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Breaking 20 Minutes in the 5k: Lessons Learned

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Do you have a goal to optimize your running performance? Below I share important lessons learned from my 3-year journey attempting to break 20 minutes in the 5k.

Everything is possible.  The impossible just takes longer.



In 2017 after the birth of my second child I had a dream; a dream of breaking 20 minutes in the 5k. It was one of my top postpartum fitness goals.

As an Exercise Physiologist, I was very intrigued with the athlete postpartum journey. I also decided to experiment to see how I could transform my body post-baby.

Ultimately, in order to achieve muscle sculpting and fat loss I had to dedicate most of my time and effort to strength training and cross training. With less time and energy to dedicate to running, the result was a very non-strategic training plan to break 20 minutes.

What did my running plan look like?

  • I ran base mileage each week but found distance running to be extremely ineffective for achieving a lean look. Combined with erratic postpartum hormones, my long runs were leaving me swollen and bloated!

  • Once per week I would throw in a few 400s or aim to push a mile at my goal 5k pace.

  • I raced a 5k race every few months with a goal to run slightly faster each race.

What results did I achieve?

  • Before-baby #2 PR: 20:38

  • 1st 5k after baby #2: 21:10

  • 4 months later: 20:48

Honestly, I was happy running a slightly faster time each 5k and I became content placing amongst the top females. Although I didn't break 20 minutes, I did achieve my postpartum physique goals!

Before and after pregnancy fitness photo

(Confession: This took a tremendous amount of dedication to achieve.

It was "fun" to experiment with but I'm not sure I'd ever do it again!)

Lesson Learned: We may want to achieve more than one fitness goal, but when it comes to desiring both a physique transformation AND crushing running PRs it is nearly impossible to truly maximize both.




A few months after achieving my 20:48 I received a life-changing diagnosis of Osteoporosis. Along with that diagnosis came blood work showing my body was having trouble recovering from life and exercise-induced stress.

At the advice of my physicians, I took a serious break from physique and running-related goals. While I did exercise, I was instead focused on optimizing my health, casual running with friends, and maximizing recovery. Fortunately, my dedication paid off and I begin to reverse my condition and received the "all clear" to push running pace and distance in less than one year!

Female runner training

Lesson Learned: Prioritizing health and wellbeing over running and physique goals is worth every bit of the patience, time, and effort it requires! We only get one body, so it's essential we honor its need for rest, recovery and love.




Excited to be back in the game, I set a goal to train for a moderately paced Big Sur Marathon. I also eased my way back into racing and set my sights on making my county's Developmental Racing Team. Of course, when racing a 5k I always had that sub-20 minutes in mind!

I decided to write my own training plan so I could revise it when my blood work and body told me I needed to rest or slow down (i.e. missing a period or having less patience/energy with my kids). I didn't expect my training plan to be so dynamic and I certainly had moments when I didn't want to listen to my body! However, I knew if I kept pushing and robotically adhering to my training plan my health and my racing results would suffer. It was truly a delicate balance with many failures to learn from along the way!

Mother runner celebrating with kids

In Spring 2019 I raced a 20:14 5k in the middle of my train up for Big Sur. I also PR'd my 10 miler with a time of 1:09:37, hitting my 2nd qualifying time to make the racing team. Finally, I ran an enjoyable Big Sur Marathon and took home a PR for that course!

Lesson Learned: It is through continuously redesigning habits to support our well-being that we will find a lifetime of healthy living success. Read more about how to do that here.




Prior to my birthday my husband asked me if I had any running goals for my 35th year of life. Since he's an ultra runner he defines "real running" as the marathon distance and beyond. I answered that I was proud of having a newfound sense of honoring my body's needs and that pushing to PR a marathon wouldn't be worth putting the stress of the high volume training on my body. I also said, "I don't really have any specific goals, but of course I want to break 20 minutes in the 5k."

My husband nearly spit out his drink, as he asked me how I was planning on doing that since I hadn't made it happen in the past 3 years.


Although a little annoying, the man had a point. I'm a multi-credentialed health professional and an experienced endurance athlete. I have qualifications out the wha-zoo, had helped hundreds of other people accomplish their goals, yet I had not managed to take the steps necessary to see my breaking 20 "goal" through! In fact, I didn't ever really say out loud how or when I was going to do so. As a health and performance coach, I should know better!

treadmill 5k workout

Well, you better bet all it took was that sassy comment from my husband for me to take action. On December 31, 2020 ran my first real "breaking 20" workout. I wrote out my training plan with a dedicated train up to break 20 minutes at the Under Armour Shamrock 5k on March 15, 2020. I set my sights on a time of 19:45, being it was my age-grade standard for making my county running club's Elite Racing Team.

Lesson Learned: Both pace and distance-specific training plans are the most efficient way to achieve our goal times. Additionally, truly committing to making it happen within a set amount of time or at a specific race make all the difference! Personal running bests do not come easy and excuse my language, but half-ass intentions result in half-ass results.




I fell in love with my training plan, as it was simple, effective, and gave me space to honor my body's recovery needs. I was crushing my 5k-specific workouts and still had enough time and energy to strength train. By maintaining moderate weekly mileage I was even able to hit a few course PRs for other race distances along the way! (If you too want to learn this method, I now teach it here!)

On March 12, 2020 my 5k race was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 14, 2020 I mapped out a 5k course near my home and ran a time of 19:44.

Garmin watch shows breaking 20 minutes in the 5k

As a bonus, on March 28, 2020 I PR'd my 10 miler and placed in the top 10 females in the virtual Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 mile run.

Lesson Learned: Holding yourself accountable to a goal is especially challenging when no one else is watching. Before setting a goal ask yourself, "If no one knew I did this, would I still want to do it?" If the answer if yes, you will find a way. You will make it happen, no matter how many years it may take to see through.




Impressed with how ease-filled achieving my goal times was, I plan to apply the methodology behind my simple and flexible 5k training plan to future race distances and goal times.

Happy woman runner (virtual race)

(After all, it took me 3+ years to figure out this results-driven training method, I better use it!)

Since I know others need simple science-backed strategies to accomplish their goals, I'm now share it all in my Run Your Best 5K course. If you too want to run your best 5K without overcomplicating it and maximize energy and recovery along the way, that value-packed program is now located here!

Wishing you a fabulous goal-crushing journey ahead,

Coach Louise


Louise Valentine is an award-winning wellness and performance expert, best-selling author, competitive athlete, and fierce military spouse. She owns Breaking Through Wellness, providing 1:1 coaching and courses empowering runners, busy parents and athletes to break through to next-level health and performance! You can find Louise & her runner family (Team Valentine)'s adventures on Instagram @BreakingThroughWellness.

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