So You Want to… Run Your First 5K

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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So You Want to… Run Your First 5K

Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to start running regularly and train for a 5K (3.1 miles). That’s an impressive step. Though it may feel a little intimidating to begin training to run more than 3 miles all at once, have faith and confidence that you’ll get there.

This guide will answer some common questions and help you successfully complete your first 5K. The program may be a little different than others you’ll find — it’s more comprehensive than a training schedule. So settle in, read on and get excited to start on a path that can benefit you for years to come.

Before you get started, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor to ensure you’re healthy enough to begin training. Once you have the green light, there’s little to prevent you from getting started as soon as possible. Although you don’t necessarily have to pick a goal race before your training gets underway, having a set date on the calendar can be an excellent source of motivation.

Get the Essential Gear

As a new runner, the variety of shoes and gear available can be completely overwhelming. A trip to a big sporting goods store can leave you totally confused about what you should put on your feet. Neutral, cushioned or pronation control? Minimal or maximum cushioning? It’s confusing even for an experienced runner.

Despite the hype and all the different varieties of shoes out there, the most important factor is actually very simple: comfort. That means when you put on a new pair of shoes, they should feel good on your feet. While there may be a little bit of break-in time required, any shoe that hurts or feels uncomfortable while running should be avoided.

While it’s tempting to buy your shoes online to find a better deal, always start by testing out a variety at your local running store. You want to be able to walk around in several different brands and sizes to see what fits best. This is probably your most significant investment in your new running program, but don’t assume that the most expensive shoe is the best! Again, let comfort be your guide.

As far as clothing, keep it simple when you’re getting started. Unless you’re starting a training program outdoors in a frigid climate, you probably have some comfortable clothing to start with. As a general rule, try to avoid cotton, especially when it comes to socks. Synthetic fibers usually work best in most types of weather conditions.

Schedule Your Runs

When you first start your plan, you’re likely to be full of enthusiasm, even if you’re a little apprehensive. But there comes a point when that enthusiasm will fade, and you need to be prepared to stay focused and motivated through the rough patches. Scheduling your workouts in a way that is realistic and accessible will give you the best route to a successful race.

Try to keep things as simple as possible to set yourself up for success. While I would never want to discourage anyone from starting to run, you’re more likely to be successful if you don’t start training in the midst of a major life event, like moving or starting a stressful new job.

It may be stating the obvious, but schedule runs in a way that will work best for you now, not in some sort of ideal life scenario. Those rarely ever happen. Not a morning person? Don’t plan to start running at 5:30 a.m. every day. Stuck at work late on a regular basis? Maybe try a lunch run. Whatever time you choose, put it in your calendar, schedule it on your phone and make that time non-negotiable.

Why You Need to Warm Up and Cool Down

So here is where our training guide may differ a bit from the others. If you’re building a new habit, it’s best to get it right the first time. And doing it right means warming up and cooling down properly for your runs. These routines will only add about five minutes at the beginning and end of your run, or slightly more if you’re feeling motivated. Not only will you feel better when you get out there, but you’ll also help reduce your risk of injury and build a little strength in the process. A win-win, right?

The key to warming up properly for a run is a dynamic warmup — not to be confused with static stretching. Warming up dynamically means stretching actively through movements that simulate what your muscles will encounter on a run. A simple series of dynamic exercises will get you ready to run.

After your run, avoid heading straight to the couch (even though it’s tempting). Spend another 5 minutes on some dynamic stretching or a hip-strengthening routine. It may not seem like much, but adding these types of routines early in your running career will help make you stronger from the start and far less prone to being sidelined by injury. So find those extra 10 minutes — it’s well worth it.

Strive to Add Strength Work

The training plan below has you running 3 days each week to start, eventually working up to 4 days in week 6. One day each week should be dedicated to rest and recovery. But the remaining 2–3 days are an excellent opportunity to cross-train and build some strength. In the early weeks, walking on two of those days will allow you to build some endurance, keep you loose and help alleviate any soreness from your previous day’s training.

At least one day each week should be devoted to a strength routine that is runner-specific. Rather than isolating small, specific muscle groups such as your biceps, these exercises involve compound movements that use a wide array of muscles, all contributors to your running health and efficiency. The time investment for this kind of workout is minimal – 20 to 30 minutes at the most. But the payoff is significant.

