Run your first (or fastest) 5K

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When you took your first running steps, crossing a finish line may have been the furthest thing from your mind; but now you’re running on a regular basis, you might be wondering whether you’re ready for your first race.

‘A 5K is the perfect target for budding runners to set their sights on,’ says coach Russell Holman (runfaster-pb.com). ‘It doesn’t take months to prepare for and the distance is manageable enough not to intimidate.’ The challenge could simply be to finish, to run all the way to the line or to achieve a particular time goal. And it’s not so punishing that it’ll take weeks before you’re ready to toe the line again. It’s also an extremely popular race distance, so when you’re ready you’ll have no problem finding a 5K event to enter.

And even if you’ve already bagged your first medal, coach Jeff Gaudette advises against immediately stepping up to a 10K: ‘Many runners want to jump up in race distance too quickly,’ he says. ‘Why not become completely comfortable with the distance before trying to move up? It’ll increase your fitness and your confidence to progress.’

Finish, then finish better

The primary goal for your first 5K is to finish – with a smile on your face. ‘You should be running for 20-30 minutes a few times a week before you begin a 5K plan,’ says Gaudette. Even though you may have progressed beyond run/walk, there’s no need to rule out walking altogether. ‘My previous attempts to take up running always failed because I’d considered walking a cop-out,’ says Tracey Anderson, a 44-year-old IT consultant from London. ‘When I did a Couch to 5K plan and was actually encouraged to mix walking and running it felt so much more achievable and enjoyable. I’m now a regular Parkrunner.’ A good rule to follow is to run as much as you can, but walk as much as you need.

Consistent easy runs of 20-30 minutes build a good base of stamina. But to hone 5K fitness you’ll need to do two things. First, focus on making one of your weekly runs a little bit longer. ‘Train in minutes rather than by miles,’ suggests Holman. ‘Increasing by small increments minimises the injury risk associated with ramping up volume too aggressively.’ Gaudette recommends building your ‘long run’ to 8-10km. ‘This will help to develop your aerobic system further,’ he says. It will also boost your confidence about covering the race distance. The second thing is to add a challenge to one of your weekly runs. ‘You need to add stimulus for further gains,’ says Gaudette. This could be in the form of faster running or hill training. Research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that six weeks of hill training or flat-ground interval training both elicited improvements in ‘time to exhaustion’.

Hills develop leg strength and challenge your cardiovascular system without adding too much musculoskeletal stress, and Spanish research last year found high-intensity intervals improved stride length. ‘Intervals run close to goal race pace with short recoveries are most relevant to 5K performance,’ says Gaudette. ‘They focus on speed endurance – your ability to hold a fast pace for the entire distance.’

Running well

Warming up – for training and racing – is vital. A study from Manhattan College in New York found that just five minutes of warming up enabled runners to exercise for longer than did launching straight in. Start with a brisk walk, incorporating some mobility exercises such as heel-and-toe walking, bringing your knees to your chest, walking lunges and flicking your heels up to your bottom. Then begin to jog at an effortless pace before working up to your desired speed.

Everyone has their own running style, but there is some common ground when it comes to good technique: strong posture (think tall, but relaxed), quick and light feet (a high ‘cadence’ or stride rate) and minimal braking between strides. ‘Add some drills to your workouts,’ says Holman. ‘Establishing the correct movement patterns through drills helps them become second nature so that when it gets tough in the final two kilometres of your race you won’t be wasting energy on inefficient movement.’ Try high knees, fast feet and skipping drills.

Good running form plays a part in minimising injury risk – but adding some regular strength training to your weekly routine will lower the chances further. ‘There’s also evidence that strength training improves running economy,’ adds Holman. ‘Try variations of lunges, squats, step-ups and dead lifts.’

Countdown to race day

As race day approaches, wind down your training to ensure you wake up feeling raring to go. But don’t stop altogether – a couple of short runs will keep you ticking over. ‘Going for a short, easy jog the day before the big day can help dispel some of the nervous energy you might feel,’ says coach Jeff Galloway. Skip the prerace pasta-fest: ‘Five kilometres isn’t far enough to require carb-loading the night before,’ says sports dietitian Ruth McKean. ‘Eating too much may make you wake up feeling sluggish or full. Just eat your usual evening meal.’

On pace

A sure way to finish well is to get the pace right. But this can be tricky, says Holman. ‘Go off way too fast and you will suffer in the closing stages. Go off way too slow and you haven’t got long to make up the time you ‘lost’ in the first two kilometres.’ Even at world-record level, most 5K runners run the first kilometre a little faster than their average pace. And in a study comparing performances in which runners were instructed to run the first mile at either goal pace or three to six per cent faster, a fast start tended to result in a better finish time. ‘I made two mistakes in my first 5K,’ says 68-year-old John Bridger from Hastings, who took up running only six years ago and has a 5K PB of 22:53. ‘I set off too slowly and I did not push on with one kilometre to go, when I could have easily.’ Don’t worry if you don’t get it right first time, though – pace judgement is a skill that takes practice.

Lightening the load

You can make your race debut in any comfy clothing and a pair of running shoes, but lightweight garments that fit well are best. ‘Many new runners are self-conscious and wear far too much,’ says Gareth McCully, a running coach who works with beginners. ‘They’ll wear baggy gear to hide in, tie jackets around their waists, and carry phones and drinks bottles. It weighs them down physically and mentally.’ Flappy clothes will also increase wind resistance and may distract you or work loose. Commit to a comfy but minimal race-day outfit that’s tried and tested, says McCully. As for that bottle? You don’t need any fluid for a 5K – and certainly not a sports drink. ‘You will not get dehydrated, provided you have drunk a normal amount of fluid in the preceding 24 hours,’ says McKean.