Beginners Guide to Your First 5k



So you're thinking about doing a 5k, but maybe aren't sure if you can do it (you totally can - it's only 3.1 miles).  Maybe you've never run before or maybe you used to be active but life got in the way and you're out of shape now.  Maybe you think running is for runners and you think you're just not a runner so races aren't for you (not true).  Whatever the reason that's keeping you from doing it, I'm here to tell you that you absolutely can (and should) do a 5k race.  Even if you walk the whole thing.

I've participated in several 5k races in the last few years, and even though I'm a back of the pack kind of runner (or rather walk/runner, run/walker)  I think I've figured out a few things about the best ways to prepare for and participate in a 5k.  Especially as a beginner.  I feel like I'm forever a beginner, so I guess that kinda makes me an expert by now.  That's why I decided to put together this guide to finishing your first 5kK.  Now, this guide isn't a running plan - there are so many of those online that I just didn't feel like I would have anything to add - this is more of a "hell yes you can do it!" kinda guide.  And I hope it helps you out!  I know I sure wish someone had told me some of these things when I got started.


Beginners Guide to Finishing Your First 5k

1.  You don't have to run the entire distance.  I'll repeat that, you don't have to run the entire distance.  One more time for emphasis:  YOU DON'T HAVE TO RUN THE ENTIRE DISTANCE.  The idea that in order to participate in a 5k I had to be able to run the entire thing was the number one reason I didn't do one sooner.  I don't know what made me think that walking during a 5K wasn't okay, but it totally is.  You don't even need to run at all - you can walk the whole thing.

2.  Whether or not you plan on running during your 5k, make sure you get some training under your belt before you participate in a race.  A 5k isn't a very long distance, only 3.1 miles, but you should still get your body used to either walking or running or walk running or run walking to  minimize any chance of injury.  There are a ton of 5k training apps for smartphones out there (I used this one) and you can find about a million training programs online.  My absolute favorite running app is Zombies, Run!.  It's not a training program (although they do have a 5k training companion app - not going to lie - not my favorite training app), but I think it's the best app out there for all fitness levels.  Running clubs usually also offer 5k training groups where you can train with real live people.  There are even 5k training groups for people who plan on walking the entire thing.  There's a program out there no matter your fitness level.

3.  Make sure you have a good pair of running shoes.  And I'm not talking about just having a pair of athletic shoes you can throw on when you go out to train.  I mean, go to a running store (not just a sport's store at the mall - a dedicated running store), and have your feet analyzed by one of their shoe fitting professionals.  The first time I did this, I had no idea what to expect, but if the shoe fitter is doing their job right, they'll want to look at your current athletic shoes to see the wear pattern on the soles, they'll want to see you walk and run in your current shoes to see how your feet/ankles move, and they'll want to see you in socks/bare feet as you balance on one foot and then the other to check your arches.  Any issues your feet may have while running (that you probably don't even know about) can be compensated for by the right pair of running shoes.  Expect to spend a little more than $100.

4.  Plan to pick up your race packet before the day of the race and get to the race location early.  You'll probably be a little nervous (since this is your first race and all) and trying to find parking,  locating the packet pick-up tent, and then waiting in line is just too stressful on the morning of the race.  It's also nice to already have the race shirt to wear on race day.  If you're participating with a group, you'll also want time to find them in the crowd.  Side note:  most of the races I've participated in have provided safety pins to pin my race bib to my shirt, but a couple of races did not.  Have some safety pins on hand at home and know where they are the night before.  Scrambling around your house at the dead of morning looking for safety pins (and super stressed out because you cannot find any and you need to leave right this minute or you'll be late) is not the way to start race day.

5.  Bring someone along to cheer you on (and to hold your stuff).  Finishing a 5kK is pretty gratifying on it's own, but it's even better to cross the finish line with someone you know cheering you on.  You might not see them in the crowd - but finding them afterward and hearing how they saw you finish makes the accomplishment all the sweeter.  Dennis and Jack usually find a place on the course where I can run by them near the beginning, but that's still close enough to make it back to the finish line in time to see me finish.  It's also nice to have someone there to hold your extra stuff while you race (instead of having to leave it in the car).  If you don't have anyone to play pack mule for you, plan on only bringing the bare necessities with you to the race:  ID, debit card or money, car keys, phone, and headphones, and have a running belt to keep them in.

6.  Don't do the race on an empty stomach.  A growling stomach does nothing for your mental or physical state on race day.  A 5kK isn't a distance you need to carb-load for, but you do need to have some food before your race, however, you don't want to be stuffed full to the brim, either.  I like to have a piece of fruit and a granola bar that I eat once I get to the race location.  If I eat it too early, I'm hungry again by race time.  Also make sure you're hydrated before the race.  And I don't mean drink a huge bottle of water right before the race - you don't want to have to pee in the bushes during the race or have water sloshing around in your stomach - I mean make sure you've been drinking enough water in the days leading up to the race so you're already hydrated.

7.  Speaking of water, take advantage of the water station(s) on the race course.  I don't like to drink the water while I'm racing - if it's not the right temperature for me it usually upsets my stomach or sloshes around and makes me feel bad - but I do like to swish and spit the water and pour some over my head.  Also, it's tough to run with a cup of water in your hand, so splashing is an unavoidable consequence - might as well splash the water where you want it to be.

8.  Line up at the back of the pack.  When it comes time to line up for the start of the race, make sure you're near the back of the pack, even if you think you're going to be faster than the people around you.  You'll probably be hyped on race day and if you line up with people that run faster than you you'll either want to try to keep pace with them and burn out (and then have them leave you in the dust) or you'll be slower than them and get in the way causing course congestion.  You can always pass people who are going slower than you, but it's good etiquette to try to stay (mostly) out of the way of people who are much faster than you.  It's okay to be slow - I'm slow and I've been doing this for a few years now.  Side note:  don't expect to run until you cross the start line - this could take 30-60 seconds after the start gun - everyone walks towards the start line and as they cross, start running.

9.  It's about finishing and going the distance - not about your time or what place you finish.  Most of us aren't going to be competitive runners.  I know I'm never going to be in a position to place in my age group or cross the finish line first (seriously, those people are superhuman - running 3.1 miles in 15-20 minutes is insane and is never going to be in my ability range).  Let go of the idea that you need to finish in a certain time.  The important part is crossing that finish line.  Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Push yourself a little, but don't worry if you have to slow down.  Listen to your body and pace yourself.

10.  Have fun.  There's a reason why 5ks are called 'fun runs'.  Because they're fun!  There's usually music (and sometimes a band), snacks, drinks, or coffee at the end, plus you get a t-shirt!  No matter what your fitness level is, or whether you plan on walking a little or a lot, make sure you have fun at the run.  I can guarantee you'll feel amazing at the finish line - exhausted, but amazing.

If you're thinking of doing a 5k, I hope this list of tips helps you cross the finish line.  I don't think it matters if you're running or walking - the important thing is that you get out there, give it a try, and have fun!  Remember, you don't have to be a "runner" to do a race!  Happy running (or walking), ya'll!

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