How To Run a 32 Minute 5 mile; Part 1

Like the 12 mile ruck, the ability to run a respectable 5 mile run is an integral part of the Special Operations pipeline, as well as other respected specialty schools, to include US Army Ranger School. The 5 mile is often included as one of many periodic physical assessments conducted throughout various phases of the Special Forces Qualification course.

Although a finishing time of under 40 minutes is sufficient to pass, most people are interested in more than just “getting by”. This article’s purpose is to highlight some key running improvement considerations you can implement in an effort to improve your middle distance running ability. This article (part 1) will touch on some key insights, to include why the 5 miler is important, my history and experience with the 5 miler, what not to do when training for mid-distance running, how genetic factors and body types relate to running, and how to build an aerobic base on a condensed timeline.

In part 2, I’ll break down the different types of training runs that move the needle most, as well as provide a sample of a 5 mile prep training week.

Let’s dive in!

Why a 5 miler?

A 5 miler is used to test a soldier’s aerobic and anaerobic capacity, specifically through middle distance running. 5 milers are usually used in combination with the army combat fitness test (ACFT), which includes a 2 mile run. At particular schools like Ranger School, the 5 mile is used in place of the 2 miler in what’s known as the Ranger Physical Fitness Test (RPFT). 

Just like you’ll never do a timed 12 mile ruck in a real-life combat scenario, you’ll never have to run 5 miles as fast as possible in shorts and a T-shirt (unless you really got yourself into a crazy escape and evasion scenario - but the chances of this occurring are ~1 and a billion). However, the ability to keep yourself aerobically fit is an important soldier attribute. Not only is above average aerobic fitness an attribute of a complete, well rounded soldier, but having the ability to run 5 miles fast also indicates that you’re disciplined enough to hold yourself accountable in a fitness sense. Finally, if we’re being honest, the 5 mile run test is also a staple in the military because it requires minimal logistical planning. Little equipment is required to conduct this test (you just need a clock and a 5 mile route), which is, without question, a contributing factor in why it’s used so frequently. 

The people who say “running is useless for physical assessments” tend to be people with zero work ethic who are perfectly content with underachieving and wasting potential. In other words, not the guy you want going into the shit to fight terrorists with you. Regardless of why the test is used and whether it’s a good assessment of soldier capability or not, you’re going to have to do it anyway, so why not put the work in?

What Does a Respectable Time Look Like?

Before we get into running improvement principles, let’s discuss what it means to have a “respectable” time. As noted previously, if you run a 39:59, you’ll pass. But the simple act of passing things and skating by is not the mindset of a high level tactical athlete, especially if you want to have a successful career in SOF. So let’s take a look at some time parameters: 

*note: these times are based solely on my experience/opinion: 

  • Fix yourself: 38:30-39:59
  • Below average: 37:00-38:30
  • Average: 35:00-37:00
  • Above Average: 33:30-35:00
  • Top 10%: 31:30-33:30
  • Top 3 finisher: 29:00-31:30

Occasional classes with track stars will have times ranging from 26:30-29:00 (potentially faster, in the case of former D1 and/or professional mid distance runners - which do exist, just not commonly).

Again, these times aren’t set in stone, and are based solely on my experience. The main point is to identify where you’re at currently, and consider implementing the strategies within the rest of this article and those in part 2 in an effort to improve.

Why listen to me?

I’m by no means a world class runner, nor am I a world class running coach. I do not coach high level runners, but I do coach people who want to be better runners so they can set themselves apart from their peers. I partook in at least 10, timed 5 milers while in the Army, and have run plenty more on my own. 

Throughout my career, especially the early stages during which the vast majority of my 5 mile time trials took place, I took running quite seriously, and always finished towards the front of the pack or at the front of the pack (I’m a slightly better rucker than runner). My PR 5 mile is 28:17, which I ran in 2014 while in the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC). For some context, I was an avid amateur runner before joining the Army, and continued to run almost daily throughout my time in the course. In the latter few years of my career, the frequency with which I ran decreased, and my focus shifted to being more of a well rounded, hybrid athlete. Nonetheless, my 5 mile run time was never slower than 32:00, despite putting on 20+ lbs of muscle throughout my 9 years in Special Forces. 

