How to Run Your First 5K

by Julie Rains on 26 January 2012 3 comments

The Couch to 5K Running Plan and similar programs have inspired and prepared thousands of people to run a 5K. But not everyone who starts such a program crosses the finish line.

Age, weight, height, strength, and prior conditioning influence how quickly you can move from an inert state to a 5K finish line. And, if you are short like me and many of my friends, running 30 minutes at a beginner’s pace (the goal of many such programs) will NOT allow you to cover 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

Since re-starting my fitness regimen after a 15-year hiatus, I have run a handful of 5Ks plus a couple of 10Ks, completed a sprint triathlon, and finished epic bike rides. Though I have developed new friendships by participating in these events, I'd love to see some of my longtime friends run a 5K. Those who have started have been quickly sidelined by injuries or gotten off track for various reasons.

The promise of quick results is appealing (and attainable) for many people, but if a 9-week or even a 12-week program doesn't work for you, there are alternatives. I thought about what it took for me to finish my first 5K and got advice from an expert in exercise physiology. Here are our suggestions. (See also: How to Run Without Music)

Running a 5K: What Worked for Me

Having athletic experience from my youth gave me the background knowledge to prepare myself when I was older. It wasn't fast, but I made steady progress. Here are the techniques that I used to get ready for my first 5K.

Allow Plenty of Time to Get Ready

When I decided to tackle a 5K, I had been lifting weights and doing cardio workouts for several months. I doubt I could have gotten ready within a couple of months after just starting my exercise regimen.

Allow enough time to build cardio capacity and strength and account for setbacks. Common reasons for missing workouts and not staying on track include:

  • Bad weather (for those who do not have access to a treadmill or indoor track or don't have winter running gear)
  • Illness
  • Schedule conflicts (you underestimated your obligations, things came up unexpectedly, or your running partner couldn’t make scheduled runs)
  • Injury

A longer timeframe allows you to focus on your goal but still take breaks (or weeks off) when you must and resume running without guilt or fear of failure.

Stop Looking at Your Watch

At the suggestion of a fast-running friend, I bought a Garmin Forerunner 305 that tracks my pace, distance, and heart rate. I look at this device attached to my wrist (my “watch”) frequently — probably too much. But while I love tracking the numbers, I have noticed that many people are confused by too much information. They just want to run, or walk, or whatever. Whereas the numbers tend to energize me, figuring out and following a formula (running for 90 seconds, walking for 90 seconds, for example) zaps the energy and resolve of many.

When I first started, I noted my time and tried to track my pace loosely but spent most of my effort just running, recovering while walking, and then running again. I paid attention to my body, not a specific regimen.

So if sticking to precise time frames of running and walking is difficult, do what works for you. Strive to run more and more, but don’t get upset (or give up) if you can’t run as much as you’d like, especially soon after you start.

Go the Distance

After I signed up for a 5K, I decided to make sure that I could go the distance first and then worry about my speed. Finishing the race was much more important than my time.

I started focusing on running 31 times around an indoor track that was approximately one-tenth of a mile (an alternative is to map out a route of 3.1 miles). My fatigue and time at the end of that distance became my “worst case scenario.”

Completing the distance in a workout gave me a confidence boost. Then I could relax about the race and use energy previously devoted to stress toward fitness.

Note, however, that the first event I signed up for was a “cross-country race.” I welcomed not having to run on paved roads with traffic but had no idea that this involved running on a trail in the woods, having to navigate tree roots and, uh, hills. (Don't let hills scare you though — practice running up them or decide to walk them on race day.)

Lift Weights

One of the biggest problems I had when I started running again was knee pain. I started using machines to increase my strength, and my stronger muscles were able to protect my joints. Later, I was able to continue running and improve without having to spend a lot of time in the weight room.

Rest and Recover

When I restarted my fitness regimen, I found that I needed large amounts of recovery time, at least 2-3 days instead of the usually recommended 1-2 days. That means that I ran just one or two times each week, rather than three or four times.

In many cases, simply resting enough between workouts helped me to recover from minor injuries. If I had kept pushing despite pain, then I may have caused damage that would have taken weeks or months with physical therapy, rather than a few extra days of recovery here and there.

Another reason to allot more time to prepare for a race is to give your body the time to build strength and complete the workouts at a pace that works for you.

Eat Well

Improve your diet at the same time that you improve your fitness. One of the reasons that I got back into my exercise routine was to avoid heart problems that both of my parents and one of my in-laws developed when they got older. I adopted dietary recommendations given to them, specifically started reading labels and avoiding trans fats. I am not sure, but I often wonder if my diet helped me to push myself to a higher fitness level.

What Experts Recommend

Sarah Dlugosz at Kingley Health spent five months getting a group of obese and previously sedentary individuals ready for a 5K. She gave me tips on what worked for them.

Do Interval Training

Interval training involves pushing yourself and then recovering lightly before pushing yourself again (at regular or random intervals). To incorporate this type of training into your regimen, alternate running at moderate and fast paces, increasing speed over time. The speed helps boost your fitness level and, naturally, helps you finish the 5K at a faster pace than otherwise. (Note that physicians are consulted prior to beginning the program.)

Log Distance and Speed

Track your distance and speed. Seeing results (that is, increasing your distance, speed, or both) is motivating and inspires you to stick with the program.

Run With a Group

Running with a group creates a social and fun atmosphere that keeps you engaged. These fellow runners serve as accountability partners, as Matt suggested in his article on sticking to an exercise plan.

Celebrate Milestones

By tracking your progress and running with friends, you can identify and celebrate running milestones on the path to finishing your first race. Sarah suggests that milestones may include running a mile without stopping or running a couple of miles without pain.

Get Technical

Prior to starting the program, participants received a Functional Movement Screening (FMS) along with a fitness assessment. Those with any asymmetries, immobility issues, or instability were given corrective exercises to ensure proper bio mechanics. They also followed any guidelines that their physicians may have had.

Stretch and Practice Sole Training

Stretch after running, not only your legs but also your feet. Sarah uses sole training, exercises designed to improve strength, flexibility, and stability in the feet and ankles. (I have never had problems with my feet until I started training for a half-marathon. Though I am not familiar with this method, I have found that stretching my feet after a long run has helped deal with pain and prevent injury.)

How did you overcome problems to run your first 5K? Share your tips in the comments.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I'm definitely looking into foot/ankle stretches -- I'm training for a half marathon right now, and I've had some problems with my feet in the past.

Guest's picture
Patrick

I set my goal at four months to prepare, started running in March for a race in July. I started running short distances just to lose weight, improve my breathing and find a comfortable pace. I ran short distances starting at 1.5 miles and working my way up to a 3.4 mile course. I ran outside as often as possible, as I found 3.1 miles on a treadmill is much easier and less effective preparation than 3.1 miles outside. I'll also add that I found clothing and accessories were important. I found I prefer to run without music and with baggy shorts and a plain t-shirt, as opposed to more sophisticated running gear.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for sharing your technique, which is simple to follow but takes a bit more time than other programs.

I agree that running outdoors gives a better and more realistic experience plus I am just not great at treadmill running though I know it works for many people. I wondered for a while why my times were better indoors than outside. Then, one of the Y employees who I happened to see at a 5K told me that the track that I was training on was not precisely one-tenth of a mile as advertised.

I have gotten more into running gear as I have progressed but typically buy what I have a specific need for, not just cool stuff. Glad that the t-shirt and regular shorts works for you.