Ask The Expert

How To Run Your First 5K (6 Experts Reveal Their Top Tips)

We asked six running experts to give us their top tips for preparing for and running your first 5K. Here's what they said

How To Run Your First 5K
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Running your first 5K can feel like a daunting prospect.

Whether you’re just starting out or are preparing for a race, there are lots of things to bear in mind.

We asked six running experts to give us their top tips for preparing for and running your first 5K. Here’s what they said.

How long does it take to train for your first 5K?

Alex Harrison, Certified USATF Coach: “It can probably be done in eight to 12 weeks, but if you’re serious about doing it safely, 16 weeks is probably better, for non-runners.

“For folks with a bit more running experience, prepping for a 5K in 16 weeks offers sufficient time to increase fitness to the point where they might be able to push for a PR on race day.”

Dave Parsons, Certified Running Coach: “This will vary by person depending on their fitness level when they first begin to train and also their race goals for the 5K.”

Amanda Brooks, Author Of Run To The Finish: “Almost anyone can use a run-walk program to get to the 5K finish line feeling strong with 12 to 16 weeks.

“That’s enough time to build in a slow and steady way to prevent injuries.”

Ben Pavlov, Certified Personal Trainer: “It depends on your starting point, but six weeks is enough time for most people to successfully train for their first 5K.”

Christine Parizo, Rev02lution Running Certified Coach: “The short answer to how long it takes to train for your first 5K is that it depends.

“If you’re just starting out running and can’t run for more than a couple of minutes at a time, it could take 12 weeks if you want to run the whole race without walk breaks.

“If you already can run a mile, I would recommend nine weeks of training.”

Karina Krepp, Certified Running Coach and Personal Trainer: From couch to 5K, I like a three-month training cycle.

“That’s enough time to allow the muscle tissue to grow accustomed to the load, the cardiovascular system to expand and gain efficiency, and the joints to stabilize the habit.

“Even if you’re an elite swimmer, the loads and taxes needed for running take time to build up safely.”

What are some of the workouts and training programmes that a beginner should start out with?

Alex Harrison: “First and foremost is simply building impact tolerance and work capacity in newer runners.

“This is especially true for those who are interested in weight loss at the same time.

“Injury risk is high for heavier and newer runners because their tissues just aren’t accustomed to the pounding that happens with even the best running technique.

“Starting with run-walk workouts is probably wise and the safest possible way to build impact tolerance and work capacity, without doing so while muscles are deeply fatigued.

“If you don’t take breaks to walk during your initial running workouts, at least for the first four to five weeks, your muscles and connective tissues are likely to experience significant fatigue and when fatigue is present, injury risk is elevated. It’s not worth the risk. Initially, the pace of running almost doesn’t matter at all.”

Dave Parsons: “For someone going from not running at all, it can be very helpful to do run-walk intervals in training and possibly even on race day.

“These intervals could be distance or time increments. For someone with a higher fitness level, speed workouts can be included as well.”

Amanda Brooks: “One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is feeling like they must run everything or it doesn’t count.

“Walking is a key tool in improving our endurance. Learning how to start with run-walk intervals makes the training less daunting and exhausting.”

Ben Pavlov: “A beginner should begin by focusing on interval training and start by running for 60 seconds followed by walking for 60 seconds for 10 repetitions.

“This can be tailored to their level of cardiorespiratory fitness.”

Christine Parizo: “If running is completely new to you, I recommend using the ‘Couch to 5K’ program. It’s a tried and true method of going from zero (or minimal) running to a full 5K.

“If you can already run about a mile, then I’d recommend doing longer intervals of running and walking until you build up to 30 solid minutes of running.

“Once you can do that, one day a week of intervals, one day of a “tempo” run (where you run harder than normal but aren’t going all out), and a longer run building up to four to five miles will help build your endurance and strength.

“The 5K is a relatively short race, so you don’t need a lot of long runs.”

Man Running

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Karina Krepp: “If you are beginning a running habit, start in the weight room, not on the treadmill.

“First we must stabilize the joints before we ask for a repeated action in the same plane of movement. Start with bodyweight chair squats, step ups and lunges.

“The key is to move slowly in these shapes to encourage the increased demand for joint stability.

“Follow a classic 5K program but remember what isn’t written on the paper is also vital: stretch it out. Warm up and start with a stretch before you run.

“Running in alignment benefits the whole system – from how we breathe to how we land and push off.”

What are some diet and nutrition tips to consider?

Alex Harrison: “No special diet approach is needed when prepping for your first 5K. Generally eating a high protein diet, with moderate amounts of healthy fats and carbs, is a great idea.

