9 Keys to Rock Your 5K

by Sarah Wassner Flynn

Running a 5K. Sounds simple enough. After all it’s just 3.1 miles, right? Well, until you’ve stood in the well-trodden sneakers of a 5K finisher, it’s hard to gauge how that first race (and the build up towards it) will go.

To help wrap your head around all of that, we had Lisa Chilcote, a top masters runner and Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) certified coach in North Bethesda, MD, offer some insight into the process of preparing for your first 5K.

Give Yourself 12 Weeks to Train

While a 5K isn’t as much of an undertaking as, say, a marathon, you do want to give yourself plenty of time to prep. A 12-week training plan with four days of running is ideal, says Chilcote, as it gives you enough wiggle room to build base mileage before you work on your speed. So just how do you build that base, anyway?

“For folks who are new to the sport, go with the walk/run approach for the first few weeks,” says Chilcote, who suggests alternating three minutes of running with one minute of walking until you hit your goal time. “If you’re more experienced, you’ll do the same amount of running without stopping.” Start by shooting to run, or run/walk for 20-30 minutes, slowly building your total time each week. (Note: You may want to invest in a watch with GPS or use an app like MapMyRun to keep track of your time, distance and pace.)

Pick a Pace

And speaking of time, Chilcote recommends setting your sights on a goal pace well before your race to help you frame your workouts. “If you’re committing to a training program, you should be able to focus on a realistic goal time,” she says. One exception? If you’re just getting back into fitness after a long layoff. “In that case, simply finishing the race is a good enough goal,” says Chilcote.

Step up the Speed

After those first few weeks of solid running, it’s time to turn up the intensity and introduce your legs to some speed work. But we’re not talking about sprinting like you’re the next Usain Bolt. Rather, about once a week, you’ll hit the track to do some intervals at your 5K pace or slightly faster to get a good sense of what it’ll feel like on race day. “A little speed work can go a long way if done appropriately with ample rest time,” says Chilcote. “The specificity of training for a certain speed is critical to a good race.”

So, what kind of pace should you set? Say you’re shooting for 10-minute miles, which will have you finishing a 5K around 31:00. Base your speed workouts on that pace. Chilcote suggests a workout like 8 x 400 meters (one time around the track) at 5K pace (that’s around 2:30 or faster per 400m) with a minute recovery. “Fartleks are another great way to incorporate speed at the end of a run,” says Chilcote. “Try doing 6 x 20 seconds fast, one minute easy, after a 3-mile run.”

Warm Up (and Cool Down) Right

Aside from speed work, Chilcote cannot stress enough how important it is to properly warm up and cool down before—then after—your speed work to help prevent muscle pulls, soreness and injury. The right recipe? A 10- to 15-minute warm-up of light jogging followed by dynamic stretching. After the workout, “Always cool down with up to 15 minutes of light jogging,” says Chilcote. And while mild muscle soreness is to be expected after a tough track session, “Definitely take it easy if you’re carrying around any nagging issues,” says Chilcote. “You’ll want to lay off the speed work again until you’re completely healed.”

Rock Race Day

At the end of that 12-week training block—once you’ve built your base and sharpened your speed—it’s time to run that race already. If you’ve followed a plan precisely, the hay is in the barn, so to speak. So you should be confident that you’ll get to that finish line fast. Here are Chilcote’s tips for executing the race like the superstar you are.

  1. Fuel up. If your race is in the morning, eat a simple, light breakfast about two hours before go-time. The smartest move? Test out your planned race-day eats before a hard workout so you can see how your stomach reacts. If you think you’ll get hungry closer in, pack an energy gel to slurp down as you wait for the gun. And keep a spare water bottle handy to sip on (and quickly discard once the race starts) so you’re not starting off parched.
  2. Go with the old. Do not—we repeat do not—try anything new on race day. No new shoes, no new gear, not even the race T-shirt. You never know what’s going to be uncomfy or rub you in all the wrong places, and derail your race. Play it safe and stick to the gear you’ve trained in.
  3. Start off steady. Races are exciting and it’s easy to get swept up in the crowd when the gun goes off. But avoid the urge to go out too fast. Try to maintain your goal pace throughout the 5K, or start off slowly so you can gradually pick it up.
  4. Leave nothing behind. And if you feel like you can shift into another gear? Do it. Yes, your legs may be heavy and your breathing labored, but we’re betting you have a little more in you. With about 400 meters to go, dig deep and push the pace all the way to the finish line. That way, regardless of how you place overall, you’ll know you’ve won your race.

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