a week of a key race just to be safe.