Being a relatively fast runner alone does not qualify me to provide running advice, but I’ve also been obsessively studying the many intricacies of human performance, specifically as it applies to training for multiple disciplines (“hybrid” performance) for the past 15 years. I’ve always been a frequent “self experimenter”, and have learned what works and what doesn’t through trial and error on myself and many coworkers, as well as through various pieces of literature from well respected running coaches. 

What not to do

There are a multitude of very common mistakes one can make when trying to become better at running. In fact, if I were to name all of them and provide explanations, It would require its own extensive article. For this reason, I’m just going to name a few of the most common mistakes aspiring runners tend to make when trying to improve their running, based on my experience and observation. 

If you refer back to the 12 mile ruck article, you’ll learn about 3 common mistakes made when preparing for it; assessment cramming, overtraining, and undertraining. These mistakes also apply to the 5 mile run event, but will not be highlighted in this article to avoid redundancy. The mistakes listed below also apply to rucking, but will be explained in the context of running. 

1. Running aimlessly - The most common mistake made by those trying to get better at running is to “just run”. In other words, setting out with a goal to get better at running (good intentions), and usually due to lack of knowledge, just going out to run with minimal to no thought (poor execution). The average person runs with the goal of getting tired. Something like “I’ll just go run till I can’t run anymore” or “I’m just going to go run 3 miles as fast as possible” are actually quite common approaches. 

Sure, this is a more common practice for those who are running simply for general health and fitness or weight loss, but it’s also common amongst soldiers. The act of going out and running without ever considering pace, effort, heart rate, distance, duration, recovery cost, or technique is more effective than not running at all, but it’s nowhere near the suggested approach. 

If you’re young and resilient, and possess the genetic makeup for endurance success (more on this later), this method may work for you (albeit not as well as a structured approach). Using myself as an example, although I considered some of the variables above, I undoubtedly ran with way too much intensity in my early-mid 20s, but because I’m genetically inclined to be an above average (not elite) slow twitch athlete, I got away with it. 

But I certainly could’ve been a lot better had I considered more variables when constructing my running training. The main issue with this approach is that the cost (fatigue) to benefit (running improvement) ratio is quite dismal. This style of running is known as “junk miles” (similar to “junk volume” in the gym). In part 2, I’ll explain how to avoid going out and running just for the sake of running.

2. Poor intensity management- Possessing many similar characteristics to “running aimlessly”, lack of intensity management is another common blunder soldiers (and most others) make when trying to improve their running. As with any form of exercise, we must factor in the fatigue cost, and therefore the recovery requirements of running. 

Every time we train for a physical attribute, there will be some degree of accompanying fatigue. If the adaptations outweigh the fatigue on a macro level (over several weeks, months, years), the result is better performance. If fatigue outweighs the adaptation, you either spin your wheels (at best) or get injured (at worst). Running hard all the time is a great way to make progress for a week or 2 and then spend the next several weeks either nursing an injury or trying to dig yourself out of a recovery hole that keeps filling up with sand. 

The best runners on earth conduct 80-90% of their training at a low intensity “zone 2” effort. For example, the world record 10 kilometer (K) run is held by Ugandan runner Joshua Cheptegei, with a time of 26:11. For those unaware, 10K is 6.2 miles, 1.2 miles longer than a 5 miler. If you refer back to the “respectable times” segment above, a world class runner would win 99.99% of SOF pipeline 5 milers even if he were to run an extra 1.2 miles. The point is, if world class runners perform most of their training at a low intensity, and only some of their training at a higher intensity, this should illustrate that going out and solely running repeats, tempo runs, fartlek runs, race pace runs, and time trials (all defined in part 2) is not going to get you very far. 

Running is one of the most structurally and systematically stressful activities you can do, especially hard running. If you don’t manage your intensity week to week, you’re bound to get hurt or over train. In part 2, I’ll outline how to properly manage intensity throughout a training week.

3. Failure to Treat Running Like a Skill - As is the case with the previously listed mistakes, this one is common not just for Special Forces candidates and Ranger tab hopefuls, but also for almost anyone who embarks on a running kick. Most physical activities require a marginal to high degree of skill. 

Other exercise modalities like squats, deadlifts, bench press, swimming, and rowing all have important skill requirements if you want to do them proficiently. Running involves more skill than most other physical activities, especially if the goal is to progress and avoid injury. Being mindful of your running technique is paramount if you want to improve measurably, and failure to do so ties back to the first mistake (aimless running).

