How to Run Your Very First 5K in Six Weeks (Safely)

people running on beach

Running is a no-brainer fitness activity because it requires nothing beyond your body except a decent pair of shoes, the great outdoors, and a desire to move. For those who want to take their running to the next level, a 5K race is the first starting point, as it’s the shortest of running race distance options.

To find out what a novice who has never run in a race before needs to do to prepare to run a 5K race, we spoke to Ally Parker, RRCA Level 1 Run Coach and founding trainer at Performix House L.A. She thinks that “The 5K is a great distance for every runner” because “It is just over three miles in length (3.1) and it is generally a safe distance.” Let’s find out what’s needed to get you ready, and how to recover and cross train along the way!

But First, Safety Considerations

Is a 5K safe for you? Ally says, “Anyone with a serious injury should avoid running a 5K, given the impact running has on our bodies.” If you’re worried that you just can’t run that far, don’t be; she notes that “The beauty of these events is that there is usually a large crowd walking or even jog/walking. As a coach, my training plans for less experienced runners always incorporate running and walking to start.”

Knowing you can plan on mixing your running with jogging or walking if needed should make the idea of a 5K seem less daunting. Read on for how to prepare for your first 5K. 

The Plan

You’ll be gradually increasing weekly in terms of intensity and duration. Alls tells us, “For true novices, there are “Couch to 5K” plans. These plans generally consist of three workouts per week, building from a walk/run to a three mile run.” She likes to go a bit above and beyond this though, because “I personally prefer to prepare my clients for a longer distance, so they can truly race the 5K.” She says to be prepared for “running 3 or 4 times per week at a minimum and working towards a 6 mile run, as the long run. That way, the 5K feels much more manageable.” 

Along with running, you’ll be cross training too. Ally tells us, “I incorporate strength training with my athletes from day one. Building this foundation prepares runners for a healthy and hopefully injury free training cycle.”

While some clients may require up to nine weeks, for the purposes of this guide we’re working with the average six week timeline. What does each week look like, based on that framework?

Week 1

The goal of the first week is simply to get you going, not to overdo it. Ally suggests, “For new runners, I generally recommend 3-4 rest days per week,” meaning you only need to plan on running 3-4 days. Do what you can, making a point to not hurt yourself; it’s ok if you’re incorporating a lot of walking and jogging along with your running.

Week 2

Because “The first few weeks of training focus on learning how to feel comfortable running for longer and longer periods of time,” once you’re comfortable with the act of running a few times a week you can shift focus to increasing that time. While you may not experience a big difference in endurance from week one to week two, know that you’re in the process of building it. 

Weeks 3 and 4

By now, you should be used to the act of running and may have seen some progress in the amount of distance you can cover before needing to switch back to walking. Since “building endurance is definitely essential for distance running,” that’s a great focus for these weeks. Track your distance and congratulate yourself for each milestone! If you’re at three days of running per week, this is the time to move to four. 

Week 5

Now that you’ve likely accomplished some significant work by way of distance, it’s time to focus on your speed. Ally says,“Speed comes into the picture as soon as the runner is able to run a few miles at a time without stopping to walk.” She likes to use various exercises that will help you enhance yours: “Fartleks or “speed play” is one of my favorite kinds of workouts for runners.” Not sure what that is? “An example of this might be one minute of hard running, followed by two minutes of jogging, repeated several times.” This is valuable because “It helps the runner get used to that race day feeling with adequate recovery.” At this point, you can also add an additional day of running weekly.

Week 6

In your final training week, for which you may wish to run up to six days, you’ll want to combine the two vital parts, speed and distance, at once. How fast can you run, and for how long? Do (safely!) what you can to build your speed and distance so that you perform at your best for the 5K happening shortly. 

What To Do On Rest Days

For race training, rest days are considered the days that you don’t run, rather than just the days you don’t do anything active at all. The cross training below is a part of what you’ll do on some rest days, Of course, it’s also important to actually rest, too! Your body is doing something new, you’re continually pushing its limits, and it needs down time to adjust and heal. 

If you’re feeling achy, Ally suggests that “When available, body work is extremely beneficial to runners. I also recommend foam rolling, yoga, and some simple stretching (both dynamic and static). Epsom salt baths are incredible for recovery as well.” Make sure you have one full day off per week from everything, because “True rest days (no exercise) are a key component of a healthy, balanced training plan.”

What To Do On Cross-Training Days

You’re running multiple times a week, so you may be surprised that there’s more to do--but cross training is needed to prevent injury and keep you in your best shape. Ally says, “I’m a big believer in cross training! I always incorporate strength work in my training plans. Core and mobility are incredibly important in injury prevention.”

As far as what specific exercises will be most beneficial for complementing your running, “The elliptical machine is a great alternative to running as it is low impact, but still takes the body through a similar movement. Other exercises that support running and overall fitness are rowing and cycling. Also, I absolutely love swimming for runners, because it really works the core, while allowing the body to recover without any pounding on the joints.”

What To Eat Throughout Training

There are many schools of thought on how to best fuel your body through race training. To keep her clients in top shape, these are Ally’s recommendations for nutrition while preparing for a 5K: “I always suggest a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, some fat, and of course as many fruits and vegetables as possible. Dairy can irritate the stomach, so probably best to avoid prior to a workout and especially before a race. While the classic pasta dinner often comes to mind to all runners, I like to eat a lean protein, sweet potato, and steamed veggies the night before a race. I find that cooked vegetables are a little easier on the stomach than raw. Keep in mind, however, that fiber may cause an uncomfortable stomach for new runners, so probably best to consume after a race or workout when just starting out.”

The Takeaway

Running a 5K doesn’t happen overnight, but you can get ready in just a month and a half. Start small, and don’t overdo it. Cross training will help prevent injury, and rest days are needed to keep your body in top shape. With this advice, you’ll be crossing the finish line soon!

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