How to Run Your First 5K: 5 Tips to Reaching Your Goal

Hundreds of 5Ks are held around the nation each year, and almost every major city has several 5Ks happening every weekend. Some races are geared towards obtaining your fastest 5K time while others are marketed as fundraisers. Still others let you dress up in costumes or run with your dog. Looking to join the fun but don’t know where to start? Here are five simple steps you can take to begin training for your first 5K race.

1. Start Slow

It can often be exhilarating to increase mileage every week, or to push yourself a little bit farther every day. But, if this is your first time running a race, it’s important to start slow to avoid the potential for injury, burnout, or disappointment. To combat injury, Dr. Timothy Noakes, a well-respected scientist and Professor in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, cautions runners to begin their training gradually. As he states in The Lore of Running, heralded as the Bible of Running, “Another reason why training should initially be gentle is because the bones, tendons, and muscles, even of young healthy humans, are simply not able to adapt overnight to the cumulative stress of regular training.” 

If the last time you went for a run was when your coach made you do the mile in middle school, it’s critical to go easy on your body, at least at first. Intervals–short, intense efforts followed immediately by longer, slower efforts–may be familiar to seasoned runners, but the same “workout” can help those just beginning. 

What to do: Set your watch, or simply pay attention to the time, to 1 minute activity, 3 minutes rest. You’ll start by running for 1 minute (activity), then walking for 3 minutes (rest). Repeat this until you’ve completed your distance (say, 3-5 miles). As you progress, increase your activity time while simultaneously decreasing the amount of walking you do. Eventually you should be able to run for the full duration without needing a walking break. Remember: this is not your race! Your run should feel comfortable and relaxed and you should not be overly breathless.

2. Find a Plan

It may be tempting to simply go for a run everyday and count that as training, but distance, pace, intensity, effort, and even terrain can affect your race day performance. Your best bet is to find a knowledgeable coach who can help guide you towards your 5K goals. Look for a reputable coach who has personal experience as well as education, and it’s always a good idea to search for testimonials. Search your area for a local or look for online coaches who will schedule your runs on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. 

What to do: Head in to your local running store or look online for coaches in your region. Find one that is willing to work with you–no matter your level–and who will ensure that running is fun, and not a chore. For those who have struggled with injuries in the past, look into getting an online gait analysis assessment. This can help screen you for any potential weaknesses in your body or running gait. Gait analyses can be down in-person or online, like this one at Lucky 13 Endurance Coaching

3. Grab a Friend

The best way to keep your motivation high is to share your enthusiasm with a friend–particularly a friend who loves running. If you don’t know anyone who likes to run, check out, a website that helps people connect with others who share like-minded interests. Several running groups exist in most cities around the U.S. (and other countries!), so there shouldn’t be a problem finding groups that leave from local running stores in the evenings, or people who like to meet up for weekend morning runs (then brunch–what’s not to like?). 

What to do: Check out your local running store or look online for public group runs held in a location near you. Ask a friend to join you on a workout, and then enjoy reminiscing about the pain (or joy) of the run with a post-run coffee or tea. Use each other as accountability partners to get up an hour early on weekday mornings or to avoid Netflix and the couch after work.

4. Ask Yourself Why

While 5Ks are generally too short to drop out of, the more miles you pursue during your running career, the greater the risk for asking yourself: Why am I doing this again?  To avoid this uncomfortable feeling of apathy during the race, it’s important to find out why you’re running this 5K in the first place. Maybe you want to get heart-healthy, or perhaps you’re looking to lose some extra pounds. Maybe running is a great stress-reliever for you, or you want to work towards a goal and accomplish it. You might even want to prove something to yourself–that you can run a 5K race without stopping once. All of these are great goals, but everyone is different. Make sure you’re running for a reason that matters to you to ensure the best success, no matter the time, at the finish line.

What to do: Take some time to reflect on why you want to run a 5K race before you begin training. This is a great exercise to record in a journal so that on days when running seems pointless, hard, or any other excuses your brain comes up with, you can simply refer to your personal “why.” 

5. Expect the worst to prepare for the best 

Even for elite athletes who have years of experience in the sport, few races go exactly as planned. It’s far better to simply plan for your race not going as planned–to make the most of it regardless. In the sports psychology book, How Bad Do You Want It?,  coach and sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald suggests that expecting the worst out of a race may help to create a more favorable contrast between what the racer thinks might happen and what actually does happen. “The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate the faster she can go,” writes Fitzgerald. 

What to do: Expect your race to be hard; expect that the conditions will be hotter, windier, colder, and more humid that the forecast actually says. Then, push yourself to run hard. That said, also remember why you’re doing this. Did you want to prove to yourself that you can run a 5K? Are you trying to beat a previous time? Do you want to show your children that it’s important to work hard and go after your goals? Consider expecting the worst to prepare for the best. And then remember this small, but important, piece of advice: have fun. After all, running is just a sport!