In this episode, we share our top tips to help you prepare for your first 5k. We talk about the gear, training plans, developing a runner's mindset and expectations for you and your race.
If you're not a beginner, I encourage you to check out this episode because it contains a lot of running tips and some of these things can apply to you as well.
So we're going to start with what to do before you get started.
10 Tips for Running Your First 5k
Prepare Gear for 5K
The next item to check off your list before you get started is some gear, and with a 5K, you really don't need to go crazy. You're still fine to wear a cotton t-shirt, but you do want to get fitted for a good pair of shoes because the better your shoes fit, the more comfortable you are, the more you're going to want to keep doing it.
If you're uncomfortable, if it hurts, if you've got bad old lawn mowing shoes that are broken down and not comfortable, you're not going to want to keep doing it. If you want to go get some tech gear, Old Navy Target has some pretty good quality, but also pretty cheap gear. If you're looking for some tech clothes, that's something that I would encourage you to do.
So start with your check-up, get some good shoes, and maybe a water bottle, which might be nice on warm days.
Set the Right Expectations
Another thing I want to talk about is setting expectations and both in the expectations of training, but also expectations with yourself. So one of the most common things I think is that a new runner compares himself with others. It's hard not to feel like you're running too slow or you're not progressing or you're just not in the same shape. And it's very easy to develop what I call the “new runner complex”.
When I first started running, I knew nothing about running, and I went out in the evenings when it was dark because I didn't want anybody to see me run, and mainly because that's when my kids went to sleep and it was dark anyway. But there was an aspect of it where I didn't feel like a runner for a long time.
Also, I've heard so many times runners say “Oh, I'm slow, I'm just getting started”, “I'm slow or I can't run as far”, and that's completely normal. It's completely something that you'll have to just set aside because that kind of thought process can actually hurt you in a sense that it can force you to do stuff that you're not ready to do yet. So it can force you to run a little faster than you're ready for it and run a little further or run more often than what you need.
When you're starting out, speed is not your priority. You need to focus first on being able to cover the distance and being able to run comfortably. You're not going to run comfortably for the first six months. It takes about somewhere in that four to six months range before you start to kind of get your heart and lungs working together with your legs and you'll make progress and make a movement.
A lot of people just start off too fast. When I was coaching brand new 5K runners, I noticed most of the 5K runners were running fast because they felt they needed to run faster because they saw a lot of the more experienced runners around them. Then they would get frustrated because they couldn't keep up and they couldn't run the distances that the other runners were doing. And the part was that the other runners were just farther along in their fitness journey. So, when you're first starting out, it may take up to six months, before you really start to enjoy running.
Don’t just go straight away for a marathon. Start off slowly, increase distance gradually, and only then go after 5K. This is how it works, otherwise you may fail, get frustrated or even get an injury.
Set expectations as if you haven't been eating healthy, you haven't been exercising and you haven't done it for a long time, it's going to take you longer than somebody who has a pretty active lifestyle and has been hiking and playing tennis or playing some sort of sport or riding a bike or chasing kids around the yard or whatever it is. If you haven't been exercising for a long time, just give yourself a little bit of extra time and you will get there.
Alternate Running with Walking
Don't be ashamed to take some walk breaks, give yourself a break to just catch your breath, give your legs a minute, and then just try again. I think the biggest goal here is no matter how many times you have to start over, don't give up because the goal is really getting distance, not so much time, because once you get the distance, the times will improve.
I also noticed that people who’re just trying to do too much, run too fast, without taking the breaks, usually give up too fast because they get that whole suck factor of running.
So slow down, take more walk breaks. In fact, you could benefit by starting and doing two, three, four months of walking first and then slowly start to add running in.
And that's certainly a great way you can actually build endurance and build quite a bit of good cardiovascular health just through walking briskly.
Choose the Right Training Plans
A lot of training plans will say go out and run two miles or go out and run a mile, run three miles, whatever, and in the beginning, you're probably not going to be able to do that. So other training plans will have you run for a certain amount of duration and then take back breaks. So maybe it's run a minute, walk a minute or run two minutes.
