The “Universal” Running Goal
Although I started running years ago, I still remember my first major running goal: to run a 5k in under 30 minutes.
In fact, I’d wager that this is one of the most universal goals in running. Almost every new runner I’ve ever met has set their sights on a sub-30 5k. It’s even the culminating run in many variations of the popular couch to 5k program.
Like all running goals, the difficulty of achieving a sub-30 5k will vary from runner to runner. There are plenty of athletic high school students who can knock out a run that fast without any practice whatsoever. On the other end of the spectrum are people like me.
When I started running, I was an overweight smoker and alcoholic who hadn’t had any real exercise in years. I couldn’t keep up a light jog for more than a minute.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was so out of shape that I often started running for a couple of months, then got discouraged and stopped again. I repeated that pattern for a couple of years, each time making a little more progress than on my previous attempts. I got to the point where I could run 5k without stopping, but was still taking way longer than 30 minutes.
I enjoyed running, but it just seemed like I was no good at it. Comparing myself to people who had improved more quickly made me wonder if I could ever improve at all.
These days, my 5k time is just under 22 and 1/2 minutes.
Although I’m not winning any races, I’m certainly no longer struggling to break the half-hour mark. So what did I do differently, and how can you break through the 30-minute barrier as well?
The most important change that helped me bring down my time was to start running consistently. Instead of giving up every time I ran for a month, and later having to start over from scratch, I made a commitment to stick with running even though I was slow.
I didn’t run every day, but I did try my best to run at least three times a week. I made my consistency my number one goal, and tried my best to forget about my pace.
For many runners, a few weeks might be all that they need to reach a sub-30 5k. For me, it took about three and a half months.
After finally reaching my sub-30 goal, I realized how close I had probably been during my previous attempts.
Since then, I’ve read stories in online forums of runners who took years to reach sub-30 5k times. Although the average person won’t take nearly that long, it still goes to show that patience is one of the most important traits an amateur runner can learn.
Even if I had changed nothing else, I think that merely staying consistent would have been enough for my 5k time to eventually break 30-minutes.
Running Longer Distances
Another change that helped me to break through to a sub-30 5k was to increase the average length of my runs. Instead of running just 5k every time you go out, you’ll improve faster if you run a bit longer.
These days my runs are much, much longer, but it didn’t take a huge difference for me to break the 30 minute barrier. Most of my runs at the time were around 4 miles, with occasional 6 mile runs thrown in.
These runs were not at a particularly fast pace. In fact, I never did any type of speed work until long after I was already running my 5ks faster than 30 minutes.
Long, slow runs create physical changes to your body, improving your aerobic health. Even more important (for me, at least) was the mental impact of learning to run these longer distances.
After getting used to running 4 to 6 miles, 3 miles suddenly felt much more manageable. When I tried to run a 5k as fast as I could, I was able to mentally withstand the effort much better than before.
Limiting My Attempts
The final change that I made was to stop trying to run a sub-30 minute 5k too often.
As a beginner, it’s normal to be eager to improve. For me, that translated to trying to run my fastest 5k at least once a week. (And often nearly every run.)
The trouble is that if you run as fast as you can that often, you’re going to end up wearing yourself out. Without realizing it, I was sabotaging my own improvement by constantly attempting to break 30 minutes while running on tired legs.
By waiting a few weeks between attempts, I was able to start seeing my time drop more quickly.
It’s been a few years since I broke the 30-minute barrier, and I’m far faster now. Even so, I can still vividly remember my first sub-30 5k run.
To this day, I think of breaking 30 as one of the best achievements as a runner. Although it’s a time that wouldn’t impress many people, to me it represented a real moment of growth. It was when I learned to stop letting myself get discouraged by my running shortcomings, and to start focusing on long-term improvement instead.
If you’re trying to break 30 minutes, I wish you the best of luck! Stay consistent, run longer, and limit your attempts — with those changes, I hope a sub-30 minute 5k will be within your reach as well.