Ima asked me the following question in a comment on my article about running workouts:

Carry Buterbaugh in the Irish Road RoverGood morning,

I came across your website this morning and am interested in asking your advice. I have been out of running for a couple of years due to injury and am looking to get back into it. My goal is to go sub 16 minutes for a 5k, hopefully this fall. Do you think this is realistic and what would your training advice be? My last 5k was about a year ago with no training I ran just over 19 minutes.


I can not say off hand whether Ima is likely to run a sub 16 5k this Autumn, since I do not really have enough information and have never met Ima. As such, I will approach this in very general terms and extrapolate whether I think that I could do it under similar circumstances.

Thomas Creeley in the Irish Road RoverFor most people, I would say that it is unlikely that somebody will run under 16 minutes in a 5 kilometer race with just 6 months of training after a few years off. Chances are pretty good that if you have taken a few years off due to an injury than you are probably in your mid- to late twenties at the youngest. It is possible that you could be younger than that, but I would tend to think that if somebody could run under 16 minutes and got hurt, they would be unlikely to take two or more years off of running while they are still in school and eligible to compete at the NCAA level. I know that I certainly didn’t take that much time off when I had a stress fracture and tendonitis. As we get older, it takes us longer to bounce back from injuries and to regain our former levels of fitness. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you do not allow yourself to become frustrated with expectations that are set too high.

A big factor in how well your training and racing can progress in 6 months is how much of a base your body has. My guess is that if you have run a sub-16 minute 5k as recently as 2 or 3 years ago, then your body probably has a pretty good base even with a few years of inactivity. How well that base has been maintained over the few years will be directly related to how active you were in other physical activities besides running. If you did not have a high mileage base with a lot of quality speed work behind you, then I am doubly impressed that you managed a sub-16 minute 5k. If you do not have the base or have not actually gone under 16 minutes, then I think that going under 16 minutes in 6 months is probably unrealistic. Even with a solid baseline of 70-100 miles per week a few years ago, it may take a while to get that level of fitness back if you have not kept active with other sports or cross training.

An untrained 19 minute 5k is a great starting point. I have taken layoffs of over 3 months, and quickly gotten my 5k times from 19 minutes down to 18 minutes one week to the next at the start of a racing season as I begin to run again. I do not really recommend the racing your way into fitness method, though, unless you have a deep wallet and have trouble getting yourself out to do speed work. Whether you do practice races or manage to find some time for repeats and fartleks, I recommend taking it slow to get back into it and to build up your fitness for at least a month or two before getting into any kind of speed work. Running at a slow pace for 20-30 miles per week for a month or two will get your body used to running again, hopefully without reaggravating whatever the injury was that sidelined you in the first place.

A runner in the Irish Road RoverWithout any real details about your running history or current levels of fitness and activity, I can not really say whether you would be able to run under 16 minutes with only 6 months of training. I can say that for myself, I doubt that I could do it. I also doubt whether I would necessarily try. My first priorities are my marathons, and the 16 minute goal is one that I hope to break this year but not at the expense of my longer races. If I did take a few years off, though, then my gut instinct is that if I started training in the Spring for a 5k race in the Autumn, then I would probably only manage around 17 minutes. I would definately be in the 17:30 range by mid-Summer, and might break into the high-16’s in the Fall, but most likely I would not get much faster than that.

The trick to attempt something like that is to make sure that you get a solid base in, that you eat very well, stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, and have a solid training and racing plan to take you through the Summer and early Autumn. Any hints of pain, especially around whatever was previously injured, will need to be treated immiediately. My motto is to ice early and ice often. I think that some hard workouts while cross training would be necessary, if only to be able to give your heart an aerobic workout without further stresses on your legs. Swimming and weight lifting would be mandatory, and a bike would probably help things out as well.

If you go for it, Ima, then I would certainly be interested to see what your training is like and to see how you do.