top of page

The Anti-5k – Kevin Mulcahy

The reason I call it the anti-5k is just to get a rise out of people. It’s the strangest thing human behaviour. Someone suggests something you are doing may not be the best approach and we dive down into protective mode immediately. Learning about that very element of our neurobiological make up is very interesting, and means you often know the outcome of a discussion, even if its subconscious. But, you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs and all that.

There is nothing wrong with the occasionally distance run.

There I said it. And its not a polarising opinion I have on it, as much as we love the polarising mindset of “your camp – my camp” these days.

It’s a little more nuanced than that, it’s in the grey, not the black and white…….as usual.

As long as you layer it up and don’t try to be breaking any records. Really that’s the key.

There are aerobic benefits to long slow runs. But there are also alternatives for those who;

  1. Don’t like Middle to Long Distance running

  2. Are not suited anatomically to it

  3. History of hip, hip flexor or hamstring injuries

  4. Never did them before

The last one is important. The fascination with running as a way to get fit, to lose weight or achieve something athletically still exists to a bizarre level.

Many reasons for this but the Nike campaigns, the “Born to run” mentality and the unbelievable marketing of Marathons have people convinced that this is a badge of honour worth sacrificing your health for. And that’s what you are doing – at the far end of the scale, for many people, training for a marathon is arguably cutting your life shorter.

And it’s based on a mythical legend. Nothing else.

Marathon organisers now use charities to boost numbers. Using emotion to build their race. Its Marketing 1.01 We all get done by it somewhere along the way.

Just as I was putting this together a conversation between some very experienced coaches came up on twitter and instead of stealing it and pretending it was mine, I’ll just throw it up. @Guruanaerobic is the twitter handle.

Now I like a good sandwich myself, so I resent the association. However he makes a good point.

But recently GAA clubs, often pushed by misinformed or lazy Managers and of course the Lockdown, are doing 5k challenges. Some players though all they are doing to stay fit is 3, 5, 8 or 10k runs. And this is an issue.

Now I am coaching 26 years, and I have never been involved with a team, from u18 to Professional Sport where at least 40% of the team were completely unsuited to distance running. Another 50% who would be iffy and probably would be ok with decent prep and a bit of coaching and maybe at a stretch 10% who could run out the door and it will have no effect on them. There is a very decent case that if you get to kids early, coach them well and layer appropriately then running distance will be something more will enjoy, but that’s certainly not the case for now. In fact its getting worse as the kids coming through are such poor movers due to a free movement restricted lifestyle.

Who is worst affected?

You know those explosive corner forwards who get you that goal with 3 touches in entire game?

Gone -explode.

If not the first time, give it time, they are most likely to break down. Now those guys and girls can build great endurance, but it takes 3 years of very particular training – do they get that?

Think about the multi directional aspect again. You play Gaelic Football or Hockey all Your life. You mould your body into being a mover for that sport. Hockey for instance has a very specific movement set up. But you mould that body to change direction, stop on a dime, explode. Now you want to completely change what it does in 25 minutes or better?

Think of it another way. Ever play 5 a side with a runner from work who is just filling in to be social and make up the numbers.

Think about how awkward he looked. That’s you running 10k.

I have seen decent distance runners run beside Aussie Rules players and Gaelic Footballers. It’s a startling difference.

Why are we here?

The most important thing for any coach, not even S&C, any Coach at all.

Is to get your player to the big dance (championship) - FIT AND FRESH

Why would any coach risk a large minority of his team on distance runs?

Worse still why would they demand they all do the running?

Strength & Conditioning Coaches have stolen a term from Medicine – “Do no harm”. This doesn’t mean we don’t push, test, bend, pressure and go close to the edge. But those are skills that take a while to develop, and are not learned in a book.

But firstly let's look at supporting distance running without running it (pun intended) completely into the ground.

Let’s start with principles

Any coach should consider having a set of principles. They can change and evolve but they must be yours and true to who you are. I have general principles for coaching, for in the gym and for Conditioning.

They all share 2 things – train everything all the time and layer up

For Conditioning I look at these 3 titles when building a program;

1. Train everything all the time

2. Layer Up

3. Individualize, as much as makes sense.

Based on those principals, and with yourself or the athlete you coach in mind

1. Does this fit into the rest of the program and am I also implementing other training modalities

2. Am I or is this athlete ready for 5K runs?

3. Is this athlete suited to 5k’s either genetically or psychologically?

Does it Fit?

