Racing 5ks as Ultramarathon Training

The entire week preceding the 5k road race I was nervous. More nervous, by far, than I had been for my first stage race that was 12 times longer and on pretty technical trails.

This 5k wasn’t my goal race. It actually wasn’t even really a race, but just a time trial added by my coach the previous weekend when we realized that I needed a new gauge for pace in the the heat and humidity that characterize my new life since moving south. I was nervous to find out exactly how much fitness I’d lost since my last race. I was nervous because I knew that this race was going to hurt. And hurt bad.

I’d run two 5ks in my life: my first as a new runner where I struggled to finish with 10:00 miles, and my second three summers ago that I’d won. In both cases, they hurt real bad for the entire time and I wanted to vomit by mile 2. Did I mention that they hurt real bad? What I knew about 5ks was limited to pain and extreme discomfort. I anticipate that both of those things will happen in an ultra distance race, but rarely for the entire race. As a result, my anticipatory stress about this time trial 5k far exceeded reason.

Race morning, I did my warm-up, strides and drills, and headed to the start line. As expected, the weather was hot and humid, with humidity at 100% and the temperature in the 80s. This was a small race, but even so, I felt the butterflies, anticipating the pain that was coming (and also, I now wanted to win, despite lacking any indication that I was in shape to win anything). The gun went off, and we started fast. The first mile felt great (despite a poorly-marked course where I made a few wrong turns and had to stop and turn around). And then the pain started. Once the pain started, my motivation to win started to diminish. It just hurt so bad. But I wanted to win and I wanted to prove that I hadn’t lost all fitness over the past year. I wanted that more than it hurt, so I persisted.

Around mile 2, the pain started to exceed my motivation to win and run fast, and by mile 2.5, I felt myself start to slow down. I finished, and I was first woman, fifth overall. I achieved my goals, and it hurt just as bad as I’d anticipated.

It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized that there is a benefit to racing 5ks beyond the race itself.  One of the things I’ve been vocal about here and in real life is how important it was for me to learn how to hurt to race well at the ultramarathon distance. I’m still fairly new to actually racing ultramarathons, despite having run them since 2012, and it wasn’t until I started actively focused on training my abilities to persist through painful situations without backing down that I broke through my running barrier and started meeting and exceeding my racing goals.

While controversial, the first step for me was adding functional training in the form of Crossfit-style functional training, where workouts were short but wicked painful. That taught me to endure through the pain and also had a measurable impact not on my fastest pace, but my ability to maintain that pace while it hurt. Similarly, the 5k taught me to push through pain. More beneficial, perhaps, the 5k taught me how to persist through pain at a tough effort in a way that was running-specific.

As I reflected more on the process, I realized that there were additional benefits to adding 5ks to an ultra marathon training plan. While I (really, my coach) follow an 80/20 approach to training, the bulk of my runs are long and easy paced. Adding a 5k puts in speed training that is relevant to the 20% part of my training plan. Since 5k races are run at max effort because I’m competitive like that, I’m actually running in Zone 4-5, which is where I want to be for the 20% hard effort part of my training. It’s been found that runners often run their easy runs too fast and take hard runs too easy, so the 5k eliminates that possibility for me. Additionally, with a warm-up and cool-down, it’s still at least a 6-mile day, so it doesn’t feel like a lost training day (if you are worried about that sort of thing).

Finally, it’s good practice to get into the habit of preparing for race morning without the labor of four or more hours on my feet that follow if I do this on long run day. Racing Saturday morning (I do my longest long runs on Sunday) allowed me to test race-morning nutrition and my warm-up protocol. The race is short enough that despite the high intensity, I recovered well enough to do my easy-paced long run the following day. We know that we should never try anything new on race day, but we can try something new for a 5k that we are running to practice. It becomes a trial effort for more than just pace.

While I’m not about to race a 5k every weekend (although I might do the local 5k series here in the spring), I can see clear benefits in adding 5ks to the schedule. They help me learn how to push through running pain and become my speed tempo session for the week. They are also usually pretty cheap to enter and easy to find — there were five in a 50-mile radius of me this weekend.

It’s also a great way to connect with the local community and see a wide array of running abilities. The atmosphere at these local 5ks is pretty low pressure, which is good if you are like me and put all that pressure on yourself.

So sure, ultra runners might scoff at the 5k in terms of distance. But I think the benefits of racing 5ks are worth a second look, even for ultramarathoners.

Disclaimer: I am not advocating that you should take up Crossfit. In fact, I don’t do it much any more, although I do incorporate Crossfit-similar workouts into my twice-weekly strength sessions. It did not, however, ruin me as a runner or lead to injuries. It just, quite simply, isn’t what I need to be doing to be competitive, although it was great to maintain fitness during my off year. 

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Pinhoti FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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