In 2016, 8.2 million people finished a 5K race in the U.S., according to Runner’s World. If you’re not one of the die-hards lacing up your running shoes every day, you may be wondering what the attraction is—and whether it’s worth giving the 5K a try.
A 5K is a five-kilometer (3.1-mile) race, and it has become one of the most popular “first” races people try when they take up running or change their fitness routine. This race is appealing for many reasons: it requires very little gear and only a moderate amount of training, and it’s easy to access since 5Ks take place in many locations and at nearly all times of the year. “Theme” races make it even more entertaining; you might run through bubbles, get sprayed with colorful wash-off dyes, or dress up in costume. Not sure where to start? Active.com is a great place to search for running events happening throughout the U.S.
A 5K can be a chance to test your fitness, pursue a personal best time, or simply have a fun run with friends. No matter your goals, here are some tips to start you on the road to a 5K.
Get the Right Gear
Running a 5K doesn’t take much-specialized gear. What’s important are the right shoes and socks, and a sports bra for women. Your shoes should be comfortable and fit correctly. If you’re new to running, a local athletic supply store specializing in running will have knowledgeable staff to help you find the best shoe style and size for you.
Choosing the right socks is just as important since the wrong pair can lead to painful blisters. Try to find socks designed for runners, which are typically not 100% cotton.
For women runners, a sports bra is a crucial accessory. There are many styles and sizes on the market, with varying levels of support. While shopping, bear in mind that running requires more support than an activity like yoga.
If tracking your time is important, consider purchasing a sports watch. These can range from a simple $15 model with a basic stopwatch to $300+ GPS watches that will track your heart rate and much more. For 5K training, a timer is all you really need.
Signing up for your first 5K will put you in a motivated mindset. 5Ks take place most weekends throughout the country, so find a local race that suits your taste. Maybe you’d like an event that benefits a favorite charity or one that takes you through a scenic course around the local lake. Maybe it’s a Halloween-themed race in which you and your family can dress up and run together. Most races feature description and/or a map of the course on their website, so you can determine whether it will be flat or hilly, urban or remote. Regardless of what race you choose, signing up will make your goal official—and that’s when it’s time to start moving.
“For any new runner, the start to a training plan does not always feel great,” says Jonathan Merrill, high school cross-country coach in Portland, OR. “This is one of the most important things for new runners to understand because it’s easy to become discouraged during this first week or so.”
Don’t worry if the thought of running 3 miles seems daunting. Start slowly and be sure to warm up first. Find a track or map out a mile loop in your neighborhood. It’s fine to alternate walking and running in the beginning—the goal should be to complete at least 1 mile.
“It’s more important to be consistent with a regular running routine, rather than try to put a bunch of effort into one particular day,” Merrill explains. “For someone training for their first 5K, this might mean two to three days a week.”
Consistent training helps build your endurance. You might start with 10 or 15 minutes of jogging. Aim to gradually build up to 30 minutes per session—again, with walking mixed in as needed. For newbies, this may feel like a big adjustment at first, but each run will build your confidence.
Active.com has some additional tips on 5K training, and Couch to 5K is a popular training app aimed at beginners. Other running apps, such as Strava and MapMyRun, track your training progress as well as provide GPS mapping options and a social network component that allows you to “compete” with other runners virtually.
Find Your Tribe
Running can be a surprisingly social sport. Races attract people of all ages, sizes, and shapes. However, training—logging daily or weekly miles on the track or the treadmill—can feel lonely at times. It can help to find some friends to keep you company along the way.
Ask a coworker to join you on the road to a 5K, or invite your partner on some runs. There are local running groups in many locations (do an internet search or ask your local running store), and nearly all groups will welcome people of all ability levels. Creating a tribe of running buddies helps to keep you accountable and keep you going, all the way to the finish line.
Enjoy Your Race Day!
Before you know it, race day will arrive. Start times are typically early in the morning, so plan your sleep and meals accordingly. Running a 5K doesn’t require drastic changes to your diet or any of the “carb-loading” associated with long-distance runs—although you may feel a bit hungrier as you increase your physical activity.
Enjoy a breakfast one to two hours prior to the race if breakfast is part of your normal routine. Extra-hot days call for more liquids, and it’s always good to hydrate in advance. Check the weather the night before so you’ll know what to wear. Then it’s off to pick up your race bib, double-knot your shoes, and get running! No matter your final time, finishing a 5K is its own reward.
Dana Lester has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. She is passionate about holistic wellness, eating fruit, and writing.