“Choosing whole foods is great, but protein supplements are often a useful tool for time-pressed newer runners, just to make sure they’re approaching at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

“Carb timing matters a little bit too. Generally, consuming carbs around the time of the running workout is a great idea. Eat roughly two hours before training.

“If your meal is simpler in nature (easily digested carbs) around 90 to 120 minutes pre-training is ideal.

“If it’s heavier (higher fat, higher carbs, or just all around larger) then maybe two to three hours pre-training will be a bit easier on your gut while you’re out there running.

“Always consume a meal containing protein and carbs post-run, ideally immediately afterwards. Never wait more than an hour afterwards to get your post-workout meal.

“This is less about the “anabolic window” (which has been largely discredited even in bodybuilding scientific literature) and more about preventing Hypoglycemia.”

Dave Parsons: “Hydration is important throughout training and on race day.

“Learning to eat as a fuelling mechanism and not just eating to eat will also improve your performance.”

Amanda Brooks: “A 5K is actually short enough that runners don’t need to carb-load or do anything unusual for the mileage.

“Of course, everyone is going to perform better if they’ve been focusing on foods that make them feel good like fruits, veggies and quality proteins.”

Ben Pavlov: “A healthy balanced diet is essential when training for a 5K.

“Your body has adequate glycogen stores so you won’t need to carb load before the race.

“That being said, it is still recommended to consume a light 300 calorie meal low in fat and high in carbohydrates before the race.”

Christine Parizo: “During training, make sure you’re getting enough of a carb/protein/healthy fat balance.

“Some people may want to train for a 5K as part of a weight-loss program, so they’ll want to make sure they’re still eating enough to support their runs while being in a calorie deficit.

“Ideally, most foods will come from whole food sources, like lean meats, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and plant-based fats like avocados, nut butter, and olive oil.

“Leading up to race day, there’s no need to carb load. Just follow the same nutrition plan and make sure you’re hydrating.”

Karina Krepp: “Keep your foods whole and your quality high. You have changed the demand on the system, so make the fuel the best quality.

“Processed food in a box doesn’t transfer vital energy and nutrition in the same way as fresh foods do. I tell my athletes: if it doesn’t go bad, don’t eat it.”

Woman Running

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

What are your top tips for preparing for the race day itself?

Alex Harrison: “Do everything exactly the same as you did in training. Eat the same, run the same, wear the same clothes, and you’ll be just fine.

“If you’ve trained reasonably consistently leading into your 5K, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Dave Parsons: “Race day is really the reward for the training that has been done.

“Most runners train by themselves and race day can be filled with excitement with the energy of all the runners and spectators.

“You don’t want to do anything different on race day than you did during training. Don’t wear new clothes or shoes. Eat what you’ve eaten during training.

“Don’t go out too fast at the start as you’ll want to pace yourself. HAVE FUN! If it’s your first 5K, you are guaranteed to have a PR just by finishing!”

Amanda Brooks: “For most beginners, race day is about letting go of expectations and fears.

“No matter what your finishing time is, you’ve achieved something you just months ago you wouldn’t have been able to.

“Remaining focused on that positive can help to reduce a lot of anxiety and remember that this is all supposed to be fun.”

Ben Pavlov: “On race day it’s advised to complete a light stretching routine before the race especially your hip flexors and calf muscles to reduce tightness.

“This should be followed by a 10-15 minute warm-up jog to help warm up your body, increase energy utilization, and decrease the risk of injury.”

Christine Parizo: “The biggest tip is to get plenty of rest the two nights before the race.

“The night before, lay out your clothes and bib (if you’ve already picked it up), visualize yourself crossing the finish line triumphantly, and remember that running a 5K is a big accomplishment.

“Don’t eat anything unfamiliar or that could upset your stomach, like cruciferous vegetables, the day before.”

Karina Krepp: “Sleep is the most important factor to achieving our goals.

“Make the week before your race all about recovery. Good sleep, low stress, great food and hydration are the recipe for success.

“You’re done with the work, you can’t cram for this physical test. Rest and recover so you can toe the line and run against your best self.”

Is there anything else to bear in mind?

Alex Harrison: “Don’t go out too fast! Pacing is key.

“It’s so much better to start off the first quarter mile of your 5K at a pace 30-60 seconds per mile slower than your race finish pace will be, than it is to start off that much faster.

“You will absolutely pay that pace difference back, plus more, if you start off faster than you should.”

Christine Parizo: “Remember that you’re there to have fun! Line up at the start with people who run at your pace. Enjoy the experience.”

Karina Krepp: “Remember we are always running toward our best potential.

“The time on the clock is of no consequence. As Amby Burfoot said: ‘There is no failure in running, or in life, as long as you keep moving.'”

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