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Preparing for Your First 5K

Committing to a short-distance race can help you get moving, set goals and connect with others
Written by 
Holly St. Lifer
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Whether your friend asked you to join her or you decided to sign up on your own, participating in an organized 5K race is a great way to motivate yourself to stay fit and try something new. The short-distance (3.1 miles), which you can choose to walk or run, is a great starter event for those who are new to races—and even new to exercise. Training for a 5K is also a great opportunity to find a fitness partner and work toward a fun goal together. And on race day, the positive and supportive atmosphere will get your adrenaline going.

Here are some pointers to help you prepare for the challenge, enjoy the race and cross the finish line.

Find a race that speaks to you. There are probably more 5Ks taking place throughout the year than you imagine. Some have entertaining themes, while others may be held for particular charitable organizations. There’s bound to be one that peaks your interest. Road Runner’s Club of America is a great resource for researching what’s happening in your area.

Create a training plan. If you’re new to racing, give yourself eight to 10 weeks to prepare your body. Commit to training three times a week, starting off with walking or running two miles each session in weeks 1-2, three miles in weeks 3-4 and four miles in weeks 5-6. For the remainder of your training, alternate between longer and shorter stints to continue challenging your muscles while offering them the recovery they need. If your fitness level is particularly low and this 5K is what’s motivating you to begin moving altogether, you may want to start training on a smaller scale, walking a half-mile in weeks 1-2, one and a half miles in weeks 3-4, and so on. A natural sequence of progression would be: training to walk the 5K (or a little farther), then training to walk most of it with short periods of time designated to jogging it (five minutes walking/one minute jogging), and finally, running the majority of the distance with the potential for some walking breaks.

Learn the route. Aim to do some of your training on the actual race route so you can familiarize yourself with hills, traffic patterns, unpaved surfaces and flat stretches. Knowing the starting point will also make sure that you don’t get lost on race morning. 

Eat smart. Protein builds strong muscles and helps them recover after working hard, and carbs help boost your energy, so aim for meals and snacks with a combination of the two both during training and on race day. Opt for easily digestible foods like multi-grain toast with peanut butter, a smoothie made with fruit and plain Greek yogurt, and eggs with a whole wheat pita. Go easy on the fiber, though, to avoid gas or cramps. And remember to stay hydrated before, during and after you’re active. On race day, aim to eat breakfast (nothing too heavy) about two hours before the start.

Get the right gear. Wearing properly fitted, supportive clothing and sneakers is crucial during training and on race day. Dress for 20 degrees warmer than it is so you’re comfortable when your body warms up, and consider wearing an expendable item on race day in case you want to shed a layer at some point. When shopping for your perfect walking or running shoe, ask a salesperson for help and discuss details about how active you are, what surface you work out on and any injuries or concerns you have. If you’re used to wearing a watch, pedometer or heart rate monitor, feel free to do so during the 5K as well.

Rest and reflect. While staying motivated to move is a key part of training, it’s important to let your body and mind have some downtime too. Lighten up your workout the week of the race, resting your body the two days before the big day. Make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours of sleep—especially the night before the race. And maintain a positive mindset throughout, even on the tougher days, by setting one or two goals: Be mindful of how it feels to move my body. Cross the finish line with a smile. Practicing mindful breathing or meditation during your training period can also help you feel balanced.

Race wisely. Even the most experienced athletes get a little nervous on race day. Reduce feelings of worry and stress by getting there an hour early so you can park, check in and get your bib number, use the restroom and warm up/stretch. During your walk/run, take in the scenery, spectators and other participants, and be in the moment. Afterward, keep moving for about 10 minutes while your body recovers and your heart rate returns to normal. To help soothe sore muscles the next day, increase circulation with a low-impact session on the elliptical or bike. And keep the momentum going by continuing to move each day—and signing up for future races!

Celebrate your hard work and accomplishment. Whether you walked or ran, give yourself a pat on the back for getting involved in a healthy event and crossing the finish line. Even if you had to stop along the way, celebrating small victories will help motivate you to continue living an active life—and go a little further next time. Congratulate other participants (a great bonding experience) and, if you’re interested, inquire about fitness or race training groups from athletic vendors at the event. If you completed the race with a friend or family member, take a photo together to mark the occasion—a great reminder to hang on the fridge of your effort and dedication. 

About the author 
Holly St. Lifer is a health, fitness, nutrition and human interest writer whose work has appeared in AARP, Health, Ladies' Home Journal, Prevention and other publications. She also teaches magazine writing at New York University.