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What Kind of Time Should a 5K Take Me?

And yes, I’m starting from the couch

We, of course, live in the Age of Couch to 5K. For years now, it’s been the tool to get people off of the proverbial (and eponymous) couch and onto their feet — no matter how slowly those feet might move… 

Lemme stop you right there — I’ve been thinking about getting that app. But how fast should I expect my feet to move over the course of five kilometers?

The answer is dependent upon a multitude of factors, but ordinarily the simplest way to establish expectations for groups of runners is by age. However, in this case, age turns out to be less of a factor than you might initially have thought. 

Since a 5K translates into 3.1 miles, this makes the applicability of your per-mile running average relevant to projections about what your final 5K time ought to be. According to the time standards listed here, along with the recent trends in competitive 5K running performance times, for a man to land in the realm of the above-average 5K range at any age, all he needs to do is string together per-mile times that are comfortably below 12 minutes apiece. 

Twelve-minute miles? That doesn’t sound all that fast.

Well, there are a few things you should consider before jumping to conclusions about these 5K times and where your performance might land. One of them is the fact that increased participation by runners who probably don’t train very seriously has contributed to a steady decline in the average mile times. The average finishing time for men has risen from 30:30 to 35:22 between 2000 and 2018, likely due to a seven-fold increase in participation during that time, with much of it coming from untrained or undertrained individuals (again, it’s a Couch to 5K world, we’re just running in it). This assumption can be made somewhat safely because the swiftest 5K competitors have gotten faster over the same time period. 

How can I compare myself with others if the average time is such a flawed stat to extrapolate from?

Breaking the groups of runners into percentiles can provide you with a clearer sense of where you stack up.

The fastest 50 percent of men ran a 5K at a time of 31:18 or faster, so if the meaning of a “good” 5K time to you means that you will rank you in the top half of people who compete in the events, 10-minute miles will safely land you there. By comparison, the top 20 percent of men run faster than 24:38. So if you want to run faster than 80 percent of the men who compete in 5Ks — or four out of every five — averaging consistent eight-minute miles is the gateway to entry into this elite club.

For what it’s worth, the 5K qualifying standard for the 2020 Olympic Games was 13:13.50, so you’d need to average scorching per-mile times in the 4:10 realm simply to be in the hunt for an Olympic berth.

How can I quickly work my way into that top 20 percent category?

If you’re just hitting the pavement for the first time in a while, it’ll take you about a month to feel any authentic cardiorespiratory benefits. This is a crucial point to consider, because your body will probably undergo significant weight loss well within your first month of training. As a result, just a few weeks into your workouts, you may find yourself running with a vastly different body than the one you began with — a body that’s far more efficient at galloping through the streets. However, that physical improvement has less to do with the strengthening of your heart and far more to do with having less weight holding you back, along with the possession of even more functional muscle to propel yourself forward with.

To reach a point where you’re truly reaping the cardiovascular benefits of your training, it’s best to stay consistent by running the 5K distance at least three times a week, and gradually pushing yourself to get incrementally faster as you notice the challenge becoming easier. At that point, you’ll also reap the benefits of having a body that’s thoroughly prepared for an actual 5K race — and ready to leave the couch eating your dust.