How to Choose the Right 5K for You

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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How to Choose the Right 5K for You

Running is simple: Put one foot in front of the other. Go as fast as you can, as long as you can. Boom — you’re running.

Yet, there are all kinds of reasons not to do it. Fear. Laziness. A lack of desire. Injuries, illness, not having a place to run to. And then there’s the biggest reason not to do it: You don’t have a concrete reason to do it.

I’ve struggled with this off and on over the past few years, ever since I started running with some regularity. I’ve never had any long-term purpose or goal, so I’ve been trapped in a yearslong cycle of making progress and then backsliding. So this year, I decided to create a humble goal for myself: run a 5K sometime within the first three months of 2018.

The first hurdle: Figuring out how in the heck one does that. Now that I’ve signed up for one (on Feb 18, 2018), I can share what I’ve learned.

Here’s what to know when signing up for your first race:


If you are a costume person, I have good news: Themed 5Ks are plentiful. Into superheroes? Harry Potter characters? Seasonally appropriate attire (e.g., turkeys, Santa, etc.)? Foam? There is a 5K for you. (And seriously: My hometown of Austin offers something called a Foam Glow 5K. It’s in April, if you’re interested.)

If you are not (and I am not), that helps you narrow what might be an overwhelming series of options. And hey, it’s not that I don’t love fun. It’s that I actually want to run this thing, not trip over my tail or sweat my buns off in a cheap Spider-Man outfit. 

(Obligatory caveat: Virtually all costumed runs support a good cause. If this is your thing, by all means: You do you. It’s just not for me, not this time.)


One cool thing about races of any type is that they offer opportunities to travel and see places like you never would otherwise. You can run in a small town, in the middle of nowhere or as part of a vacation to a new city. For me, however, I wanted to do something closer to home. This is new to me (and, presumably, to you). It’s nice to be in your comfort zone.

The other thing to consider is the surface and elevation of your 5K. If you are a treadmill rat, a track junkie or a trail devotee, you might experience some discomfort running (as most 5Ks seem to) on concrete. If it’s important to you, seek out a 5K on a more familiar surface. Again, those seem to be fewer and farther between, but they’re out there if you look hard enough. Most 5K courses also incorporate inclines or hills, so consider that as you’re training. (More on that below.)

As for when, I live in Austin, where winters are brief (but cold), and summers are long (and very, very hot). The sweet spot? Spring and fall, where the temps could be on either extreme, but more than likely, the temperature will be palatable. I chose a race in February, where the temperature can range from the mid-40s to the mid-60s. Do a little Googling before you register, especially if you’re running outside your hometown.


Unlike your regular runs, this one’s gonna cost you. You’ll likely get a swag bag in return (with T-shirts, coupons for local businesses, etc.), but most of your money is going toward the expense of putting on the race. This can be a little unexpected for neophytes, but there are a few factors to consider.

One is that many, maybe even most, 5Ks tend to benefit a not-for-profit. (Mine supports the Paramount Theatre, a historic venue in downtown Austin.) As a nice bonus, the 5K I signed up for also works with a number of partner organizations (many of whom encourage health and fitness in underprivileged communities), and helps you set up a donation page you can send to your family and friends. (Mine supports Habitat for Humanity.)

Point is, not only should your 5K feel good. It can do good, too.


My ideal run is me and my earbuds on an empty track. A 5k will be … not that. I chose a 5K that may have up to 2,000 participants, allows for strollers and is part of a larger overall race day with a marathon and a half-marathon. I had to compromise because this was one of the few 5Ks in Austin proper during my preferred time period, and (given this was my first) I wanted to sign up with a trusted, experienced organization. What you choose is up to you — just check the 5K’s FAQ page before you register.



An NBA trainer once told me pro basketball players train to play a game and a half, so that the game itself doesn’t feel so exhausting. I’m planning to approach a 5K the same way. I can run 2 or 3 miles without wearing myself out, but I plan to do a series of 4K runs in the buildup to race day. (A 5K is roughly 3 miles and change, and the course I’ll be on includes a mild incline.)

Just remember: A 5K is, essentially, a beginner run. If you haven’t been active at all, most sources recommend training for eight weeks to get ready. That assumes you have the time to devote to said training, so be sure to do a realistic assessment of your overall health before signing up. (Or have a professional trainer do the assessment for you.)

The good news is you can sign up for a 5K as far out as you want, and give yourself time to work up to it. It will amaze you what your body can do. And hey: Even if you don’t run the whole time, walking for part is still a great way to feel better about yourself, and something tells me you’ll come away inspired no matter what.


You might, during registration, be asked what you want it to say on your bib. You could put your name, your sponsor’s name or something else to represent you. My name is too plain, and I don’t have a nickname (at least not one I want on a bib), so I went with Papa Pablo. It’s a shoutout to my kids and also a clear indicator I didn’t give it much (or any) thought. So consider yourself warned — and work on earning a nickname!

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.


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