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Rekindling my running habit — how I got back under 20 minutes for 5k

Sep 20, 2022
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I used to be a mad keen runner in my late teens and early twenties. We’re talking 100 mile weeks at my peak. I was relatively fit, maxing out at a 76 minute half marathon when I was 22. For various reasons (injuries, getting busy with work), I stopped running as much and didn’t really run consistently again until 2018. I’d still run from time to time and retained an ok level of fitness, typically hitting 22:30 for 5k when I’d do a time trial, but it wasn’t particularly consistent. I’m 34 now and can’t train super hard anymore but hopefully I can train a bit smarter.

In 2018 I started to run more regularly, largely as a result of attending the local park run every Saturday. I met some other runners there who were much more serious than me and started tagging along to their long runs. Having other people to run with helped make it far more enjoyable for me. I got in decent shape, getting down to a 19:24 5k — well off my absolute best but not bad considering I didn’t have as much spare time as I used to.

In 2020, COVID made it trickier to run with other people and my running habit died off. I joined a running club in 2021 and had a brief return to consistency but I still didn’t have a running habit that didn’t rely on having other people to run with.

In Jan 2022, I decided to give it another crack following BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habit philosophy. I started out with ridiculously easy runs: 5 minutes every morning. Ludicrous really because even with my inconsistency, I could run 15k if I wanted to. However, the mindset here was to focus on running every day, making it so easy that I couldn’t say no to it. My work schedule was exceptionally busy at the start of 2022 — I was at the tail end of selling my business and even 5 minutes felt like a stretch sometimes. I was committed though and used my habit formation app, Focus Bear, to lock myself into the 5 minute run at the start of the day. Focus Bear blocks all other apps when you’re doing habits so I couldn’t check my emails until I did my run (and my other habits).

Pretty soon, 5 minutes started feeling too short. I upped it to 10 minutes every morning. That felt tricky timewise but after a few weeks I had gotten comfortable with it. I started to realise I just needed to wake up a bit earlier and it was no problem. I wasn’t in particularly good shape. In April I did a 10 minute time trial hoping to manage 4:00/k pace but only managed 4:20/k pace. A bit disappointing but I persevered and week by week, I started to add a bit more volume (generally 1–2 minute increments). Eventually after 6 months I was running half an hour every day and was feeling the fitness return.

In late July I did a 5k time trial at Park Run. I managed 20:35 which is not amazing but encouraging given that I couldn’t even do that pace for 10 minutes previously.

Altitude training

August was a big month. I love xc skiing and booked myself in for a month at Falls Creek. I averaged 90 minutes of xc skiing per day and the combination of the training and being at altitude (not super high — 1600m) made a huge difference to my fitness. At the end of the month, I did the Kangaroo Hoppet XC ski marathon and smashed my PB. My best result previously had been finishing in 102nd place (out of ~350 competitors). This year I took half an hour off my time (2h16 for 38km) and finished 71st.

Testing out my fitness at sea level

I was eager to see whether the skiing fitness would translate to running speed. At first it seemed like it did not. I did a 5k time trial on a Tuesday evening with the Gunn runners and was somewhat disappointed to only manage 20:35 again. My legs felt absolutely trashed — I hadn’t run in a month so maybe this was to be expected. On Saturday after my legs had recovered, I gave it another crack at park run. Maybe it was less windy or maybe the better visibility helped but in any case, I had a good run finishing in 19:35. It was a great feeling to go sub 20 and to match the time I did at school cross country when I was 18.

Next stop sub 19?

I’m going to continue my morning runs, aiming to gradually increase both the duration and the intensity. All year I’ve only been running on the flat and I think it’s time to add in some hill work. This morning I experimented with doing one sprint up the famous Anderson Street hill at the Melbourne botanical gardens. I’ll progressively add more hill reps over the coming weeks and hopefully the increased quality will result in me getting below 19 minutes before the end of the year.

This blog post was first published in Medium

Sep 20, 2022

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