Training For Your First 5K - Managing Expectations & Race Day Strategies

Training for your first 5K, Part 5 – Managing Expectations & Race Day Strategies


It’s finally here – RACE DAY! You’ve worked really hard to get to this point, and this week, we’re going to cover all kinds of strategies to make sure you run your best race and (most importantly) have an awesome time too!

 After all those weeks of training and preparing, it’s completely normal to feel nervous in the days leading up to your 5K (not to mention a bit sleepless the night before). If you’ve never been in a race environment before, it can be a bit overwhelming. But a little knowledge and planning will ensure you get the most fun out of the experience.

The Week Before Race

If you haven’t already, make sure to carefully read all of the information on the race website and in any emails you’ve received. Then read it again. Make sure you’re absolutely clear on the following:

  • Where to pick up your race bib (your number)
  • Where to park
  • When the race starts

Depending on the size of the race, you might need to pick up your bib (often included in a race packet) the day before the race. Smaller races will typically let you do it the morning of, but don’t leave it to chance. Know the race policy and plan accordingly. You might also need to show ID and/or evidence that you’re registered for the race (such as an email receipt) when you pick up your packet.

Find out where you can park on the day of the event, and make sure you leave yourself enough time to get from your car to the start line. Local streets might be closed before and during the race, which can impact your transportation plans. Please don’t leave this to chance, or you might spend your first 5K stewing in a traffic jam!

Pick Up Your Race Packet


Your race packet will have some important stuff in it, so make sure you go through it carefully.

First, your race bib – you’ll pin this onto your shirt before you start, using the safety pins provided in your packet or at the table where you picked it up.

Depending on the size of the race, you might have a timing chip, a device that clips onto your shoe or to the back of your race number and detects the exact time you cross the start and finish mats. In other words, if the gun goes off and it takes you a few minutes to get up to the starting line, it won’t be counted in your official results. Unless the race you’re running is small, or informal, it’s likely that you’ll have a chip of some sort. Make sure to read the instructions in your packet, because sometimes you have to return them at the end of the race.

The rest of your packet will likely consist of a few goodies and samples that sponsors have provided (I love winter events that give you gloves and chapstick!) plus a pile of coupons and flyers for stuff that you’ll probably never use.

You’ll also be picking up your race t-shirt when you get your packet, usually at the next table. Sometimes you’ll need to pull a tab off your race bib to claim your shirt, other times they’ll have you on a list with the size you requested, and sometimes it’s a free-for-all. Either way, don’t forget to pick up your shirt – you’ll want it as a memory of your very first race!


Race Day


Get up a little earlier than you think you need to. Hopefully, you’ve laid out all of your clothes and gear the night before, but just in case you forgot something, it helps to have a time buffer. Believe me – something always comes up. For smaller races, aim to be at the race location at least 30 minutes before the gun goes off. For larger ones, 60 minutes is a good buffer.

The day of your first 5K is not the time to experiment with new equipment, clothing, or food. Stick with what you’ve practiced. Also, unless you want to advertise your status as a brand-new runner, don’t wear the race t-shirt during the race! No matter how cool the shirt is, it’s bad karma to wear it before you’ve actually crossed the finish line.

Don’t forget to bring your race bib and pin it on before you get to the start line! Actually, I usually pin it on my shirt the night before so I don’t forget. That way I can check in the mirror to make sure it’s on straight. Same for your timing chip. Fasten it to your shoe the night before so you don’t have to worry about it at 5 am on race day.

Get there early enough to park, meet your friends, take a few selfies, and – I cannot stress this enough – stand in line for the Port-a-Potty. Make sure your race bib and timing chip are securely attached and head towards the start line. It’s go time!

On Your Mark, Get Set…

Logic dictates that starting at the very front of the pack will ensure your best finish time. But race etiquette is quite the opposite: let the faster, experienced runners go first, so they don’t have to bob and weave to pass you. Unless you know you’ll be running an eight-minute mile or faster, place yourself off to the side or towards the back of the starting pack. Once you’re across the line and are running, you can begin to pass people. Until then, it’s customary for newbies to let the experienced runners take the lead.

If you’re in a large race (say, 500 or more people), plan to shuffle for a little while until the crowd thins out enough to run. Start lines are about 20 feet wide, and it takes a while for that many people to cross over and start running. It’s kind of like when you’re in a huge traffic jam, and even though you can see someone moving way at the front of the line, it’s still another 5 minutes before you can put your own car in gear and go. For really large races, the organizers might even start you in waves to keep things under control.

Run Your Best Race


The most important thing to remember during the race is pacing. It’s tempting to go all-out right away. This is a race, for Pete’s sake – why wouldn’t you go as fast as you can? But keeping your pace in check for the first half of the race ensures you save some energy for that final burst of speed when you cross the finish line. And if you trained with walk/run intervals, stick with those same intervals for at least the first mile. Start a little slower than you think you can maintain for the entire race, then pick up the pace halfway through. Give it all you’ve got in the final half-mile.

While you’re running, people will probably pass you. Be prepared for this and remember that they are running their own race. Comparing yourself to others is asking to feel bad. You’ll always be able to find an unlikely person that is embarrassingly faster than you (like the 72-year old woman in a shiny purple tracksuit that left me in the dust a few years ago). Conversely, you’ll almost always be able to find someone slower than you. Everyone is at a different level, and what you think of as slow might actually be someone else’s personal record.

Just remember: the first and last place finishers still cover the same distance! Keep that in mind on race day and run your best race. You’ll have more fun that way.

And finally, when you can see the finish line in the distance, speed up those legs, get those arms in the air, and SMILE for the photographer! This is your moment!

After You Finish


Keep your legs moving for a few minutes, to allow your body to cool down properly. This is a great time to grab your finisher’s medal and a free banana, as well as stretch those hard-working muscles. If your race used a timing chip, there will most likely be someone near the finish line collecting them. Make sure to turn yours in (or you might be charged a steep fine to replace it).

And of course, don’t forget to post on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – YOU FINISHED YOUR FIRST 5K! Congratulations!

Thanks for sticking with me throughout the past 5 weeks – I hope you learned a ton and are ready to rock your first race. And more importantly, I hope you’ve developed an addiction that will have you participating in more and more events. The running community is supportive, fun, and inspiring, and it will be even more so with you in it.

Until next time, run fabulous!

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About the Author Jill Angie

Jill is a personal trainer, coach, runner, triathlete, blogger and author, who wants to live in a world where everyone is free to feel fit and fabulous at any size. She writes about the joys and challenges of being a curvy runner, and shares her experiences, knowledge and expertise to help her readers embrace their inner athlete. In addition to running, she has an unbridled passion for kettlebells, cupcakes, champagne, fuchsia and murder mysteries (not necessarily in that order).

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