Why supplement with strength training? Running is a demanding and repetitive sport, and it can be hard on your body if you don’t take the time to strengthen the muscles that support you. As you progress and get faster, there is a tendency for your aerobic fitness to outpace your structural fitness. That means you’ll get faster before your muscles and ligaments are prepared to handle the extra speed, which can result in injury. There are lots of great options out there for running-specific workouts, but a few good ones include this general strength routine and this core workout.

10 Ways to Stay Motivated

Ahhh, motivation. It can be a fickle thing, and it’s best not to rely on sheer willpower to get you through your training. In addition to scheduling your training appropriately, here are a few other ways to stay on track:

  • Pick a race that supports a cause that is meaningful to you.
  • Make your goal public. Letting others know about your training plan makes it easier to stay on track. The right kind of fear (such as not staying true to your goal) can be a powerful motivator.
  • Make it social. A running buddy is an ideal way to stay motivated and keep on track with your training.
  • Explore new routes; don’t feel obligated to stick to the treadmill or the same road. Get out and explore some new scenery.
  • Treadmills can be an excellent option in bad weather — no need to skip a run.
  • Relish some quiet, personal time (especially if you have children).
  • Catch up on a favorite podcast or listen to a favorite album.
  • Run with your dog. Many breeds are motivated to run no matter the time or the weather.
  • Let yourself be inspired by running books or movies.
  • Maintain accountability. Whether it’s checking off completed workouts on your calendar or putting money in a jar for any missed workout, set up a simple system that will help you stay on track.

Once you’ve increased your motivation with these tips, you’ll soon be building the discipline necessary to run consistently.

How to Cope with Soreness and Fatigue

Before you jump into this training plan, you should expect some soreness, especially if you have never run. This is totally normal, so don’t panic. If you’re careful not to push yourself too hard, this soreness should be manageable and will improve with time as your strength and fitness progresses.

It’s also important to recognize the difference between “normal” soreness and injury, however. Any sharp, shooting pain or pain that causes you to change your running form should be cause for concern. In this case, it’s always best to err on the side of caution — take an extra day off (so you’re not sidelined for multiple weeks later on), and see your doctor if the pain persists.

The Runner’s Diet

Improving your diet as a runner and athlete is a topic that’s far too broad to cover thoroughly here. But as a new runner who is trying to get a little healthier, here are a few essentials to keep in mind about food:

  • If you’re starting a new running program, don’t try to make a diet overhaul at the same time. It’s simply too overwhelming for most people to start more than one new habit at a time.
  • Food is fuel. It’s not the enemy. Remember that the better choices you make, the better you’ll feel.
  • You’re an experiment of one — foods that work well for some runners may not agree with others. It may take a little experimentation to figure out which foods agree with you before and after a run.
  • Don’t fear carbs; they can be a runner’s best friend. But as a general rule, try to stick with healthier, whole-grain options, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.

Most importantly, don’t focus on “dieting.” Focus instead on increasing healthy, whole-food options in your daily meals rather than taking things away.

The Beginner 5K Training Plan

And now it’s time for the training plan! Here are the essentials:

  • The plan lasts 16 weeks, which is a little longer than some, but it gives you ample time to build up gradually to a strong, successful first 5K.
  • Start every workout with a few dynamic stretches, then 5 minutes of walking before you get started to ease your way in. Finish with a cooldown walk and a few more dynamic stretches or some strength work.
  • Running days: For the first 6 weeks, you’ll start with 3 days of running each week, then build to 4 days in week 6. You’ll continue to run 4 days each week aside from week 10, which is a cutback week, and week 16, the week of your race.
  • Strength training: One day each week should be dedicated to a strength workout or core routine. These workouts should support your running but not leave you so sore or tired that it’s difficult to complete the next scheduled run.
  • Allow one day for rest and recovery. No matter how enthusiastic you are to start training, stick to one day of rest every week to give your body time to rebuild and get stronger.

Most importantly, have fun out there. While this program requires commitment and hard work, try to find some moments to enjoy the process and be proud of what you’re accomplishing.

Your First 5K Training Plan


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About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.


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