There's something beautiful about the 5k. I know what you're thinking - even your grandma can couch-to-5k it, big deal, Alex.
Though your grandma is pretty awesome, I like to look at it differently.
I've written about my appreciation for the longer distances, and I really do enjoy the mental game that is long distance running. However, there is so much value in shorter distances. My goal for 2019 is to run a 50k, and yet I carve out time for the humble 5k. Why?
The longer the race, the more training is simply a result of consistency, discipline, and sheer miles. You just have to put in the work.
5k training is a whole different animal. My times consistently get better for the first two months of training, but then plateau. Putting in more miles doesn't help. Training becomes interesting, and more of a puzzle. The short recovery time makes for a tight feedback cycle and allows for experimentation. A tight feedback cycle is what makes the 5k distance fun.
I've experimented with a variety of workouts to try to break through the plateau - interval training, cross training, mixing in longer distances, running hills, track workouts, and weight training. I found that intervals and track workouts have the most noticeable impact. Once I've plateaued, I can do a few weeks of hard intervals and track workouts, and my 5k time will drop, sometimes significantly.
How well I slept the night before has a noticeable impact - if I don't sleep well, I have no chance of setting a PR. My diet leading up to the event is very important. I have to be trim and lean to have a chance at a PR. I've learned that a solid five days of active-rest before the race seems to be optimal. I get a few free seconds for simply running first thing in the morning, versus in the evening. The course itself matters - a dirt path is at least a few seconds a mile slower than pavement. The way I run the race matters, do I go out easy and build to the finish, or go out hard and try to last to the finish, or something else? This puzzle continues on and on. There are so many little variables that all contribute to the few seconds I need to break a PR, and I find that process fascinating.
At 32 years old I set a 5k PR of 20:20, a time that I couldn't break for four years. Believe me, I tried. I thought 32-year-old Alex was the fastest version of Alex. At 36, I was finally able to widdle off a few seconds to 19:49, a proud moment. At 37 I improved to 19:14. Now at 38 years old my PR is 18:51. There might be a few seconds left to squeeze out, but I'm damn proud of that time. It took me a decade of experimentation to accomplish.
There's no way that at 38 I'm physiologically faster than I was at 32, or when I was in my twenties. I'm just a bit wiser, and prepare with more thought and discipline.
I have a training program that I've developed myself over the past decade that I truly believe in. I know that if I follow the plan, I have a really good shot at beating my PR after 4 months of structured training.
If you've fallen into the trap of thinking that the only way to challenge yourself is to go farther, run longer, you might find it really refreshing to try the opposite. Running faster is cool too, and certainly just as interesting.