Gaelic Football, Hurling, Soccer, Rugby, Hockey, Basketball are multi-sprint, multi-directional and multi-decision making games. 5k is a straight (ish) run at a slow to medium (we like slow) pace where the only decision making you have to make is to avoid dogshit. So for that reason we will consider it a general mode of conditioning

General Conditioning > Specific Conditioning > Match

So the furthest away part.

Think Tempos, MAS Runs (not that we use that too much), Long Slow Runs, plyos, weights etc as General Conditioning.

For Specific Conditioning we have Individualized GPS Match Runs, Small Sided Games, tactical games, 10v10, 15v15, challenge games to bring us right up to Competitive Matches.

And we need general conditioning. And now 5 weeks into lockdown we may need to top up on that somewhat. But there are many ways to skin that cat, as we will reveal and discuss below

Am I ready?

Have I good endurance?

Have I a history of hip and hamstring injuries?

Have I been sitting more than normal in the lockdown?

Maybe we should consider building up to it with some of the methods listed below

Do I even want to?

I got a message from a footballer recently “fuck 5k’s, I hate them. I’m sending your video to my captain” (check my IGTV to view). It appears the “must do” came from a leadership group. Well intentioned no doubt to boost morale, but clearly not for everyone either (imagine that? a team of individuals)

But there is one real big question that underpins all our programming:

Is this going to make us a better player on the field when we get back?

Physically – possibly. Again it’s a risk v reward. Tick most or all of the boxes above and yes the reward may well greatly outweigh the risk.

Mentally – Very much so it could. Fresh air is medicine, especially right now

Tactically – None at all

Technically – Nothing to see here either

Socially – Zilch. Right now at least (if you are obeying the rules of course)

So as a coach these are the things we need to ask. People may find this strange from an S&C Coach (Coach not zealot I emphasize) – this kind of goes back to “Having a few pints” after a game with maybe another game the following week.

You’ll notice when you ask yourselves these questions that the scale will tilt here and there, but will help you make an informed decision.

Physically – Obviously alcohol is not going to physically enhance us. But if we eat substantially after the game before alcohol then its not too bad. Of course 2-3 drinks is what we are talking about here. Not nightclubs till 4am. If that’s an issue you have completely different problems.

Technically - zero

Tactically – If you have won and you are the coach, things will be positive. If you lost, make a shit excuse and spend the night with the magnetic board – you have 7 days and counting. LOL

Psycho-Socially – Huge benefit. The psycho-social elements are what underpins sport. Forget the NFL, the EPL and even the Inter-County game. Club sport is all about the psycho-social. This is Ireland, I like the fact that we have moved away from the heavy drink culture we had. Serious Club players by and large now really look after themselves. But a few pints is what we do. Don’t fight it too hard.

We went from 5k to pints there really quickly. It’s the Lockdown – Sorry.

But seriously, thinking about those elements of the game do help us with our decisions about our preparation.

Is this going to benefit my players?

Is this going to benefit my players?

Is this………………


So if we are going to tell you that running distance may not best idea for many of you, what are we going to do instead? We need alternatives.

Here is a list to start with;

  • ·Tempo Running

  • ·Cardiac Output Sessions

  • ·Extensive Intervals

  • ·Intensive Intervals (Short & Long)

  • ·Distance Intervals

  • ·Alactic-Aerobic Intervals

Before we start – what do we need?

  • A heart rate monitor

  • A GPS meterage on a phone or watch

  • A pair of cones

  • A 5 min run test or 1200m run test score

  • 100M Sprint result

For all of these you could implement a 2-Part Warmup Including a;

  • Movement Circuit

  • Athletic Drills

Part 1 - Movement Circuit Sample

  • Low Ankle Hops x12

  • Inchworm to Push Up x6

  • Iso Hold-Oscillating Split Squats x3 each side

  • Breakdancer x8

  • Groiner to thoracic rotation x5 each side

  • Count Balance Squats x20

  • Broad Jumps x5

  • Lateral Hop & Stick x6

  • Quarter Squats Jumps x12

  • Split Jumps

Part 2 - Athletic Warm Up

  • B Skips x 30M x2 w/ walk back

  • Mini Bounds x 30M x2 w/ walk back

  • Accel to decel stop x10M x3

  • 100m Build ups (trot – jog – run – Sprint over 100 m) x1-3 w/full walk back

Tempo Running

Tempo in the field sport sense is running between 60 and 70% of your Max 100M Sprint speed. Tempo running is generally broken into 2 sections, extensive tempos and intensive tempos. Extensive we generally use in early season to get going or as recovery. The main difference between them is rest. Extensive lends itself to more recovery. However your speed doing the runs should always remain the same.

