6 Surprises About 5Ks No One Ever Tells You

by Lara Rosenbaum
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6 Surprises About 5Ks No One Ever Tells You

Running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise: Lace up your sneakers and go. And 5Ks are one of the easiest options for toeing your way into the racing world. The thing is, you can run 3 miles a day for weeks — even months — and still be surprised on race day. I sure was.

While I was an elite athlete, I was a skier and had to avoid running in general when I was training since all of the pounding can be a little rough on already-sensitive knees. But now that I’ve retired from competitive skiing, I can run all I want — and I do.

I recently ran my first 5K. And while I’ve been writing about training for these kinds of races for years, and was fit enough to finish, there was a lot about the experience I didn’t expect.

Here are six surprises I wish someone had told me about:


When the gun pops, and the crowd strides over the start line, you’ll feel a rush of adrenaline. Running surrounded by hundreds of people is much more exciting than daily jogs on your lonesome — and that rush could push you to run faster. You’ll notice that when you arrive at the 3-mile marker, you’ll probably feel more tired than you expected. I did. Because I was running hard.

You’ll also want to sprint to the finish. I’ll admit, seeing I had run nearly a minute under my expected pace felt like a good pat on the back, but I was pretty sore the next day.

Know that the rush of the race could propel you to push yourself — possibly harder than you thought possible.


This might sound like a no-brainer to most, but one thing I didn’t expect was to pass people. Usually when I run, it’s straight ahead, save for dodging the errant puddle in the road. But during my first race, I sometimes scooted around people, which meant quick lateral movements — and a swollen knee post-run. If you’ve never had a knee injury, you could be just fine. But my experience reminded me I should be training for lateral leg stability to protect my joints. Include moves like lateral lunges in your workouts or dynamic warmups, and if you have inline skates, use them! They’re an excellent way to nab a no-impact workout while strengthening muscles responsible for lateral stability in your hips and knees.



Not sure how to put this nicely, but I was shocked by how many people were spitting around me.  It was gross. Perhaps this was one aspect that motivated me to run faster — and pass people. Know that you’ll be in a crowd, and people won’t necessarily stop to gingerly clear themselves out.


Perhaps another no-brainer, but if you attend the race alone, you’ll need to carry your car or house key because there won’t be anyone to hold it for you. Many race shorts, tights and tops include small, zippered pockets to hold a key or phone. Wear one!


If you plan to bring your phone for photos or to listen to your favorite playlist, be sure to fully charge it, and switch it to low-battery mode. I posted videos to Instagram before the start, and my phone (and music) cut out before I’d run half a mile.


This was the last thing I expected. I was only focused on running, and before the race even started, I’d made new friends and running partners. During the race we’d high-five each other, and we cheered each other at the finish. We also made plans to connect at future races. Expect to connect with others — and be motivated for more!


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  • Fred Theobald

    One other surprise for me was that on normal run days, I head out at 5:30 AM right after waking, and then have breakfast afterwards. But for my first 5K, which started at 8:30 AM, I had already been up for hours to get to the site, and then had to wait around before the run, and didn’t really grab much nourishment before starting the race. I needed something for energy about half way through. So, make sure you have something to eat before running if you are an early morning runner like me.

    • Irene Fatheree

      This is good to know. I am training for my first half (really my first race ever) and always run at 4:30 AM but on race day, the race won’t start until 8:00 AM. I would have waited to eat after the race (I get side stitches if i eat an hour or two before a run except for a banana)!

  • Andrew Y

    I suggest that people leave the damn phone in the car. Somehow races have been run for 50+ years without the need to carry one. It is stupid, adds weight that will slow you down and I’ve seen enough people break them to know that for 18-30 minutes you can live without it. It is a race. the idea is to run fast. Not take pictures. And if you stop suddenly to document this monumental experience, you could injure someone. Think about it.

    Now if you want to stay in the back of the pack, then by all means knock yourself out. But if you are going to pay the very expensive entry fees, you may as well try your best.

    • Charla Thompson

      You know, some people want to take pictures BEFORE the race…or AFTER the race…

      • Andrew Y

        So walk to your car after the race and grab it. Reverse the process for before the race. Pretty complicated stuff I’m sure. My goodness.

        • Charla Thompson

          Pretty hard to take a picture of the crowd at the start or when friends cross the finish line if my phone is all the way outside the race venue in my car. You can leave your phone in the car if you want, but I am fine with having mine with me and tucking it in a pocket for the actual race. I doubt the weight of an iPhone is going to cause a huge increase in my time, lol.

          • Andrew Y

            If you read my original post, I clearly said that this does not apply to back of the pack people. Snap your hearts content away by all means.

  • Watson Bryant

    Good advice. Been doing these things (up to 1/2 Ms) on and off for 50 years, and now just walk them fast (knees). Thing about phones, personal bests, etc., JUST DO IT YOUR WAY, hard or easy, AND HAVE FUN. Personally, I take the phone and use the tracking stuff for journaling, sharing and fun.

    • rachel

      I use my phone’s GPS system with MapMyRun for feedback on current pace vs. goal pace and have my music going to keep me focused. If I listened to what’s in my head (“this hurts. I should probably just slow down”) instead of the musical encouragement and coaching, I wouldn’t race well.

      • Watson Bryant

        My MO too. I also listen to audio books on long hikes, but up tempo music makes the minutes per mile drop a lot. Remember, the 1st mile always sucks, then better and better.

  • Andrew Pullens

    All good info and true. Thanks for sharing.

  • prattguy

    And for the love of running, if you are going to walk at the start, MOVE TO THE RIGHT. Do not walk down the middle of the chute. It is not only annoying to all the other RUNNERS, but likely to get you bounced around by people that don’t see you in time for them to go around you (which they should not have to do).

  • Russell Schiwal

    Avoid coffee like the plague before the race, or you may experience additional body fluids during.

  • David Wellman

    Can’t say 5 and 6 are universal. I leave my phone in the car (never want to escape the fact I’m running, unless I’m on the trail in the fall and I intend to take pictures) and people don’t count on “friends” to last.

  • Bill Mackey

    In big races where starters are staged according to expected per mile pace, please don’t over estimate your ability. You’ll just clog up the course for the honest runners behind you. And, really, do you you want to be constantly passed by other runners throughout the race? It’s not all that fun.
    And as far as eating, eat early enough so that your body will be prompted to take a dump before leaving home. It’s so much more convenient!