How to Train for a 5K – A Running Plan That Works

How to Train for a 5K

Why Train for a 5K

The 5K is possibly the best distance for beginner and returning runners as the training required to complete a strong 5K can be achieved without running taking over your life, but will still give you a great sense of accomplishment. However, many don’t know how to train for a 5K. This guide is here to help you not only run a 5K, but also start or reinforce a running lifestyle with significant health benefits. This is true for those new to running, or those looking to get back into running after a long layoff or injury. Running 5Ks is not only great for your health, but a strong confidence boost to get you into or back into a realistic running program. Before considering starting a running program, check with your doctor to ensure that you are physically able to run and that it won’t inflame underlying health issues, especially with your heart.

Setting Your 5K Goals

Before you set foot on your 5k training plan, you need to establish your goals for this event. Is it to kick start a healthier lifestyle and lose weight by running, get back into running after a long layoff, make or join friends who are running, support an event or cause? Setting your goals will help you through the tougher parts of training. The first two weeks of starting a running program usually provide a large shock to the system so it’s good to reinforce your goals by writing them down, posting inspiring quotes and running pictures on Instagram, getting a calendar to mark off key milestones, etc. Basically, whatever you need to stick to the running schedule. Fortunately, the 5K is not a long distance (it may seem like it in the beginning), but one that reasonable training will have you ready for. The best overall goal you can set is to not just complete the 5K, but run the 5K as a result of your new found passion for running versus returning to your “old ways” once the 5K is complete.

Respectful Concerns about the Couch to 5K Program

The Couch to 5K program has helped many people achieve the goal of completing a 5K. Make no mistake, it lays a solid foundation and is extremely well formulated to help move someone from a sedentary lifestyle to completing an athletic goal they can be proud of. However, since the emphasis is so heavily on achieving the goal of a 5K, what happens once the 5K is achieved? Many may return to their “old habits”… or if a life event happens that causes them to miss their first race day, will they sign up for the next available 5K (which is usually a week or two away) or give up all together?

This is where our 5K training program is different. Derived from the How to Start Running – Tips for Beginners and Joggers guide, the focus is on the completion of a 5K (or many 5Ks) as a by-product of becoming a runner. The running lifestyle itself goes far beyond a single 5K, and while in this instance we need to know how to properly train for and complete a 5K, it is all about continuing a healthy running schedule. Something come up that causes you to miss you 5K? No worries, because you will be in a mindset where you will just sign up for next one. Physically, this running program also ensures that you will have no doubts about your capabilities to complete a 5K, since in training you will run longer than the 5K distance. This is done intentionally to not only give you running confidence, but build the strength and endurance required to keep running! Why just barely make it to the finish line and go back to the couch, when you could shift your entire lifestyle and become a runner, enjoying all the health benefits that come with running.

The Value of a Running Your First 5K with a Group

While training for a 5K is something that can be and often is done alone, running with a group offers many benefits. At the core of our 5K running plan is that the effort of training for the 5K transforms you into a runner fully engrossed in the running lifestyle. If you are surrounded by others who love running, and most likely, have run multiple 5Ks or greater distances, it will be easier for you to meet and exceed your goal of running your first 5K. Additionally, they are there to support you during your race day or if you suffer setbacks. The running community as a whole is tremendous at assisting those at all running levels, it’s just a matter of finding a group that conforms to your goals of running a 5k and possibly beyond.

So where do you find these runners? Your local running store is a great place to start, as it is a hub of runners and running groups sharing information about upcoming races and running in general. There is normally a place in the running store where upcoming races and running groups are posted. It may even be on their running store Website. Local running stores tend to have their own running teams and conduct running sessions from their location, making it easy to meet up and get some miles in. The Road Runners Club of America also has a list of running clubs that makes it straightforward to find where the runners are.

If you end up joining a running group, just be careful to stick to your training plan and not overdo as it’s easy to get pulled into longer or faster runs that your body may not be ready for. The best way to avoid this is to be honest about your training level and tell your teammates what your goals are so you work together towards meeting them. As an example, if the running group is going for a 5 mile run, and you can only run 3, it is perfectly acceptable to stop your run at 3 miles. Just make sure you are in a safe place, and if possible, having a running buddy going the same distance or looping back to help you finish your run.

Essential 5K Running Gear

Getting the right running gear is crucial for both training and race day, and it usually ends up being the same gear! Many new runners obsess about their running clothes, watches, and shoes to the point where if everything is not in perfect order, it creates anxiety on race day. Wearing a special “shirt” on race day won’t improve your time or the distance you run, but rather it’s the engine you have under the shirt that matters.

Take a ground up approach by getting a pair of running shoes that fit your type of foot. Some of us pronate, need extra support, or even have wider feet so it’s imperative that you get properly fitted for your running shoes. If you are going to spend money, this is where you should invest. While a good pair of running shoes may seem expensive, try to remember that it is less expensive than other sports and that the health benefits will quickly rationalize the cost of your shoes. Where you get your shoes matters as well. While there are big chain stores that sell shoes, the best place to get full attention and the running shoe that fits your foot type will likely be a local running store. Many local running stores offer discounts to members of running clubs or groups.