If you're starting out, you could probably get through that in 20, 25, 30 minutes. If you're going out three times a week, I would rather have you out there for an hour or 45 minutes, but then do more walking so that you're moving more and you're running less.
If you just go out and say, “I'm going to run a mile today” and that mile takes you 15 minutes, you only get 15 minutes of exercise. If you want to optimize your cardiovascular system, go out for 30 minutes or 35, 40, 45 minutes, whatever you can fit in, and then just balance it with the amount of walking. So you still only do maybe a minute or two of running in a minute or two of walking.
But then after you hit your 30, 35 minutes, then just spend the rest 15 minutes just walking. I think it just gives you a little more volume in the training. So speaking of training plans, let's talk about a popular one. Couch To 5K is a very popular brand type of training plan that you can download as an app on your phone.
You can follow that, certainly. And it's designed to take you from somebody who's never run before up to 5K distance. We have another one that we actually give away for free on the website. It's our Get Fit for 5K and this approach is a little different. This one is more based on leveling up.
So there are somewhere between 10 and 12 levels. The basic idea is that you start at level one and if level one is easy, then you proceed to level two and then you stay at level two until level two becomes easy and then you move to three. And it is a walk-run type of plan and it's three to four days a week depending on how often you're available to train. By following this plan, you can have a rest day in between any day that you're running.
Download Apps like MapMyRun or Runkeeper
Check out some good apps for runners.
MapMyRun can help you map out your route. If you're just looking to figure out a rough estimate of distance, use RunKeeper. It can help track your miles and show your weekly monthly and yearly total.
You can also set these apps up to do intervals. The app will tell you when to stop and when to run, so you don't have to watch your time constantly.
Find an Accountability Partner
One other thing I noticed about coaching 5K runners in my past is a high number of people who start the running program and then drop out.
That’s why when you start running, it is crucial to put effort and nurture a habit of exercise. Getting in the habit of exercise takes multiple times before something becomes a habit. So set that time aside on your calendar and even if you don't feel like getting out running, get out and run. If you don't feel like running, just get out and walk.
In order to make running a habit, it’s good to start running with a friend or group of friends or join a running club. Make sure you find a buddy who is going to take long breaks with you. Don't go find someone who's like, “Yeah, I'm going to run this whole thing”, if you know you can't run that far don't pair up with that person. You're going to hold them back, they're going to push you too hard at the beginning, and it's just not going to be a good match for either of you.
And then another option is if you're somebody who needs help with accountability, you may reach out to a running coach or even somebody that, you know, to help keep you accountable.
Don't Get Overwhelmed by the Amount of Information
So the other biggest piece of advice I would give to somebody starting out who is wanting to run their first 5K is don't get overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. If you go back and listen to the last 80 episodes of this podcast, you're just going to see tons and tons and tons of information. You're going to see tons of books out there. You're going to see tons of articles. Everybody is going to be telling you, your friends are going to be telling you to do stuff.
BUT first six months, all you need to do to get better is just literally go out the door and go for a run. Just move. And as long as you're not doing it too much and as long as you're putting in rest days because rest days are just as important as your running days, you're going to improve. And that's the cool part about running, especially as a beginner, is that you don't need to do all these crazy things that you'll hear runners talk about. All you need to do is move.
Sometimes newer runners or even experienced runners may get so overwhelmed with the amount of information out there. We get overwhelmed by it and we're not sure what to do at that point, and I think that that's the number one thing is just to get out the door, and go for a run. Your body will tell you when you're running too fast because it's going to slow you down and it's going to tell you when you're going to slow because you can probably go faster.
And I think we overcomplicate things, even experienced runners overcomplicate things, but if you go out and get a good pair of running shoes and you know you're wearing comfortable clothes and you go out the door and you go for a run, I think that's really all you need to know for the first six months and then.
Choose the Right Race for Your First 5K
So if you have a 5K and three months, three months is probably enough time. There's time that it takes to complete it. And if you get to 5K and you can't run the whole thing, don't worry about it because there are people who walk the entire 5K and they don't run at all. So if you have to walk and run a 5K, that's completely normal. There are people at every single race who are doing some sort of walk-run, so you won't stick out either.
I would say choose a race appropriate to your level as well. So if you're looking to have a good time and you're looking to do more walking than not, some of these races can be competitive. And that's not going to be the most fun environment for you.
