How to Train for Your First 5K

You can run and/or walk to get into shape
for your first 5K.

Are you looking for a way to shed some weight? Do you need a healthy hobby? Is your competitive side yearning for an outlet? Maybe you should consider signing up for a 5K. At just 5 kilometers (3.1 miles), this race is relatively short for a sport whose foremost race is the marathon (26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers). But for those who run 5Ks, it's not about the distance: it's about competing, getting into shape or just having fun.

The 5K has become extremely popular in recent years because of its accessibility. With a little time and determination, almost anyone can train for and finish this race. For people looking to lose weight or get into better shape, a 5K can be an excellent training goal. Several weeks of gradually more intense walking and running can lead not only to the finish line, but to weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, reduced stress, increased energy and even better sleep.

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The 5K can also be a great way to spend leisure time and meet new people. Average, middle-of-the-pack runners often enjoy the fresh air and sunshine afforded by training and racing, as well as the camaraderie they experience when running with friends. Serious athletes also find a lot to love about 5Ks. The race's short length lends itself to intense competition and dramatic finishes, sometimes with just a fraction of a second between first and second place winners.

According to the National Health Interview Survey, 40 percent of Americans do no regular leisure-time physical activity. Training for a 5K is a great way to get active.

Three-point-one miles may seem like a long way to walk, much less run, if you're out of shape. But with an appropriate training plan and realistic goals, you'll dash your way down the home stretch in no time. Read on to discover how to make the transition from couch potato to pavement pounder.

Expectations for Your First 5K

Predicting Your Race Time
Most runners race about 30 seconds per mile faster than they train. This means that if you train at a 10-minute mile, you should be able to finish a 5K in as little as 28:54.

If you've never really been a runner or if it's been decades since your last race, it's important to know exactly what to expect. You might ask: Am I in good enough shape to run a 5K? How hard will I have to train? How fast should I finish the race? The good news is that, since running is an individual sport, the answers to questions like these are really up to you.

Before you can set training and performance goals, make sure you're healthy enough to run a 5K. It's a good idea to consult your doctor before drastically changing your exercise habits, especially if you've ever suffered from conditions like dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, blood clots, joint swelling or hernias. Once you've been given the "all clear," you need to achieve a base level of fitness before beginning a 5K training program. Many of these programs require that you be able to run for 10 minutes. So if you're particularly out of shape, spend a little time exercising before beginning your training in earnest. Most 5K training schedules span five to seven weeks, and involve days with varying amounts of walking, running and rest. If you're able to complete one of these training programs as designed, you'll have no problem finishing your upcoming 5K.

What about the 5K race itself? Though many people worry about running the whole way or finishing at a certain time, experts suggest you shy away from setting such goals for your first race. Simply finishing can be a rewarding outcome for many runners, not to mention the weight loss and healthy body image that results from weeks of training. If nothing else, try to have fun. Then you'll be more likely to race again and maintain a healthy habit in the process.

Ready to get started? Continue to the next page to learn more about training methods.

First Time 5K Training Schedule

Going Digital
A number of companies now offer an iPhone app intended to prepare you for a 5K race. These programs take you through prescribed workouts -- telling you when to walk, run or stop -- all while playing music from your favorite playlist. Some of these apps even allow you to alert friends of your progress via Facebook or Twitter.

No matter how nice your shoes, how comfortable your shorts, or how awesome the songs on your iPod, you have to actually train before running your first 5K. This may seem especially daunting if your body is more used to sitting on the couch watching TV or in an office chair typing reports. Your instinct may be to exercise as hard as possible to compensate for your past inactivity, but in reality, the key is to start slowly and rest often. Training too hard, too fast can cause a discouraging injury that could make you to give up running altogether. Take it easy when you first start exercising and work up to your 5K goal over the course of several weeks. It's also crucial to recognize the importance of rest. Your body needs about 24 hours to recover from an intensive workout.

Many 5K training schedules are available, all of which start with short periods of walking or running that increase each day for several weeks. They also include rest days built in for recovery. A very basic schedule looks like this:


Weekday 1

Weekday 2

Weekday 3


1.5 miles (2.4 km)

1.5 miles

2 miles


2 miles (3.2 km)

2 miles

2.5 miles


2 miles

2.5 miles

3 miles (4.8 km)


2.5 miles (4 km)

2.5 miles

3 miles


2.5 miles

2 miles

3.1 miles (race)

Whether you walk or run these distances depends on your personal goals and how fit you are. If you choose to run, take a relaxed pace so your body can comfortably adjust to the increased exertion. The four days with no specific running distance should be used for rest or light exercise, but don't take too many days off -- you may begin to lose aerobic fitness after just three days of inactivity.

There are ways to increase the benefit and enjoyment of your training period. One way to get a better workout is to crosstrain -- do something besides running, like swimming, cycling, or weightlifting, to work muscles you don't otherwise use.

When you're a beginner, training may be difficult or even boring. Find someone to train with; this will keep you accountable and will fill the miles of running with distraction and conversation.

Tips for First-time 5K Runners

Did You Know?
In 2009, nearly 4 million racers participated in the roughly 8,500 5Ks held across the United States.

Race day represents everything you've been working toward for the last several weeks, so obviously you don't want to make a mistake that could jeopardize your goals or your health. Even though you'll only be racing for about 30 minutes, a number of things can go wrong due to careless preparation, poor strategy or other elements out of your control. If you do your homework beforehand, however, you will have little trouble dealing with anything race day throws at you.

Here are a few things you should do before a race:

Prevent blisters: During a training run, test the pair of socks and shoes you plan to wear during the race. This will help you to avoid blisters, a common and painful problem among new runners.

Eat right: What you consume is critically important to race-day success. You can actually run a 5K with stored energy, so you don't really need to eat that much before you start. Running with too much food in your system can also cause painful side stitches. Try eating small meals the day before a race, and something easily-digested, like a glass of skim milk and a banana, the morning of the race.

Warm up: Performing a proper warm-up routine will help you race better and avoid injuries. Set aside 15 minutes before the race starts to walk, run and stretch, to help acclimate your body to high-intensity activity.

Once the race begins, you'll need to be ready for any problem that may come your way:

Pace yourself: For your first 5K, you won't try to set the world record. So, start at the back of the pack. That way you won't be tricked into starting too fast by those who are trying to win. Ideally, your last mile should be the fastest.

Side stitches: No one's exactly sure what causes these gut pains, but it probably has something to do with strain on your diaphragm. If you experience this condition during the race, slow down to ease this stress and take a series of short, shallow breaths for about a minute. Then breathe deeply. If this doesn't work, stop and bend sideways to stretch the side that hurts.

Inclement weather: It can be difficult to run a 5K on a hot day. If you find yourself in this situation, take a slower pace than you might have otherwise and make sure to drink plenty of fluids. Wet weather can also cause problems if conditions are slippery. Line up in the back of the back to avoid getting caught in the aftermath of an unexpected fall.

Sick stomach: If your stomach feels upset before a race, it may just be butterflies. If the nausea gets worse after you start, you may need to start walking.

For more information about running and training for races, take a look at the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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