How to Prepare for Your First 5K

From training and gear to fueling and prepping mentally, an expert coach explains everything you need to know

Flickr/perspective, Licensed under Creative Commons

So, you’re ready to run your first 5k.

The task ahead might feel daunting at first, but once you get into a good running groove your confidence will steadily begin to rise and crossing that finish line won’t seem so out of reach.

Of course, there are a few things you’ll need to do if you want to prepare properly.

Below Marty Beene, a Level 2 USA Track & Field (USATF) certified coach and creator of Be the Runner, a personalized running coach and personal training service, outlines four important steps you should take before setting out to conquer your first 5k.

Beene has been a competitive runner for over 35 years, and has been nationally ranked in outdoor age group track for the past three years. He also recently finished coaching beginner runners for both 5k and half marathon races as part of a corporate wellness program.

“For many of them, it was their first race ever,” he said. “So these kinds of tips are fresh in my mind.”

Here’s what he recommends.

1. Pre-training Preparation
Beene says: It’s important to have proper footwear. This can vary significantly, so the best option is to visit a specialty running shoe shop that has people who truly know running and running shoes.

Finding comfortable clothes is important, too (especially for women to have a properly fitted sports bra), and is usually a personal choice—it's likely that the running shoe shop staff can help with this.

Another key component of preparation is learning proper running form. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will accidentally have great form, but just knowing some of the basics will help new runners get off on the right foot.

Running with poor form is inefficient and will make it harder than it has to be. It may even lead to injuries. Look for a local running form clinic or find a nearby running coach (ask at the shoe shop) who can spend a session or two with you to show you the ropes. I tell my clients that my goal for them is to finish their race smiling.

2. Training
Beene says: If you currently don’t run at all, each training session should be for about 35 to 40 minutes, not including a warmup with dynamic "stretches" and a cool-down with static stretches. The 35 to 40-minute amount is approximately how long it will take a beginner to run a 5k—it's right around 12 minutes per mile.

The first phase should be walking continuously (and briskly, not the "teenager” walk!) three or four times per week. Then, the walking can gradually be replaced by jogging. When jogging is introduced, it should be by replacing a minute of walking with jogging about every five minutes. So, this person would walk five minutes, then jog one minute six times, for a total of 36 minutes.

Each successive week, another minute (or two, depending on how the jogging feels) of walking can become jogging. Eventually, the goal is to be comfortable jogging for about 17 or 18 minutes, walking one minute, then jogging for about 17 or 18 more minutes. That will likely be the pattern during the actual 5k race, assuming there is a water stop in the middle, where our intrepid 5k-er will sip some water while walking briefly.

3. Fueling
Beene says:
It’s important to learn how to fuel your body correctly, and that includes hydration. For a 5k, there is nothing special you should be eating, other than an overall healthy diet. If you stay away from fast food and excessive fats and sugars in general, and emphasize fresh vegetables and fruit, that will likely be enough.

Hydration is of utmost importance, however. For proper hydration, you don't have to drown yourself. As long as you drink water consistently throughout each day, you will probably be sufficiently hydrated to walk, jog or run for 35 minutes. To test whether you are drinking enough water, check your urine color. If it's pale yellow to clear, you are doing fine. If it's medium to dark yellow, you are not drinking enough. Keep in mind that you can use each workout to practice what foods and amount of water will work during your actual 5k.

I neglected to use workouts to practice this, so it took me over 25 years to discover my own perfect pre-race meal (English muffin with peanut butter and banana) and hydration routine, but now I know exactly what to do and when to do it.

4. Nerves
Beene says: Addressing nerves is part of preparing for your first 5k. Even though it is unlikely you will set a world record or win the race, you will probably feel nervous. This is normal, and it indicates that you care about succeeding because of all of the training you have done. Know that those nerves will go away as soon as the race starts, and—most importantly—remember to look around you and enjoy the experience: don't forget to have fun!


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