Has the onset of warm weather and sunny skies got you thinking it’s time to tackle your first running race? There’s never been a better time to run your first 5K than now.
Running your first 5K is 100% achievable, regardless of your fitness level, as long as you have patience, persistence, and motivation. Of course, it also helps to have a good training plan to follow. Lucky for you, we’ve got just the program to get you off the couch and smiling as you cross the 5K finish line.
Why the 5K is Perfect for Beginners
The 5K is the perfect distance for any beginner runner because it’s a distance that pretty much anyone can finish with a little bit of training. Every runner’s journey starts somewhere, and for most runners, that starting point is a 5K. Even those who regularly run marathons most likely started with a local 5K and built up to running marathons over time.
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5K is short for five kilometers, where one kilometer is equivalent to 0.62 of a mile, making a 5K race 3.1 miles in length. Of all the race distances, 5K’s are the easiest to find and fit into your schedule. In most cities and towns, you can find them every weekend throughout the spring, summer, and fall. To find a race in your area, visit Running In The USA or RunSignup.
Getting Started Is the Hardest Part
Running a 5K may seem like a lofty goal, and you might even be a little terrified, but as someone who has coached hundreds of runners, I’m here to say you can do this. The human body is an amazing thing, and with proper training and adequate rest, it can adapt and perform feats you never thought possible. Whatever your fitness level may be today, it can and will be improved if you stick to this plan.
The first few weeks will be the hardest. This is usually the case when starting any new workout regimen. Between settling into a new routine and sore, achy muscles, you may feel like you’re not improving. Be patient. Running does get easier over time. The physiological changes that need to occur within your body to make running feel more comfortable typically take four to six weeks. So don’t give up before that.
Should You Use a Run-Walk Method?
If you’ve never run before, I strongly recommend using a run-walk method. Even if you have done some running, the run-walk is a highly effective way of allowing beginner runners to go farther than if they tried to run straight without stopping, and in some cases, it can be faster. It also makes running longer mentally easier because it breaks it into smaller intervals.
Start with a one-minute run and a one-minute walk ratio. Try adding one minute to the run as you get fitter but keep the one-minute walk. Once you get to a five-minute run and a minute walk try reducing the walk by 30 seconds until you can run straight through without walking.
It’s also a good idea to mix up and vary your run-walk ratio depending on the length of the run. For example, for shorter runs try using a shorter walk interval, and for longer runs use a one-minute walk.
Example Run-Walk Progression:
- 1-minute run / 1-minute walk
- 2-minute run / 1-minute walk
- 3-minute run / 1-minute walk
- 4-minute run / 1-minute walk
- 5-minute run / 1-minute walk
- 3-minute run / 30-second walk
- 4-minute run / 30-second walk
- 5-minute run / 30-second walk
Rules of Running for Beginners
Before you start the 5K plan, there are a few rules of running to know that will help you through. I’ve developed these rules over my 25 years as a runner and coach. They apply to all runners, not just beginners. If you follow these, you’ll increase your likelihood of a successful, enjoyable, and injury-free training cycle.
Rule 1: Seek repetition, not perfection
In all my years of coaching runners, I’ve never had a runner follow a training plan 100%. It doesn’t happen at the professional level and certainly not at the recreational level. Give yourself some leeway. You’ll be in good shape if you can get 90% to 95% of the training plan complete. Repeat this 90% to 95% adherence week after week, month after month, and your fitness will improve.
Rule 2: Something is better than nothing
Some days you’ll be flat-out tired, unmotivated, or just dislike running. The planned workout may seem like an enormous undertaking. That’s fine, and you may very well have a valid reason. When these days happen, it’s essential to do something. Anything. Even if just a fraction of what’s planned, that’s better than nothing.
Rule 3: Bad days are part of the process
I promise you this: Some runs will just feel awful. You’ll feel like you’re not making progress. Every runner has these days, and these are the runs you are most likely to dwell on. A good rule of thumb is out of ten runs, five will be average, three will be awful, and two will be great. As long as you are close to this ratio, it’s just part of the process.
Rule 4: When in doubt, take a day off
Unfortunately, injuries are a part of running and I’ve never met a runner who pushes themself and has not gotten injured at some point in their career. At the same time, most running injuries are preventable if you pay attention to your body’s cues. If something feels off or there is pain present, it’s far better to rest that day, let it calm down, and live to run another day.