You can only grind your way through an activity like running to such an extent. Most people just fall into running however their body decides to do it. Although humans are born with the innate ability to run, taking an extended hiatus from running is commonplace for the average person. As is the case with a hiatus from any skill-requiring activity, this time off results in loss of skill, which leads to unfavorable technique when running is re-introduced. 

Not only does poor technique contribute to running’s high injury rate, but it also results in less efficient running, which equates to more energy expenditure (fatigue) despite going slower than desired (poor “running economy”). A highly skilled runner will finish faster than a less proficient runner on a 5 mile run, usually with much lower fatigue cost. They’ll also feel less banged up from running despite being able to train with a higher total running volume. 

Everyone’s running technique will look a bit different, and there’s no single “right way” to run. But there are many wrong ways to do it. Later in the article I’ll provide some tips on how to improve your running economy. 

Attributes of Above Average Runners

Running at a high level requires certain attributes, some of which are genetic, others must be learned and practiced. Great runners are born with inherent physical attributes that propel them towards running success. Type 1 (slow twitch) muscle fiber dominance is a common trait of elite and above average runners. Those who struggle with running are usually those born with more type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers. Being fast twitch dominant isn’t a bad thing overall, as these individuals tend to be able to gain muscle more easily, as well as sprint faster and jump higher than type 1 dominant individuals. But it can make running middle to long distance more of a struggle. 

Natural runners also tend to have higher Vo2 maxes, while non-runners have lower vo2 maxes. 

There are a plethora of additional genetic factors that play a role in endurance performance, but becoming overly concerned with genetics (which you can’t control anyway) is a waste of real estate inside your head. It’s very likely that most people are born with somewhat average genetics for running, and although they do play a role in your natural ability to excel, you can always work to become better than you are now. Sitting there wishing you were a better natural runner is not part of the program. 

What do Most Runners Look Like?

The build of an above average (or better) runner is usually slender with long muscle bellies. Being very tall or very short is usually a disadvantage. The majority of high level middle to long distance runners stand well under 6 feet tall and weigh 150 lbs or less. They have very little muscle mass, small bones, and little body fat. 

But again, these are professional runners, with only one goal; to be elite runners. They don’t need to be strong enough to carry a ruck or go to combat. Individuals with a lot of body mass (be it bone density, fat, muscle, or a combination of all 3) tend to struggle with running - but that doesn’t mean they’re destined to suck at it forever, rather they’ll need to put more focused work into their training and preparation than someone with more favorable running genetics. 

Again, these articles are for soldiers looking to run 5 miles faster, not Olympic calibur runners, but if you’re struggling with running and carrying a lot of extra tissue (fat or muscle - you can’t do anything about your bone structure), losing weight may be advised. 

Losing muscle shouldn’t be your first priority, but if you’re already quite lean (~10% body fat or under) and your inability to run well is jeopardizing your career goals, it may be an acceptable tradeoff, even if it’s just temporary. A smaller body will usually result in improved running economy. The bottom line is, regardless of your genetic makeup, one fact holds true - you can become a better runner than you currently are. 

How to Train

The best way to improve your running obviously involves running more. But as mentioned in the “what not to do” segment above, the average person goes about it in a less than ideal manner. 

To truly improve your running in a way that doesn’t leave you broken or overtrained, a methodical approach is necessary. Some of your runs will be short and fast, some long and slow, and others right in between. There are countless different “types” of training runs, and for high level runners or those who solely have a running goal, they all matter. 

But because I like to keep things simple for my type-A military brethren, I’m going to trim the fat and only touch on the few types of runs I’ve found to move the needle most. Before we get too into the weeds, I’d be remiss not to talk about the part of running improvement training that 99% of tactical athletes skip; aerobic base building. 

Base building

I’m only going to touch briefly on the topic of building an aerobic base, not because it’s not important, but because most people will skip this step. Building a base involves lots of slow, monotonous running nested within a slow, methodical progression plan. If you’re able to summon the discipline required to do this properly, once you begin implementing the various  faster runs highlighted in part 2, you’ll experience far less frustration and lower risk of injury. Unlike a 5 mile run training program, building a base doesn’t take an inordinate amount of thought or meticulously planned workouts, and there’s no perfect way to do it. But if you have several months before your next timed 5 mile, it would be a big mistake to disregard a base building plan. Fortunately, due to the nature of most military jobs, most people are already equipped with some semblance of an aerobic base. If you regularly partake in general aerobic conditioning, building your aerobic base for running will be far easier and require less time. 

