Your First 5K

For one brief moment, probably while endorphins were still pumping through your body after a good run, you flirted with the idea of doing a marathon. Then the endorphins disappeared and the reality of training for four months and trying to squeeze in a handful of three- to four-hour-long runs set in. Fair enough. But how about a simple 5K instead?

It’s the perfect distance: 3.1 miles require relatively little build-up, the training doesn’t take over your life, and the race is over fairly quickly. And by logging only three or four runs per week, you can be ready to toe the line of a 5K in just five weeks. Top coach Chris Carmichael (www.trainright.com) encourages all runners to try a 5K. "People run for a variety of reasons, but they get more out of it when they’re working towards something specific," he says. "And a 5K race is an attainable goal for any runner."

Plus, there’s the 'fun factor', says Jeff Galloway, coach and author of Running: Getting Started. "My favourite thing about 5K races is the atmosphere. Almost everyone there is in a good mood. How many other events in your life are like that?"

The five-week plan

In the five weeks leading up to your first 5K, most coaches agree that you need to run three or four days a week. During one of those weekly runs, you should focus on increasing the amount you can run at one time until you build to at least the race distance, or the equivalent amount of time spent running.

"I encourage runners, particularly beginners, to focus on time and effort, rather than becoming obsessed with miles and distance," says GB coach, Nick Anderson (www.fullpotential.co.uk). "Thinking in minutes is more gradual and self-paced and will help to make sure you don’t get injured by doing too much too soon."

Completing the equivalent of the 5K distance in training gives you the strength and confidence you need to finish the race. And if you increase your long run up to six miles (or twice the amount of time it should take you to cover the 5K), you’ll run with even greater strength (or speed, if that’s your thing).

Most of your running during the week should be at a comfortable pace. This is especially true for runners who simply want to finish the race. But since adding some faster training to your schedule is the best way to improve your speed and endurance, even novices should consider doing some quicker running.

"Intervals are not reserved for elites," says Carmichael. "Running three one-mile intervals with recovery in between will do more to increase your sustainable running pace than running three miles at once."

First-time racers can do some faster running one or two days a week, but these sessions don’t have to be regimented. Anderson recommends adapting one session per week to include about 10 minutes of speedwork, made up of two five-minute runs at a faster pace, each framed by five minutes of easy jogging. Once this becomes easy, try one 10-minute interval at threshold pace – this is about 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate, where you can utter a few words but not hold a conversation. Always bookend harder runs with easy warm-up and cool-down jogs.

The big day

The greatest challenge of running a 5K is finding the right pace, says Anderson. Start out too fast and you might struggle to finish. That’s why Galloway recommends that all first-time racers (including veteran runners) get to the back of the pack at the starting line. This prevents an overzealous start and allows you to gradually build up speed, ideally running the final mile the fastest.

But how fast should you expect to run come race day? While Carmichael says the main goal should be to have fun, he tells experienced runners who are new to racing that they can expect to race about 30 seconds per mile faster than training pace. So, runners training at a nine-minute-per-mile pace should finish in around 26:25; those training at a 10-minute-per-mile pace should finish in 29:31; and those training at an 11-minute-per-mile pace should finish in around 32:39.

Galloway has a different way of predicting race times. Every two weeks, his clients run a mile on a track as fast as they can. Then he uses a pace calculator to predict their times for longer distances. In general, he finds that most runners slow down about 33 seconds per mile when they go from a one-mile run to a one-mile average pace in a 5K race.

However, most experts discourage first-timers from shooting for strict time goals. "Make it a race against yourself," says Carmichael, "because it’s your progress that’s most valuable to you." Galloway seconds that. "If you enjoy it, you’ll do it again."

And the chances are next time you’ll run it faster.


FIRST-TIME FIVER?

Run like a road-racing pro by avoiding these three common first-time mistakes...

MISTAKE Too fast, too soon "Most first-time racers go out too fast and are miserable by the second mile," says Anderson. Even veteran runners can get caught up in the race-day enthusiasm and other faster racers.

EASY FIX "Start out at a comfortable pace," says Anderson, "a pace where you’re not killing yourself and can still converse with deep breaths in between sentences. No huffing and puffing." After running the first half of the race in this way you should move up gradually through the gears until you are running hard for the last half-mile. "A strong finish leaves a better taste in your mouth than a great first mile with a cross-eyed finish," says Carmichael.

