Train for a 5k Race or Marine PFT in 3 Weeks


Runners 5k race

Starting in 2017, to get a perfect score of 300 on the Marine Corps physical fitness test (PFT) a male must do 23 pull-ups, 115 crunches in 2 minutes, and run 3 miles in 18 minutes. Females must do at least 10 pull-ups (or 70 seconds flexed arm hang) and complete the run in 21 minutes. Many Marines can hit the max pull-ups and crunches. However for most, the run has always been the barrier to a perfect score. A recent study by the Marine Corps found that only 4% of men and women were able to run the 3 miles in 18 or 21 minutes, respectively.

Running 3 miles in 18 minutes is difficult. It seems so unattainable to many they don’t train for it. An excuse I’ve often heard is, “I don’t have the time to train for it.” Well here’s the good news: training for a 3 mile race doesn’t take a lot of time. I’m confident if you follow the plan in this article, you can knock a minute, or even minutes, off your 3 mile run time in 3 weeks, training for less than 30 minutes three times a week. For those of you that aren’t training for a PFT, this routine will work for a 5k run as well.

If you’re already a sub-18 minute runner, this article isn’t for you. If you struggle just to run 3 miles without stopping, you need a little work before you begin this plan. When you start, you should already be able to go out and run 3 miles at a comfortable pace without feeling like you’re dying. Hopefully if you’re Marine, you’re already there. If you’re not, you need to start by running a few times a week until you can jog 3 miles without any problems.

The biggest problems for most people training for a PFT or 5k are two things: (1) they don’t know how to train, and (2) they don’t know how hard they can push themselves. Unless you’ve run competitively at some point in your life, perhaps in high school cross country or track, you are probably not going to know how to train for a 3 mile run.

Track runner

This biggest mistake most people make is that they don’t train running fast. Many Marines I know will go out and run 3-4 miles a few times a week or two before the PFT. Unless your goal is just to finish, this isn’t going to help improve your time. To run a fast PFT or 5k, you need to train running fast. I’ve found that at a minimum, you need two weeks to train to see results (train two weeks, run PFT the 3rd). Also in my experience, most people (besides regular runners) have difficulty sticking to a training program that is anything over 3 weeks. I’ve also limited this plan to 3 training days per week, because many have difficulty sticking to plans that require any more than that.

To effectively complete this program, you need a timer and known distances. If you have a GPS watch, great; if not, I recommend downloading a running app for your phone. I use the MapMyRun app. If you want to keep your phone from bouncing in your pocket, check out a QuadBandit. Remember, just going out and running won’t do the trick; you need to push yourself to meet the time benchmarks.

Runner GPS watch

The first you thing you need to figure out is what your goal run time is. If your goal is to run your PFT in 19 minutes, you need to run 6:20 mile splits. So your goal in this program will be to always run as fast, or faster, than that. If you’re running 800 meters, you should be running 3:10 splits or less; 400 meters in 1:35 or less, etc. The strategy of this program is to start running your target pace at a short distance (400 meters) and progressively increase the distance, while still running at that pace. Again, it’s essential that you run known distances and that you’re keeping track of your splits with a timer. Equally important, you need to push yourself on each interval. If during every interval, you’re telling yourself, “I’m done after this one, I’m don’t care if I’m not going to finish the workout,” that means you’re doing it right. But once you finish and catch your breath, you need to push on and do it all over again until the workout is complete. In the plan below, I’ve included sample splits; if your goal is different, you’ll need to do the math yourself. Generally, you should be able to run a little faster than the goal split for the first couple intervals,and then struggling to meet the goal split by the 3rd or 4th.

PFT or 5k training times

Between every interval, you should do an approximately 400m jog. This should be a very slow jog, but not walking. For the “3 miles @ 90/95%” runs, you should be pushing yourself pretty hard and should notice improvements each week. Ideally, you should train Monday, Wednesday, Friday. If you have time, it wouldn’t hurt to do a 3-4 mile medium pace run over the weekend or on one of the other rest days. Depending on what day of the week your PFT or race is, you also need to do some running that week. (Remember, this plan is set up to train for 3 weeks, and run your PFT or race the 4th week). If it’s on a Friday, you should get one more speed workout in on Monday and then a jog on Wednesday. If it’s on Wednesday, you should still go for a medium paced run on Monday, but don’t do any speed training within 3 days of the PFT or race. If you’re unfamiliar with the course, I’d recommend finding out where it is and jogging it sometime before the PFT. (This is a good time to do your last slow jog).

You should be wearing a watch during the PFT or race  to be able to track your pace, and at least know when you have one mile and a half mile left. Also, run your own race; don’t try to keep up with the people that sprint out of the gate. I always run the best times when my first mile is the slowest. If you’ve followed through with the program, you should have a pretty good idea of the pace you need to be running, so don’t get distracted by others that are going to burn themselves out after a half mile.

Another extremely important part of training is diet. You need energy to run so you shouldn’t be training on an empty stomach. This isn’t cardio to lose weight, its high intensity training to gain speed. Eating a snack or small meal with some carbohydrates an hour or so before your workout is recommended. When it comes to race day, you should have a decent meal the night before. I usually have a bowl of pasta, but don’t eat too much or try eating something new the night before. The morning of, it’s essential that you eat breakfast before you run. It amazes me how many people think that they need to “stay light” or something, and starve themselves before a race. A high carb breakfast like a bagel or a couple of granola bars will give you the energy you need to get through the run.

If you follow through with this training plan, the run will be easier than it’s ever been for you. Remember, especially during the first and second weeks of training, that the harder you push yourself the more it will pay off the following week and on the day of the race or PFT.