You’re all signed up for your first 5km race. Now what? Before you hit the panic button, it’s time to regroup and come up with your game plan. You’ve got this! All you need are some tried-and-true tips to make the best of your training and avoid rookie racing mistakes. Here’s the 5k low-down that will take you from today to all the way to the finish line—even if you’ve never run a day in your life...
5km Race Training Tips
Make a goal. Align your race-day target with your current fitness level and running background. Depending on your starting point, 3.1 miles is a huge feat and one you shouldn’t take lightly. For many newbies, just finishing the race is the ideal goal, even if it means walking some of the way. On the other hand, if you’ve already been running for while, you might decide on a goal of maintaining a specific pace or beating your average training time. No matter what you aim for, make it personal. You’re doing this for you, right? So why make your goals about anybody other than yourself?
Run At a Comfortable Pace, Every Other Day. This is especially important as you first begin running, since muscles unused to being conditioned at this capacity need time to rest and repair. Eventually, 3-4 days a week can turn into 5-6. But for now, ease into it. There are other workouts you can do on your off-days (see “strength training” below). And don’t run at a pace where you’re gasping for air. Save that intensity for a zombie apocalypse. Instead, run at a pace you can maintain over a steady amount of time—because increasing your time and mileage is key here.
Don’t Forget Strength Training. A lot of runners, regardless of their level and experience, tend to flinch at the concept of strength training. First, they assume that running is only the muscle conditioning they need, forgetting that pure running doesn’t work all the muscles and joints that you need need to maintain & improve your endurance and speed. Runners also tend to prefer more dynamic movement, and strength training can feel more static in comparison. The truth is, our bodies are complex machines that require a wide range of movement in order to perform at their best—just a few days a week spent on exercises like lunges, squats, and planks makes a considerable difference in how you perform, improve, and recover. So plan on two 30-minute strength training sessions each week.
Know the 10% (or less) Rule. Whatever your starting point is, you’ll reach a stage where you start to get comfortable, which is usually your cue to move up to the next level. Be careful. You’re familiar with the phrase “His eyes were bigger than his stomach”? The same notion applies here; what your mind tells you and how your body responds are two different things. For that very reason, it’s time to become acquainted with what is perhaps the most paramount rule of running: the 10% rule. Choose either your current mileage, time, or pace and multiply it by no more than 10%. That number plus your current time, pace, or mileage should be your new maximum goal...and your only goal for now. For example, let’s say you decide to increase your jogging mileage from 1 mile to 1.10. Awesome! But don’t try to increase your pace. Remember: one goal at a time—or you might end up cheating yourself right out of your first 5k. The 10% (or less) Rule is crucial to your muscle integrity and staying pain and injury free
Train with others. If you’re running in your first 5km race, it’s normal to have some trepidation about running with other people—especially if you’re worried about not “measuring up”. The best way to get over this fear is to face it. The more you’re used to running with people of all levels prior to race day, the better you’ll feel and maybe even perform the day of your race. If you don’t have friends or coworkers you can team up with at least a few times before the big day, consider a running club. Running alongside other people is inevitable—why not get accustomed to the idea prior to race day?
Weave in some interval training. High-intensityInterval training, or what you may know as HIIT, is one of the most efficient ways to build both your speed AND endurance. Don't let the name scare you off, especially if you're just starting out in running. All you need to do is take the intensity of your current pace up a notch for a predetermined span of time, and then drop it down to a slower pace (consider walking during your slow intervals...perhaps a light jog at most) for another definitive time span. Alternate with these fast-slow mini sessions for approximately 15-20 minutes. Then you're done! We recommend beginning these intervals at around 3-4 minutes each (after a 10-minute warm-up). Try this interval-style training just once a week and the results will amaze you.
Don’t take a rain check. As dreadful as the concept of training in inclement weather may seem, embrace running even on rainy, cold, or muggy days. Weather is fickle and you never know what you’re going to run into on race day—the more different types of weather you become acclimated to during your training, the more you’ll be prepared for an unexpected drizzle or unusually hot or cold day. Game. ON.