MISTAKE Too much food RW contributor Jeff Galloway says many first-timers eat too much before a race, particularly the night before. Carmichael agrees. "You don’t need to carbo-load for a 5K," he says. Most people have enough stored energy in their bodies to run a 5K without taking in any additional calories.

EASY FIX "Eat normally before the race," says Anderson. Try small meals the day before. On race day, eat your usual carbohydrate breakfast two to three hours before the start. "You don’t need loads," says Anderson, "the key thing is being hydrated. Drink your usual choice of water or fruit juice, preferably some of both."

MISTAKE Too little warm-up/cool-down Your body needs to warm-up properly before it can run well at the higher intensity required to race a 5K. And a post-race cool-down helps you recover more quickly so that you’ll feel better the day after the race.

EASY FIX Include a 15-minute warm-up before the race, and a 15-minute cool-down after, says Carmichael. For both, mix walking and jogging to help ease into and out of your race pace.


5 WEEKS TO YOUR FIRST 5K

It's training time. New runners who need to build up the distance should follow the Beginner Plan. Regular runners who've never raced a 5K can try the Intermediate Plan

BEGINNER PLAN by Jeff Galloway

Week Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
1 WALK/XT
20 min or day off
RUN
10 min
WALK/XT
20 min or day off
RUN
15 min
WALK/XT
20 min or day off
Rest RUN
2 miles
2 WALK/XT
20 min or day off
RUN
15 min
WALK/XT
20 min or day off
RUN
20 min
WALK/XT
20 min or day off
Rest RUN
2.5 miles
3 WALK/XT
30 min or day off
RUN
20 min
WALK/XT
30 min or day off
RUN
25 min
WALK/XT
30 min or day off
Rest RUN
3 miles
4 WALK/XT
30 min or day off
RUN
25 min
WALK/XT
30 min or day off
RUN
30 min
WALK/XT
30 min or day off
Rest RUN
3.5 miles
5 WALK/XT
30 min or day off
RUN
30 min
WALK/XT
30 min or day off
RUN
30 min
WALK/XT
30 min or day off
Rest 5K RACE

BEGINNER PLAN KEY

WALK/XT You can walk or cross-train (swim, bike, use an elliptical trainer etc.) at a moderate intensity for the stated amount of time, or you can take the day off.
Weekday Runs All weekday runs should be at a steady, comfortable pace.
Weekend Long Run This run is measured in miles, rather than minutes, to ensure that you're steadily increasing the distance you cover each week. Long-run pace should be two or three minutes per mile slower than the pace you can run one mile flat-out. Feel free to take walk breaks.


INTERMEDIATE PLAN by Chris Carmichael

Week Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
1 3 miles plus 5 x strides Rest 4 miles plus 5 x strides Rest 4 miles plus 5 x strides 2 to 3 miles; 15-min core workout Rest
2 3 miles plus 5 x strides Rest 4 miles with 2 x 5 min at SS intensity; 15-min core workout Rest 3 miles plus 5 x strides 5 to 6 miles; 15-min core workout Rest
3 3 miles plus 6 x strides Rest 4 miles with 3 x 5 min at SS intensity; 15-min core workout Rest 3 miles plus 6 x strides 6 miles with the last 15 min at SS intensity; 15-min core workout Rest
4 3 miles plus 6 x strides Rest 4 miles with 2 x 10 min at SS intensity; 15-min core workout Rest 3 miles plus 5 x strides 6 miles with the last 15 min at SS intensity; 15-min core workout Rest
5 3 miles plus 4 x strides Rest 3 miles; 15-min core workout Rest 2 miles 2 miles plus 3 x strides 5K RACE

INTERMEDIATE PLAN KEY

Weekly mileage Except where noted, all weekly mileage should be run at a perceived effort of six out of 10, with 10 being your maximum effort.
Strides After completing the designated run, find a flat, preferably grassy area to perform the strides. Run hard for 20 seconds and recover with easy jogging or walking for 45 seconds; repeat as instructed.
Core workout Do a series of basic exercises to strengthen core muscles and improve running posture.
SS Intensity Intervals at Steady State Intensity should be run at a perceived effort of seven or eight out of 10. Do five minutes of easy running between SS intensity intervals.