And the 1 set should mirror the last set.

As an example:

Extensive tempos – run 100 @70% pace, walk 100

Intensive – (In sets of 3 reps) run 100 @70% pace, walk 50, run 100, walk 50, run 100, walk 100

You can increase to the runs up to maybe 400m, depending on the athlete. Generally I work from 100 to 200 extensive with occasional 300’s. Elite athletes with excellent mechanics may tolerate more.

Coaches note: Many practitioners use MAS running to develop team sport fitness. But I do have reservations, despite having used in past and having some success. The science has been argued to be not high level science around it by some. However my applied experience with it is that it has small windows of development. Blocks of 2-4 weeks maybe twice a season seem sufficient. The fatigue can upset your training sessions so other elements are not improving. I did move towards doing one block after warm up, one after some technical/tactical work and sometimes a 3rd block again later on but I have sided almost exclusively with Tempo and its many variations now and largely at the end of training as its simply to measure, not going to break the athletes and they already have done the first priority work – playing and developing the game. If you want technical improvements or are introducing anything new tactically you need fresh players. What needs to be on point are your conditioned games and tactical games.

MAS may look to have a significant effect on an under conditioned or young team. But I do wonder does it miss the base layering element.

Cardiac Output Sessions

COS’s are a really handy way of building a base, staying active without over training or building the cardiovascular system and Aerobic Capacity in general.

The only thing to be really concerned about with these is staying between 120 and 150 bpm. The exercises are largely irrelevant. This is an interesting one that comes up around 5k’s. the odd person can stay in that zone while running a 5k. But many will have to stop and walk or really slowly jog if this happens. This is where the problems start – its too slow.

The COS alternative though can involve 4-12 exercises done on a constant basis for 30-90 minutes. What I tend to do myself or program is 3 blocks of 4 exercises. I may include some locomotive (jogging, running, easy skips) work in the mini circuit or I may just put some running in between the blocks like this;

Block 1 x15 mins

  • Easy Skip for height

  • Lizard Crawls

  • Med Ball toss & Chase

  • KB Swings

  • 1 block of 100-50-100-50-100 intensive tempos

  • Back to start

Then create 2 more blocks similar to this and you have 45 minutes of work at a very tolerable pace. In very simple terms this training makes the pump of your heart work more efficiently.

Intensive Intervals

I use 2 types of Intensive Intervals mostly. Just to confuse a bit there is an intensive version and an extensive version and possibly a bit contradictory to most processes and because I largely work with sub elite athletes I do the intensive before the more extensive.

For both we need a MAS (Maximum Aerobic Speed) . There are many ways to get this but a 1200M run is the easiest to prescribe. A 100 m soccer pitch is ideal. Put a mark at half way. After a warm up you simply run 12 lengths, 6 up and downs, as fast as possible. The time you get needs to be converted to seconds. So lets say its 5 minutes flat. That is 300 secs. 1200/300 =4 m/s (meters per second). That’s your MAS

So we use 5 of MAS to prescribe some forms of training, and I do with this protocol.

The intensive runs I do first are 90/90 (90 secs on/90 off) and we will do them at 100-105% to start, and maybe get as far as 110% MAS. So starting off 4 m/s =360m over 90s. That should be comfortable enough. 105% = 378 in 90 secs, 110% = 396m.

I tend to prescribe these as straight sets for running only sessions (done alone or whatever) – as in do as many sets as you can while making your target distance. 8 sets is a good starting target and work up from that.

With field training I would do it in blocks of 4 reps, probably maxing out at 3 sets.

The more extensive version, extensive within this overall “Intensive Intervals” banner, is 3:3 mins on:off. We would do these somewhere between 93 and 100% MAS. 3 sets of 3 is a good start and maybe work up to 4 sets of 4:4mins on:off

Mostly though I would in an ideal world, with a group with huge buy in that you can trust to do the aerobic work themselves, I would get them to do these 1-2 times a week separate from training as they are time heavy and some players get quite fatigued from them.

You might without a lot of games coming up decide to do 90/90’s after training like you may do Tempos.

