Here’s How To Prepare For A 5k: A Beginner’s Guide

Our running coach guides you through 5k training and race day prep.

As a certified running coach, it is certainly exciting to work with experienced runners who are trying to accomplish big fitness goals, but truthfully, one of my favorite groups of athletes to work with is beginner runners who want to start a running routine to train for their first 5k race.

New runners are often intimidated by numerous aspects of running a 5k, from building up the endurance to run 3.1 miles without stopping to establishing consistency and motivation so that they can follow the 5k running program to prepare them for race day.

Then, of course, there can certainly be jitters and anxiety about arriving at the starting line and getting to the finish line when it is your first 5k race.

The good news is that even when you have no prior running experience, it is more than possible to train and finish your first 5k, as long as you follow a good beginner’s 5k training plan and are committed to doing your workouts.

In this beginner’s guide to how to train for a 5k, we will provide you with our expert tips on how to prepare for a 5k and get you to the finish line happy and healthy.

A person tying their running shoe.

What Is A 5k Run?

Before we look at tips for following a training program for a 5k run and the elements that should be included in a beginner’s 5k training schedule, let’s briefly discuss the 5k and other common long-distance running race distances.

New runners who live in the United States may be unfamiliar with the 5k.

The “K“ in the 5k run distance refers to a kilometer, which is a little more than 0.6 of a mile. So, how long is a 5k?

Therefore, a 5k run is just over 3.1 miles.

Even though running 3.1 miles may seem like an incredibly long distance to run without taking walk breaks for beginners, once you start to build up your aerobic endurance and stamina, you will likely find that you eventually want to run even longer distances.

By no means is there any pressure to step up in the race distances or set distance-based fitness goals.

However, once you have established your running routine and have some running experience under your belt you may be keen on someday tackling other long-distance races. Here are some of the other common long-distance running races:

  • 10k: 6.2 miles
  • Half marathon: 13.1 miles
  • Marathon: 26.2 miles
  • Ultramarathon: anything longer than 26.2 miles, such as 50k, 50 miles, and 100 miles!
A person running and smiling.

What Is A Good 5k Training Program For A Beginner?

Oftentimes, the Couch to 5k training plans are the best training programs for beginner runners.

This is because you don’t need to have any prior running experience, and if your current fitness level is relatively poor, you will still be able to follow the training program from day one without needing to modify the intensity of the running workouts.

A couch to 5K training plan assumes that your current fitness level is essentially “untrained “ and that you have been sedentary or “on the couch.“

These types of training schedules take a run/walk approach where you build up your cardiovascular fitness level and musculoskeletal strength by doing intervals of running with walk breaks in between.

Gradually, over time, the frequency and duration of the running or jogging intervals increase, and the frequency and duration of the walking breaks decrease in your training sessions.

A person running and smiling.

What I like about a couch to 5k training plan for beginner runners is that the plans are usually quite a number of weeks in length, so you have a lot of time to prepare for your first race, with plenty of rest days off and cross-training workouts to help reduce the risk of injury.

If you have prior running experience or have been doing other types of cardio exercise, you might be able to take a more aggressive approach to your 5k training program.

It is still important, however, to make sure you have enough time to build up your endurance before you have to stand on the starting line for your first race.

There are so many different types of running workouts and running drills that it can be hard for beginners to understand not only the actual lingo used for running but also the vast range of types of runs you can add to your training plan.

For example, there are basic easy runs where you run at a comfortable pace for a certain number of minutes or miles. 

There are interval workouts where you do repeats on the track of a certain distance with a target pace in mind. 

Fartlek workouts involve interspersing high-intensity interval training type surges into a regular run on the roads, trails, or treadmill.

Tempo runs and intervals at goal race pace help improve your aerobic capacity (VO2 max), and lactate threshold, and get your body used to running at a faster pace without becoming breathless or fatigued as quickly.

A person tying their running shoe.

How To Prepare For A 5k

Here are some training tips for new runners on how to train for a 5k:

#1: Get the Right Running Gear

I recommend going to a local running store to get fitted for proper running shoes that will support your feet and provide ample cushioning for your needs.

You will also need comfortable running clothes.

Look for moisture-wicking fabrics, and consider compression shorts or leggings if you are prone to chafing.

#2: Follow a 5k Training Plan for Beginners

Following a training schedule is imperative to help progress your fitness level while reducing the risk of injury or overtraining1Cardoos, N. (2015). Overtraining Syndrome. Current Sports Medicine Reports14(3), 157–158. https://doi.org/10.1249/jsr.0000000000000145 by doing too much too soon.

A running coach with a whistle and a clipboard.

#3: Work With a Running Coach

New runners often have the misconception that running coaches are only for advanced runners or experienced runners who are running marathons or other long distance races.