So look for a race that has a decent end time or course limit. And a lot of these races, like charity races, will take place like in a park. It's usually not an issue because they're using trails. They're using side roads and they're not closing off streets. Or if you're going to try something like a fun run, like the Color Run, people have strollers, they bring their little kids. And so it's definitely a slower race. But you're going to have a lot of fun with it, too. So depending on what you're looking for, find a race appropriate to that.
And I like selecting races for beginners that have good crowds, good size crowds.
So here is the situation:
You’re running a 5K with 50 people. Let's say out of 50 people, 40 of them are runners who are running the whole thing and at various speeds. If you haven't developed the speed yet, and there are only five of you who are at the same level of run or walk, you may feel a little uncomfortable, even though it really doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. You may feel like you're a little bit alone out on the trail.
If you’re a new runner, I can recommend you the Hot Chocolate Run, Turkey Trot around Thanksgiving Day.
So, it's not the end of the world if you don’t pick the appropriate race, it's just it's more of an experience. If it's your first 5K, sometimes having a nice or well planned bigger race gives you that race experience that can really get you hooked.
I had a very competitive background in sports and in the military. I was always taught to go as hard as I can. I had trained for 6 months really hard. I'd never been to a race, I only observed the marathon once in the past. So I lined up with the 4000 people in. It was all downhill the first mile and I just had this self competitive cockiness thinking to run as hard as I can. So I ran downhill the first mile in about 7 minutes and 15 seconds, faster than I've ever run.
But when we went down the hill, turned to the left to the canyon road, it hit me that I had been running way too fast. So, the next 3.5 miles was absolute misery. Everyone, including the Banana costume guy, was passing me. The next 3 miles, I was just trying to catch up with the kid. Somehow I managed to just chug up that hill and finish the race.
They were handing out pumpkin pies but I had no appetite and I was too tired to even walk. I got my medal, I went over and got in my car. That day I'd caught a running bug and 2 days later I signed up for the Capital City Half Marathon.
Like I said that was the kind of race experience that can get you motivated. If you put that race on your calendar every 3 months, it will keep you motivated because you don't want to lose fitness.
Line up in the Appropriate Corral
You want to make sure that you line up in the appropriate corral based on your estimated finish time or your pace. You don't want to line up in the front as you might get run over unless you're blazingly fast. For the first couple of races if you're not really sure, line up in the back.
Your race doesn't start until you cross the starting line. Most of the races are chip-timed which means that tracking of your time starts when you cross rubber mats. So there's really no need to feel like you need to get up in the front unless of course, you're really really fast.
You certainly don't want to slow other people down or get run over. Just like when you're running you don't want to get slowed down or your running impacted because of slower people in the front.
It typically goes from fast to slow and that helps get people out of the corrals and out of the start of the race without running over each other.
Sometimes you'll see a group of walkers and they're excited to be there and they have every right to be on the trail on the racecourse. But I think you have to keep in mind the people around you are also there to have great race experience. There's not a lot of space to go around. A lot of times just that fact going around is not only wasting energy, you may cut off another runner and cause an injury.
You'll see people who will at the last minute decide they want to stop and they just take a 90-degree angle to the water.
You may go into the leg cramps and Charlie horses because they have to stop to avoid another runner. So when you do come for water stop you want to make sure that you're looking ahead of time and you're not cutting people off. If there's plenty of tables don't always stop at the first water stop because that's where everybody goes, it’s better to go to the next one.
Attach a Race Bib on the Front of Your Shirt
As a seasoned runner, I always see the newbies put their bibs on their backs. You should always center on the front of your t-shirt. This is how the photographers take your picture and tag you. If you don’t place your race bib properly, you won’t receive an email with a picture.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy and smile for the cameras.
I always recommend running the first race for fun. Don't do what I did on my first race, don’t try to overrun everyone. The first 5K is to have fun and complete the distance. Don't make yourself so miserable because you ran it too hard. Just enjoy, it's going to be the first race you ever do, it's going to be one that you’d like to remember as a nice experience. After that, you can start thinking of ways to improve your running performance.
Additional Running Resources
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