Unofficial 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks: The Key Workouts

This post is going to outline the key workouts of my Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks. It’s not a plan yet, though, just a bunch of workouts and some explanation about the reasons behind each. I’ll try to stick it into a weekly schedule later

And I should add that this is a 5k plan, not a “couch to 5k,” so it’s mostly about speed—learning to run at the 6:15/mile pace I’m after, and to sustain that for a bit under 20 minutes.

And again, almost all of this is built on the ideas presented in Dr. Owen Anderson’s excellent book, Running Science.

The basic goals of the various workouts are:

  • Running economy
    • Efficient runners use less energy to run at the same speed as inefficient runners. Increasing efficiency is therefore basically free speed; you can run faster or longer with the same effort. Importantly, Anderson is clear (as are recent studies) that this is NOT about form fixes. As has been amply demonstrated, people tend to naturally adopt their most efficient stride, so trying to “fix” someone’s stride almost always ends up reducing efficiency. So how to improve economy? Mostly, it seems to be strength and speed work.
  • vVO2 max
    • Anderson is clear that the VO2 max measurement is nice, but not very predictive of one’s times on its own. Change in VO2 max is better. But the best, he says, is vVO2—the minimum velocity at which we hit our VO2 max. In other words, the slowest speed we’re running when our oxygen processing capacity maxes out. What’s particularly handy is that this is a measurement that combines VO2 max and efficiency.
  • Velocity at Lactate Threshold
    • Anderson is also clear that the old view of lactate as the enemy is wrong. In fact, our muscles use lactate as energy when we run! This doesn’t mean the old view is totally useless though. We used to think high lactate levels indicated our muscles were getting overwhelmed by lactate. We now know that these levels actually indicate we’ve passed the speed at which we’re able to use the lactate efficiently—there’s fuel just sitting there and our muscles can’t use it! So what we need to improve is our ability to “take up” lactate from the blood, which we can measure by running velocity at lactate threshold (the pace at which lactate levels start to spike quite rapidly). This is, by the way, another one of those indicators that is actually measuring several things at once: lactate uptake, VO2 max, economy, and other stuff. The good news is that this is very responsive to training—and even better, it’s very responsive even in old(ish) runners like myself, and is one of the only ways us old(ish) folks can make up for that annoying youth and vigor of the young(er) crowd.
  • Some other stuff
    • Other elements that matter are maximum running pace (your top speed when sprinting), nervous system efficiency, the quantity of small veins/arteries in the muscles, mitochondrial quantity and efficiency, connective tissue toughness, and finally, mental toughness—getting used to the discomfort of running and learning that the “I’m going to die if I run this fast” feeling isn’t actually (quite) the truth.

So, with that long lead in, here are the key workouts for a 5k plan, as per Anderson:

  • Circuit training
    • What to do: A mix of lower, middle, and upper body exercises, with running in between. I use the fitness trail at my local park, but add in extra running-specific activities like squats and lunges.
    • What’s the point? This workout is designed to improve running economy by building overall strength and explosiveness, but I can tell you from experience it is a lung buster also. You will be spending a lot of time at VO2 max.
    • How often?: It looks the early parts of Anderson’s plan have a couple such workouts per week, but they reduce to 1/week in later parts of the plan.
  • 30-30s (VVO2 workout 1)
    • What to do: After warming up (you should always warm up–so I’ll not mention this again), run 30 sec at vVO2 max, then 30 sec at ½ of VVO2 max. Keep on doing this until you can’t hit your pace.
      • A rough calculation of your vVO2 max can be found by measuring distance run in 6 min. With my 6 min mile recent PR, this makes my vVO2 pace about 86 sec/400m.
      • The book says the runners they tested could do, on average, about 8-9 minutes of this (with each minute representing a max run and a 50% max run).
    • What’s the point? Running at VO2 max is fantastic for you, but it’s absolutely exhausting and most people can only maintain it for a few minutes. The 30-30 workout is built around the realization that after hitting VO2 max, your heart and breathing stay there for a bit even after you stop exercising. So the trick to this is to go fast enough to get yourself maxed out, and then rest just long enough that you can keep doing the runs, but not so long that your heart rate and breathing drop out of max rates.
    • What’s next? He says one should progress to a 60-60 workout, and finally to a session of 5x3min sessions at vVO2 max, with a 3 minute jog in between.
    • How often? This is clear: no more than two of these workouts per week. After that, you will be doing more harm than good.
  • 30/20/10 (VVO2 workout 2)
    • This workout isn’t from Anderson. I read about it elsewhere (originally in a Runners’ World article, I think) and have covered it earlier. I really like it as it includes sprinting which is not only a quick way to get to VO2 max, but is also great for form and maximum running speed. Plus it’s just a delight–running the way running used to be when we were kids. I think the basic reasons given for the 30-30 workout above apply to this one also, so I’m not sure which I’ll do.
  • 400m intervals
    • What to do: This is the classic speed workout. Run 12x400m at goal 5k pace (so about 93 sec. for me), but with a measly 15 seconds of rest between. (Yikes!)
    • What’s the point? Velocity at Lactate Threshold. The workouts listed earlier will help with the economy and VO2 max part of this indicator. The rest of the benefit—the physiological development of lactate processing ability—is best developed just by picking activities that flood you with lactate. And after 12 of these babies, you will be flooded. Frankly, I seriously doubt I can even get to 12.
    • How often? Once per week.
  • Superset Training
    • What to do: This was a new one to me, and I haven’t tried it. As the book explains, you run 600m at maximum pace, and then 1000m at current 5k pace with no rest in between. This makes up one “superset.” Repeat three times (three supersets), with a 4 minute easy jog between each. So this is a total of 3 miles (4800m), with 1800m at max speed and 3000 at 5k pace.
    • What’s the point? These do everything, apparently. Anderson says they’re great for vVO2 max, lactate threshold (you’ll build lactate during the 600m portion and then teach your body to clear it while running the 1000m), maximum running speed, and mental toughness (learning to stick to 5k pace after that initial 600m burst).
    • How often? It doesn’t really say, so I’ll try to stick to once per week or so.

And there they are. Four key workouts, none of which are long slow runs. The problem I’ll have to deal with in developing the actual plan is that I have 4 hard workouts listed, and I can (should) likely do no more than three hard runs in a given week, and probably only 2 in many weeks, especially the early ones.


Author: Steve

Researcher of narrative and political identity. Teacher of English at South Texas College. Would-be middle distance runner.

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