However, the reality is that running coaches can be extremely valuable for beginner runners training for their first 5k or runners who have taken many years off and are returning to running.

A running coach can help with your running form, which can make you a more efficient runner and can reduce the risk of injury.

A good running coach will also help provide motivation and create a customized training plan that will help you best reach your running goals while working within the confines of your daily life and needs.

#4: Warm Up and Cool Down

Make sure to do a warm-up and cool down of brisk walking and some dynamic stretches2Behm, D. G., Alizadeh, S., Abdolhamid Daneshjoo, & Konrad, A. (2023). Potential Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Injury Incidence of Athletes: A Narrative Review of Risk Factors. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01847-8 before your run/walk training sessions.

As your fitness level improves, the warm-up and cool down can be an easy jog.

Two people doing the windmill warm up exercise.

#5: Don’t Run Every Day

Rest days are super important for new runners to reduce the risk of injury and excessive muscle soreness.

You can start with running every other day, and then you can run on consecutive days with the third day off as your legs get used to the impact stresses of running.

For example, during the first week of starting your running routine, instead of running every single day, run/jog with walking breaks every other day.

The next week, you can try to increase the duration of the running intervals and decrease the frequency and duration of the walking breaks in between while continuing only to run every other day.

In the third week, you can start running two days in a row with a rest day every third day. 

#6: Don’t Neglect Diet and Sleep

Runners tend to spend a lot of time thinking about or planning their training. 

Between choosing what type of workout you will do, which of your favorite running routes you will take, or what race distance you want to train for next, there are always elements of training that can take some significant time and attention.

However, it’s also important to consider your diet and nutrition when training for a 5k, as well as hydration, sleep, and other elements of keeping your body healthy and facilitating recovery.

You are now a runner, so you should treat your body well.

A well-balanced diet for runners includes plenty of complex carbohydrates because carbs are the preferred fuel source for your muscles during high-intensity exercise.

Lean proteins help repair muscle damage from running and strength training.

Healthy fats also provide energy and help your body absorb certain vitamins and produce hormones.

People doing lunges.

#7: Strength Train 

Runners generally love to run, so the thought of going to the gym and lifting weights or doing at-home strength training workouts is often unappealing. 

However, getting into the habit of strength training 2 to 3 times a week as part of your training program can truly be one of the keys to reducing the risk of injury and hitting the race paces or race goals you set for yourself in terms of your running performance.

Many strength training workout programs place a lot of emphasis on the large muscle groups, like the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, with exercises such as squats, step-ups, lunges, deadlifts, and push-ups

While these types of workouts and strength training exercises should definitely comprise a significant portion of your training program, it is also important to work on strengthening and stabilizing smaller muscle groups to prevent injuries and muscle imbalances.

Bodyweight exercises such as lunges, single-leg balance, glute bridges, clam shells, planks, and single-leg squats are great additions to your strength training program to prevent muscle imbalances, improve running form, and reduce the risk of injury.

People working on on elliptical machines.

#8: Add Cross Training

Running is a fantastic form of cardiovascular exercise, and it can be a great way to decrease your risk of diseases, manage a healthy weight, strengthen your legs and heart, and decrease stress and anxiety, among many other benefits.

However, running is also a high-impact activity—and a repetitive motion at that—so the best marathon training plans usually incorporate low-impact cross-training exercises, which is a great way to mitigate some of the injury risks associated with training for a long-distance running race.

The best cross-training workouts for distance runners include things like indoor or outdoor biking, swimming, deep water running, stair climbing, hiking, the elliptical machine, and rowing.

I often recommend that new runners who have a lot of time during the week to train include cross-training every other day as long as you take at least 1 to 2 rest days per week.

Two people jogging and laughing.

What Should I Know Before My First 5k Race?

Let’s get to those first 5k tips! 

  • Don’t wear anything new for the 5k race. This includes running shoes, running shorts, etc. You should ensure everything fits well and won’t give you blisters, chafing, or hurt your feet while trying to run your race.
  • Don’t eat anything new on race day. Practice your pre-race breakfast on your running days in training to ensure you don’t get cramps, diarrhea, or an upset stomach.
  • Pace yourself. Many beginner runners start out too fast. Hold back and run your race pace. 
  • It’s Ok to Walk. Even if you have been training to run your first 5k race without stopping, if you end up needing to or wanting to take walk breaks (or walk the whole thing!), that is absolutely OK. Many runners will be walking.
  • Try to enjoy your 5k race and soak up the experience. Particularly if it is your first 5k or first race ever, it will be a learning experience. 

Beginners are in a beautiful place of endless possibility: you will only continue to get better and better as your experience level and confidence grow.

For our very own Couch to 5k training plan, check out this next guide:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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