The Couch to 5K Runners Program
This plan is designed for beginner runners who want to complete their first 5K or someone who may have run a 5K in the past but has since gotten away from running. The plan calls for three cardio days of either a run-walk or cross-training, two strength-training sessions, and two complete rest days per week. Cross-training should be something low impact such as biking, elliptical, or swimming.
Every run starts with a brisk walk to help you warm up, however, I strongly recommend doing a prerun dynamic stretching routine before your warm-up walk to increase your range of motion. After the brisk warm-up walk, you’ll start your run-walk. Use whatever run-walk ratio you are comfortable with. If you find you’re able to handle more running, instead of doing a walk cooldown you can continue to run for that allotted time. Adding a post-workout cool-down routine can help aid in recovery.
If you miss one to three days of training, just pick up the plan as scheduled. If you miss three to seven days pick up the plan as is, but reduce the volume by 25% for one week, then continue as scheduled. If you miss one week or more, I suggest going back on the plan as many weeks as you missed and finding a new goal 5K that would correspond with that ending date.
Along with running, I’ve included a full-body strength-training program. It starts with two days a week and builds to four times per week. Strength training is essential for runners, especially beginners, because it reduces the chances of injury by strengthening your muscles and connective tissues. It can also increase your running efficiency, making you a more powerful, faster runner. It’s essential to note strength training is only effective when it’s done consistently.
Download the PDF plan and you’ll find links to suggested workouts for each strength-training day. This includes two glute and stability workouts, a full-body routine, a workout for abs, and another for arms.
5K Training Tips for Beginners
Get the right shoes
Before you start, invest in a quality pair of running shoes. Most of the athletic sneakers on the market are not designed for running and can increase your chance of injury. Check out our list of the best running shoes if you need a place to start. Your local running store can also help you pick the right pair.
Train your mind
Running is uncomfortable, even when walking is involved. I’ve been running for over 25 years and on some runs I just want to flat out quit. To help deal with the uncomfortable feeling, it helps to develop a personal mantra and mental tactics.
Ignore your stats
Don’t worry about your specific pace and definitely don’t compare it to others. The beautiful thing about training is as you get fitter, your running pace will naturally get faster. You don’t have to push yourself over the edge on every run to get faster. Physiological changes that make you faster still take place at easy paces.
Learn to pace yourself
You don’t have to pay attention to (or push) exact numbers, but you do want to pace yourself, which simply means making the first part of your run slower than your last part. This can take some practice—it’s common to go out too fast—so keep trying out what pace works for you. Start even slower than you think you need to and that might start you off on the right foot.
Recognize aches versus injuries
Soreness and pain can sometimes feel the same. Telling them apart is key for beginner runners. Soreness will peak around 36 hours after the exercise and then start to subside. Generally, the soreness will decrease or go away with light exercise.
Know it’ll be difficult at times
That short of breath feeling you get when running is totally normal. When it feels like you’re gasping for air, that’s an indication you’ve reached your VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can intake and consume. As you run more, the pace at which you reach VO2 max will get faster.
Be sure to stay hydrated, especially during the summer months. Aim to consume ½ your body weight in ounces of water every day, plus 0.1 to 0.18 ounces per pound of body weight per hour of exercise.
4 Race-Day Tips to Help You Crush Your 5K
1. Check out the course map before the race
Most race websites will include a course map along with an elevation profile. Take note of how hilly it is and where those hills fall within the distance. If you have time to drive the course before race day, do it. There’s nothing like seeing the course and all its nuances firsthand.
2. Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the race
For larger races, aim for 45 minutes or more. This gives you enough time to pick up your bib, go to the bathroom, and get the lay of the land before lining up at the starting line or corral.
3. If this is your first race, start toward the back
This will prevent you from getting carried away with the pack and going out too fast for your first mile. Runners typically line up at the start based on the estimated finish time.
4. Break the race down into smaller chunks mentally
For a 5K, think three one-mile intervals with a little extra at the end. Mentally focus on only one mile at a time.
Cory Smith is a running coach and journalist specializing in running and fitness-related content and gear reviews. He is the founder of Run Your Personal Best, an online running coaching business that has helped hundreds of runners achieve personal bests in distances ranging from 800 meters to 100 miles. Cory holds a USA Track & Field Level 1 and 2 Endurance Certification and was the former Head Cross Country/Track Coach at Penn State Brandywine. Over his running career, Cory has held three Maryland state records, was a two-time National Championship qualifier while at Villanova University, and holds personal bests of 4:03 in the mile and an 8:05 in the 3K.