My 8 Tips On Running An Awesome First 5K


Photo by Frerk Meyer

MyFitnessPal posted an article which caught my notice yesterday. It was titled “9 Keys to Rock Your 5k” and was intended to “offer some insight into the process of preparing for your first 5K”. After coaching and helping several runners prepare and complete their first 5km over the last few years, I found myself disagreeing with a lot of what was written. It’s not that they were necessarily bad tips but I believe they are more suited to someone who had run a couple of races and wanted to improve and get quicker. They just don’t seem suitable for someone aiming to complete their first one.

So, for your reading pleasure, here are my alternative tips:

You can run your first 5km in only 7 weeks
The MFP blog suggests that a 12 week training plan with 4 runs a week. For a new runner, that can be quite daunting especially starting from no running background – quarter of a year to run 3 miles? To new runners, that can seem like a massive commitment – that’s a quarter of year! I think a lot of fitness and running magazine plans use 12 weeks because it’s a nice and convenient number divides nicely into 4 week chunks (known as mesocycles in sports periodization terms, with each week being a microcycle).

I know from experience that 3 runs a week for 7 weeks is enough to train and complete your first 5K – that’s the length of my clubs Start-To-Run course and, as of yet, we’ve never had anyone who lined up at the start of the parkrun who wasn’t able to finish it. Even if that seems like not enough time, the Couch-To-5km program is only 9 weeks long and is also 3 runs a week. (The main difference between the two plans is that the 7 week program pushes the progression a bit more than C25K and there are fewer repeated sessions.) Some people might even be able to do it in 6 weeks if they wanted to (see me after class you’re interested). The point is, you don’t need 12 weeks to prepare for your first 5K.

Don’t worry about your pace
Of the new runners I’ve coached, most of them have very little idea how fast it would take them to walk 5km, let alone how fast they might be able to run it. Do you know what? That’s fine. People running their first 5K are generally concerned about completing the distance. That’s their challenge and their goal. What they don’t need is another variable to worry about – like pace. Keeping it simple and having a single goal might make it easier to achieve but that doesn’t mean less rewarding. Add in a second variable, like a target time and suddenly, you double the potential for not succeeding because, sure, you might complete the 5km but if you’re a minute slower than you hoped, you’re probably going to end up feeling disappointed. That’s not how you want to feel after your first 5K is it?

Talk while you run
At the beginning of clubs Start-To-Run courses, we often ask people why they want to do the course and about any previous experience they have (not that any is required, of course.) A couple of people on every course will tell us that they tried doing Couch-To-5km by themselves but gave up because they found it too hard and were getting out of breath. So why, oh why, oh why would you tell a new runner increase the intensity of your runs when they’re getting ready for their first 5K? You don’t need to run so fast that you’re struggling to breath. Slow it down a little. A good guide is to run at a pace that you feel you could run and still carry on a conversation. (You don’t have to actually talk while you run, by the way, especially if you’re by yourself.) Which leads me to a new and exciting extra tip:

Run with a friend
For a lot of people, running on your own can be, well, lonely. There are many potential benefits to running with somebody else or even in a group. Firstly, you can talk while you run which helps with the previous point. Secondly, you give yourself some incentive to get out there when you don’t feel like it because you don’t want to let down your running partners. Thirdly, you’re in it together, encouraging each other and sharing the experience. (But if you’re determined to run a 5k, don’t let not being able to find a like minded person be an excuse not to run!)

Warm-up (and Cool-down) right
This is a point I can’t argue with, except that I’ve already suggested not doing intense track sessions this early in your running career so my reasoning is a little different. Warming up and cooling-down is a good practice to get into (many runners don’t bother). The C25K plan suggests walking briskly for 5 minutes before starting to run and this is fine. The idea of the warm up is to get the heart rate up, the muscles warm and the joints lubricated and walking will do all that. Other aerobic exercises can be included too – star jumps, skipping, squats, lunges… any dynamic movement. But not static stretching – save that for the cool down and do it after you’ve gone for a run to keep the muscles supple and improve and develop your flexibility.

Eat normally
It’s true that you probably don’t want to eat just before going out for a run and it’s also true that people need a different amount of time to leave between eating and running and only you know that. Things you don’t have to worry about, though, are carb-loading, eating before the race, taking energy gels or taking a drink with you on the run. (That’s not say you shouldn’t if you want to but if it’s not something you need to worry about necessarily.) So just carry on eating normally.

Race your own race
The MFP blog suggests not trying anything new, kit wise, on the day of the race and this is sensible advice. It won’t be a tragedy if you do, of course, but try to avoid it. Similarly, don’t get caught up in the excitement at the start of the race. Everyone will go off too quickly and you will do, but be aware of this and don’t worry about slowing down. (You might surprise yourself and catch up with some of the people when they start to struggle later!) Don’t worry about “digging deep” though – I mean, you can if you want to but it doesn’t matter. You don’t get judged on the amount of energy you have at the end of a race.

Seal it with a K.I.S.S
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: keep it simple. If you’re worrying about something other than being able to complete that 5km, then it might be making your training and running too complicated. Try to not worry about it or forget about it entirely. It probably doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you miss a training run. It doesn’t even matter if you’re able to run the whole distance without walking – don’t worry about it! If you need to walk, you need to walk. Anything can happen on the day but the goal is to get over that finish line and and complete your first 5K.

So there we are, 8 TrailDragon tips for an awesome first 5K; one for each new runner in the last Start-To-Run group we coached, pictured below (with helpers) with smiles on their faces just after completing their first parkrun on only 7 weeks of training.