5km Race Timing
Timing really depends on a variety of factors:
Your current fitness level
Your running experience,
Your training regimen prior to your 5km race
How you feel on race day (both emotionally and physically)
Your ability to avoid injury (link to running injury blog),
The conditions of the race itself (factors like weather and race attire/costumes can all affect your final time)
If you’re running in your very first 5km race, don’t focus so much on timing. As you participate in more 5km races, you’ll establish a personal record that you can maintain or surpass. For now, it’s about finishing and establishing what your personal best really is. Just set a goal to finish the race and you can use this finish time to set future goals.If you’ve been training for a while already and this isn’t your first 5k rodeo, you probably already have a finishing time or collection of times you can turn to. When’s the last time you analyzed your finishing times? Is there a pattern? If you’ve been making gains (however slight), you might set out to continue that pattern or turn things up a notch if you’ve noticed a plateau in your past few times.
Timing: How You Compare
It’s natural to wonder how your running performance compares to others in your age and gender group and even get an idea of what it takes to place. A lot of newbie runners tend to seek definitive overall averages. According to Running USA, the median race finishing times for women and men are 36:15 and 29:15, respectively. But unless you fall within the average racing age of just under 34 for both genders, these kind of statistics don’t give you a lot of insight into how your own performance stacks up. Remember that the best metrics to compare yourself to are your own. Unless you’re signing up to place, you’re really only in competition with yourself.
If it helps you to get a general idea that’s more specific to you, then check out prior results for the actual 5km race you’re signed up for, which should be available on the race’s website. These results will give you a solid idea of the average times for winners, average finishers and slower racers in your category. Whatever standard you decide on, aim high within realistic boundaries. Otherwise, the only time you’re practically guaranteed is a date with the couch, while nursing your injury with elevation and an ice pack.
5km Race DON’TS
Start out strongYou’ll quickly burn out, lose pep, or even risk injury (and no one wants to limp to the finish line). Instead, start out steady, if not a little slower. Think of your body as a car engine on a brisk, cold morning. Let it run in park for a bit and warm up before you change gears. A strong finish is always better than a strong start.
Skip breakfast or your pre-race meal. (see “5km race fuel” below)
Decide to “break in” your new running kicks on (or near) race day.
Sweat it. It’s no different than all of your training days leading up to the race. If you start to get nervous, think of race day as just “training” alongside more people on a cool course with a spiffy bib to boot.
Sign up with people who don’t make you feel supported. If you’re going with a buddy or two, choose wisely and avoid “frenemies” who throw you off your game.
Question yourself. You’ve trained for this. And you will finish. Expect that you may run into a few road bumps along the way. That’s how you learn and set goals for next time. And there will be a next time!
Race against others. This is about YOU. Enjoy the course and the energy of fellow racers, but don’t make it about trying to beat everyone around you. It’s about either finishing or achieving your own pre-determined goals.
Trick yourself into believing that onlookers are judging you. They’re wishing they had your courage and tenacity—honest!
Abandon what worked on training days. Each training day was a dress rehearsal. Stick to all the wisdom you gained.
Forget to have fun! This is an experience. You might love it and become a 5km race addict (and eventually move up to 10ks, half-marathons or even triathlons). You might not. But live in the moment and ENJOY.
5km Race Day Fuel
Running on empty or full can really affect how you feel and perform. For this reason, don’t skip a pre-race meal, but don’t eat too close to the race. Give yourself roughly two hours between your meal and race, which gives your body time to digest your food and store up on energy. There’s no need to eat more than you have been on training days (and for the same reason, no need to consume less); whatever worked on the days leading up to race day won’t let you down.
The majority of 5km races take place in the morning—If you haven’t necessarily been training at this time and can’t quite picture what a solid pre-5km race breakfast looks like, consider these choices:
Oatmeal with a small scoop of protein powder, topped with fruit.
1-2 eggs with a small bagel
Yogurt (low-fat, low-sugar) with fruit and granola
Regardless of what you eat, avoid high fat, high protein and high fiber. These choice are far more likely to keep you fuller longer, and you want to feel like you’re running “light”. The latter can also cause you some digestive issues, which you may be more prone to as you experience some race-day jitters. In fact, any foods that like to take your gut for a roller coaster ride (dairy, nuts and legumes are three common perpetrators), just say no.