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Conquering the 5k

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

Not sure if you can run a full 5k without walking?

The 5k distance is harder than it looks for any runner. The miles demand the novice runner to stretch past their current endurance level and the long distance runner needs a mental recalibration of their sustainable paces for this shorter distance. The lapsed runner, whether previously comfortable with short or long distance, requires a combination of the two.

Here are 5 tips to help you conquer the 5k distance, no matter what your skill level. Some ideas may sound new, others remind us to return to the basics. Getting better is never easy, no matter how experienced you consider yourself. Know that it always takes effort and practice in order to get stronger & more efficient.

5 Tips to remember on your next 5k Race:

1- Prepare your equipment

Find clothes that are not distracting: Shorts or leggings that don't ride up, tops (and/or sports bras) that don't move, socks that don't slip into your sneaker.

And speaking of sneakers- make sure your sneakers are for comfort, not fashion. This may mean you need more cushion or more support than heavily marketed in today's fitness market.

It's also important to understand layering - you often have to choose between being chilly for the first mile, or being ready & able take off your top layer once you get hot. Knowing what works for you takes some time to get right, but should be figured out as early as possible in your training.

Lastly, don't forget MUSIC: Music music music!! Or a juicy podcast. Or something mentally distracting, or anything you can listen to that makes you excited, happy (or oddly, makes you incredible mad) seems to work. Shuffling through songs on a training run can cause too much distraction & may interrupt your run, so have a music plan set up before you start your run. I've found following other people's playlists on Spotify during training helps and curating a your own playlist of new favorites on the night before a race works really well too. Slower songs are ok in the beginning, but you'll want faster beats in most of the run to match your racing pace.

Prepare, learn what keeps you comfortable, and find out what distractions keep you focused & which ones make you stop running.


2- Make a running schedule

It doesn't have to be formal, but aim to run 2-3 times per week. As mentioned previously, it takes practice to get better. So you'll need several sessions weekly in order to practice your racing strategy, get comfortable with the distance, and eventually see improvement. This may necessitate checking the weather forecast, your work schedule & coordinating with your significant other.

I also recommend spacing your runs at least one day apart. If your running workout is truly pushing your physical efforts, your body needs the following day to recover. Recovery days don't always need to be sedentary, just a lower intensity. Upper body or core training, mobility drills, yoga and pilates are some options to try on your recovery days.

I've found most running injuries & tweaks occur when people try to consolidate the week's training into one intense training session- so don't forget to train smartly. Nobody wants an injury they could have prevented.


3- Finish the distance no matter what

As you establish your ability to cover the 5k distance, your body will intuitively understand what 3.1 miles feels like. Once you create this mental anchor, you'll be able to work backwards, filling in the middle miles with race strategy.

Commit to moving for the full 3.1 distance no matter what. Even if you feel you can't run any further, finish by walking the rest of the distance. You may run or you may walk, but the training session is not over until you have reached your 3.1 goal distance.

If you use this strategy for training sessions ~2x week, both your mental & physical endurance will begin to stretch & improve. After a couple weeks, you'll be able to focus more on the chunking strategy of racing.


3- Find your 3 gears

Best practiced in your training runs, find the 3 speeds (slow, medium & fast) your body is able to produce. Understand through practice how long you're able to stay at each one.

-Your slow speed is faster than walking but definitely slower paced than your overall goal. It can be used for the warmup or whenever you are feeling fatigued & trying to convince yourself not to walk.

-Your medium speed is your "right now" pace. It's not what you want to run at & definitely not the pace you ran at in your running glory days. It's the pace you could comfortably run a mile at, and still be able be able to run further. Finding this pace is the hardest struggle for most.

Every increase in running speed has an equal & opposite drain on your energy levels. Run this pace too fast, and you'll be caught unprepared when a very strong desire to walk hits hard a minute or two later. Calibrate slow increases in speed to match your ability to control its effects: increased heart rate, muscle fatigue and shortness of breath.

-Your third gear is your interval pace, meaning it's the pace at which you can run 30 sec to 1 minute, and then be able to slow down without stopping. Your heart rate will definitely increase at this level, getting more uncomfortable, as it approaches the threshold for max HR.

Toggling between your second & third gear is how you get faster at the 5k, occasionally shifting into your easy pace if you are caught off guard by fatigue.

A mistake I often see is when runners blend two of the 3 gears together. Run too cautiously, and you never take off from your warm up pace. Try to run the whole race in your third gear, and you'll be plagued by forced walking intervals when your heart rate spikes.

Running watches & running apps help tremendously, because they allow you to monitor your current pace during the run. Check in with your rate of perceived exertion with each speed and notice its pace- usually noted in a half-minute window, for example 10:00 to 10:30 min/mile. Pacing has to be measured on what you've been able to do over the last few weeks, not what you wish it could be. It's humbling, but pacing is the key to mastering each racing distance.


5- Break the distance into 3

Okay, now on to racing strategy.

For the person who can run but struggles to finish, it's best to break the race into 3 parts: the warm up, the middle, and finishing strong.

It takes some time to figure out where in your mileage you need to break each part, but using my own runs as an example, it usually takes me a mile to warm up, and I can summon up my willpower to sprint "strong" the last 1/4 mile once I can sense the finish line. Others may warm up more quickly, but I still advise waiting to notice a bit of fatigue before you begin your middle mile strategy. Use a couple of training runs to figure out the length of your racing chunks.

The Warm Up: In the warm up miles, don't push your speed. Take long breaths with slow exhales. Look for nervousness to settle, look for body relaxation, and look for your stride to open up and get longer. Notice at what mileage this happens, usually around the end of mile one.

The Middle:

This is where the real effort of the race lies. Start by using the the first mile or so to settle into your "right now" pace. Manage racing excitement & pull back when necessary to keep your pace within a half minute, staying away from your wall of fatigue. Generally this is from mile 1-2, but can be modified and practiced in your training.

Once you begin mile 2, you can introduce intervals. Use your third gear to run more quickly, but don't all out sprint. Approach your limit, but never cross it, returning to a lower speed when necessary. Alternate higher speeds with jogs back into your comfortable pace, or you can even fall back to your warmup pace if your heart rate needs a slower speed to recover. See what works best to manage overall race time & fatigue when you are training. Intervals can be done in several ways:

Visually- Use spotting to pick up the pace while running to a telephone pole in the distance or some other visual marker.

Auditory- Pick up the speed for duration of a song's chorus of a song.

Time- Or create more formal time goals for speed intervals. Some intervals to choose from are: 30s speed run/ 2 min "right now" jog, 1 min run/ 2 min jog, or even 30s run/1 min jog for those who are up for the challenge.

Try all of them & find what works best for you.

Finish Strong: The last third of the race is the "finish strong."

I like to channel Mel Gibson in Braveheart and hold as long as possible at comfortable speeds in order to sprint to my finish, feeling strong as I end the race. I usually begin my last sprint with a quarter mile to go, slowly increasing my speed until I cross the finish line.

Some runners prefer to start a little sooner, and begin climbing into faster speeds with a half mile left. Both strategies work well.

With either finish, visualization helps tremendously in the third chunk. It helps to keep motivation strong & faster speeds steady as racers approach their finish. Picture meeting your goal time, imagine the pride in your friends & family as they see you finish. Feel the sense of pride and satisfaction as you finish like a champion. All of these visualizations will propel you towards the finish line using your strongest speeds and with a winning mindset.


Every race is an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Run strong, my friends!

See you at the finish line.


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