I would only do this after a nice bit of tempo running and game play. So commonly where I put this in is after 1st rounds in April when we have a chance to build again. I am working short to long. A lot of people go long to short on endurance and up the pace and there is good reason in cases. However I feel at sub elite we are often getting their running technique and ability to a base level at the same time as conditioning (not ideal AT ALL). So once they are well into the season we can do this. This suits Club Gaelic Games as we have such a fragmented season. It may not suit everyone and I have taken different approaches with sports that have linear leagues in Aussie Rules, Soccer, Basketball and Hockey for instance.

It goes without saying, this is supplementary work. So much of this can be done with the ball too. But you really have to plan your games well. I am observing teams, at all levels, that have gone full on “Game Based Approach”. But unfortunately are undercooked and also have relatively extensive injury lists. Playing games is great, its the point really isn’t it? But we have to build the foundations too. Games Based only approach is fraught with dangers based on the fact that it has multiplied the amount of changes of directions, accelerations, decelerations, sprints, jumps etc. We need to be careful of this, layer up appropriately but also push the boundaries of athleticism.

Distance Intervals

This is very much along the lines of replacing the 5k. This is really simple, maybe you could use your MAS score here again in the 85-95 range but I wouldn’t be overly bothered about it. You would need a GPS watch though or very specific landmarks.

Something like this could be ;

  • Run 500 hard

  • Walk 250

  • Run 750 moderate

  • Walk 250

  • Run 1k easy

  • Walk 250

  • Run 750 moderate

  • Run 500 hard

  • Walk 250

That’s 4.5k there immediately. But those walks and varied intensities will make sure we don’t get too fatigued and sore. You could build this any way you want. But that exact session above would be one I would use regularly with someone training for 5k’s (they think they are training for a marathon, I’m just buying time to talk them out of it)LOL

Alactic-Aerobic Intervals

These might be called explosive repeats or Alactic intervals elsewhere but I term them Alactic-Aerobic Intervals because I am using an explosive movement to help improve the aerobic systems ability to recover from said explosion.

An explosion in a game is anything really from a sprint to a jump to a big tackle. In training terms though we generally use sprints or explosive exercises.

Air Bikes are great for this and you can develop explosive power as well through squat jump and broad jump variations as well as Plyo Push Ups.

But for me Hill Sprints are king for this training.

One major reason is Hill sprints are arguably the safest of all “Max Outs”. We cannot reach top speed to do any real damage and I feel the natural mobility training of ankles and hips in particular from hill sprinting (or even walking for that matter) is significant. So with a hill sprint we can do volume, and that has multiple benefits.

The way I would load them up is in sets of 5-8 reps done in a 6:24s ratio. 2-3 minutes rest after a set and work from 2 sets up to 6 over time. If going through a cycle of these I might suggest lowering lower body strength work to maybe just RDL’s and some calf, hip flexor and glute accessory work.

Now these may not improve aerobic capacity, but they may, according to this interesting study on HIHVT (High Intensity High Volume Training) change the property of our slow aerobic muscle fibres to more fast twitch muscle fibres. Short sprinting has shown this as well in the past here to improve muscle fibre content AND endurance. That’s a good return for training.

Now think of it this way – you can take your chances with the 5k run or you can decide to run it slow and make it proper aerobic training. Or you can doing these repeat Hill Sprints and get aerobic fitter and more explosive at the same time and maybe even faster by changing slow twitch muscles to fast.

Now the studies are few and training maybe not over that long a time but that’s most likely due to the fact it would be really hard to get teams to agree to this protocols. I suspect there is limited returns on this training too, so well placed interventions easing say 10-20 days out from competition might be wise and max for amateur athletes I would suggest 3-4 weeks at 2 sessions per week.

Taking from other sports or the Pro’s

Be careful of the shiny new things. Be careful of what you read from professional players or coaches about their regimes. Are they appropriately loading you for your game and your level? I am seeing more and more professional S&C programs entering the local Irish Amateur scene. Remember this – there is a difference between doing a professionals program and getting a program from a professional.

We have some Covid Online Coaching entry specials to dip your toe in here

You can contact Kevin or follow his Social Media from addresses below

Twitter - @movementcoachkm

themovementcoach_km - Instagram

About the Author:

Kevin Mulcahy is a Performance Coach, coaching athletes, teams and professionals to perform at their highest ability both Online and face to face, based in Ballincollig on outskirts of Cork City.

You can contact Kevin or follow his Social Media from addresses below

Twitter - @movementcoachkm

themovementcoach_km - Instagram


Get In Touch

bottom of page