It’s important to note that starting with an overall aerobic base is advantageous, but not enough to skip over building a RUNNING specific aerobic base. This may be news to a lot of people, but running is a high skill activity. Skills take practice. Practice takes time. Time takes patience. For type-A individuals (which, based on my observation, describes ~90%+ of Special Operations soldiers), patience is not a strong suit. 

Either way, if you want to do this right, It would benefit you greatly to learn to be patient with running, not solely from a faster run time standpoint, but also for injury prevention. Running produces more injuries than any other form of exercise. Many people blame poor running technique (more on technique below) for this statistic, but in my opinion, lack of proper progression is the biggest culprit. To mitigate your chances of becoming another statistic, I suggest implementing a base building plan if you meet any one of the following criteria:

-You run fewer than 10 miles per week

-You’ve had a month or more layoff from running (even if you used to run a lot)

-You feel joint pain for longer than 24 hours after most runs

-You have a history of running induced injury (most running injuries are chronic, e.g. shin splints)

-You want to maximize your 5 mile time

-Your 5 mile time is currently slower than the minimum passing standard

-You want to reduce the risk of injury or overtraining symptoms during your 5 mile train up

-You’re aerobically fit, but not for running

If you have no aerobic base to speak of, building one properly and safely can take several months. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume the reader does some form of aerobic training for at least 60 minutes per week, to include some periodic, yet unstructured running. 

There are 2 main purposes for a base building phase:

  1. Improve your body’s aerobic capacity
  2. Improve your body’s ability to tolerate the inherent high impact nature of running

Many people will skip a running-specific base building phase because they’ve already covered purpose #1. This, in my opinion, is still a mistake, because running is more impactful than any other form of cardio, and strategically developing sufficient soft tissue tolerance to repetitive impact must be accounted for. If you’re not a natural runner, to improve in a 5 mile, I suggest your running plan falls somewhere between 15-20 miles per week (lots of individual variance here). As you’ll learn in part 2, some of these runs will be more intense and geared towards improving your 5 mile output. But if you go from no running at all to hammering out a 15 mile week involving repeats, fartleks, and long runs, you’re setting yourself up for failure EVEN if you’re already in shape overall. Therefore, you’ll want to build a base of volume so your tissues are prepared for the training to come.

Most people are under the impression that a base building phase can be done in a few weeks to a month. While this is better than nothing, a real base building phase should take 2-3 months (shorter for shorter runs, longer for longer runs). Because I know most readers of this article won’t do a base building phase anyway, I’m going to provide a 1 month layout for someone who already runs weekly, but fewer than 10 miles. 

Week 1: 7 miles spread over 3 runs. All runs in zone 2 (walking permitted to stay in zone 2 if needed)

Week 2: 9 miles spread over 3 runs. All zone 2

Week 3: 11 miles spread over 4 runs. 4-5 200 meter hill repeats after 1 run

Week 4: 13 miles spread over 4 runs. 4-5 200 meter hill repeats after 1 run

Week 5: begin implementing runs in part 2

To be clear, despite the fact that a 2 mile increase per week doesn’t sound like much, it is actually quite substantial. Going from 9 miles to 11 miles is a 22% volume increase - this is not insignificant, and must be accounted for. 

This is not an “optimal” base building program, but again, I know my audience and I know most people will skip this phase anyway. 

If you’re already running consistently, you can jump into the training plan outlined in part 2. If you’re not already running and you skip the build up phase entirely, you may get away with it, but you won’t reach your full potential.

To summarize, if you want to improve your 5 miler to advance your career, there’s hope. Regardless of what genetic traits you were born with, you have the ability to get faster. It just takes a bit of awareness of the most common mistakes, and equally importantly, the discipline and patience to avoid them. In part 2, I’ll go into detail on how to start training with better intent after you’ve built your base, to include different types of runs and how to structure a full training week.

Thank you for reading part 1. I’d love to hear your questions about anything I covered in this article. Feel free to leave them in the comments section below!

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