Per the clothing to wear while running, there is a lot of high tech breathable shirts and gear that may be overkill for the 5K distance, but more appropriate for longer distances like a marathon. Your approach to getting the right running shirts and shorts is to feel comfortable. This starts with looking at the clothes you already have in your closet. If you have shorts and shirts that feel comfortable when you run, and you can layer them so you can take off or add layers depending on the weather, you most likely have found what you need. You may want the layer closest to your body to be a breathable high tech running shirt, but try what you have first. Begin your 5K running plan during nicer weather, as the burden of finding hot (summer) or cold weather (winter) running gear may add additional stress. If your current workout clothes aren’t cutting it, you can invest in some running shirts and shorts online by a site like Road Runner Sports. However, don’t buy your running shoes online unless you have already found a pair that absolutely work for you from a local running store and need another pair once your current shoes need to be replaced. I tend to always shop at the local running store even if a shoe is less expensive online to support my local stores for all they do for the running community.

The last piece of running equipment to purchase is a running watch. This is where things can get expensive fast if you aren’t careful. When you first start running, your needs are simply, so try to find a simple watch that will allow you to track the time you are out on your run. There are also a ton of running apps for smartphones if you are comfortable carrying your phone while running, but be aware that this usually takes up your data and if you drop your phone you may lose it! It may be better to get a running watch for this very reason. As you progress, you may want to invest in a GPS running watch to better gauge your pace, distance, and routes.

5K Running Plan

The goal of this 5K running plan is two-fold. First, it is intended to give you the physical, mental, and emotional confidence required to complete a 5K. Second, and more importantly, is to introduce you to the running lifestyle and community so that beyond your 5K, you are able continue running and gain the health benefits that come with it. With this stated, let’s start with your “First Steps” towards the 5K.

First Steps – Physically Preparing for a 5K

Physically preparing for a 5K seems like a daunting task, and that is why it is critical to take small steps, and be proud of every accomplishment. Your initial goals are not to run a 5K but rather start engaging the muscle memory that is capable of running a 5K. While many runners will strongly hold to the belief that in order to get faster or run longer, you just need to keep running, it actually requires a balanced and thoughtful approach to be a runner. Many runners have gotten injured because they don’t move laterally as part of a supporting exercise program, or have poor dietary habits that limit their potential. To that end, as you follow the 5K running program, you need to support your running across four key areas of cross training, strength training, dietary, and sleep changes. I know this sounds like a lot, but by starting small you will see how these four pillars make running much easier and a less daunting task. By making these changes, you will discover new found energy and confidence, but it requires incremental changes. If in this process you discover that it takes longer or shorter than 12 weeks to “feel ready” for your 5K, listen to your body and know that while the distance seems long now, it will become second nature by slowly adapting your body to a higher level of activity. Who knows, you may find that the 5K was too easy and you are ready to take on new challenges, but any of these should be introduced by following a complete running plan that compliments your lifestyle so you can sustain a consistent running schedule.

Cross Training and Strength Training

Cross training and strength training are two imperatives for supporting your running regime. Like starting a new running program, these should be gradually introduced so that you can sustain the physical load and time commitment. Cross training, whether it is biking, swimming, or elliptical helps to develop supporting muscles while still giving you cardiovascular gains. It also gives you a fall back workout in case you get injured, its bad weather outside, or need a mental break from running.

Runners should lift weights as well and get into a routine that focus on muscle strength and endurance. Cross-fit may be overkill for runners and is a sport in itself, but there are good lessons to be learned by starting and maintaining a weight circuit program that not only works your arms and legs, but your back and core as well.

Combining these two activities focuses on total body fitness and you need a total body to run! The goal is to strengthen the supporting muscles not normally worked by running, as well as your joints, for injury prevention and use the new found strength and endurance to your advantage. As an example, when I was a collegiate runner, I would average upwards of 80-100 miles a week of running. Post collegiate, I dropped down to 35-45 miles a week combined with cross training and strength training. The end result was less injury, faster times, greater explosive power (especially when running up hills), and feeling more in balance with my life obligations outside of running.

Dietary and Sleep Changes

The final two pillars required to support your 5K running plan are dietary and sleep changes. These should not be massive shifts that you can’t maintain, but rather gradually introduced acknowledging that going “cold turkey” with diet changes is something that many can’t sustain. From a dietary standpoint, try to consume less sugar, alcohol, and wheat. Wheat is a gluten grain and may negatively affect your immune system, especially if your gluten intolerant. You may hear many runners taught the need to “carbo load” before a race, but for a shorter distance like the 5K it may be overkill. If you must carbo load, evaluate if gluten free carbo loading is an option. Overall, maintaining a balanced diet is the goal and with 5K training, you can easily obsess about calorie counts. Any obsession while running, or elsewhere in life, will cause harm so just try to make incremental adjustments and know that you can only do your best. Lastly, don’t fall into the trap that because you are running you can eat whatever you want. Many runners will say “if the fire’s burning, I can eat anything”. This usually leads them to run out of energy, develop poor habits, and not meet their goals. It’s better to focus on “junk in junk out”, as in if you feed your body junk, you will get junk in return and your body should be treated as a well-cared for running machine built to last a lifetime.

From a sleep perspective, the guidance is simple. Get 8 hours of sleep a night and if you can’t get 8 hours of sleep try to adjust your lifestyle. Have a favorite TV show that lasts an hour? Ask yourself if you want to spend your life watching others live or start living your life! If you aren’t getting enough sleep and attempt to maintain a running program, you may end up hating running and running will hate you in return by allowing an injury to creep up since you didn’t give your body enough rest to recover from your previous training sessions and life events. The reality is that life events occur that will limit your sleep, but it’s okay to step back from training, as you can always start again! If you find that things are simply too overwhelming and you don’t have time to run, see if your friends and family can help support your healthy goals by taking some load of your life events so you can get out the door for a run. The beautiful thing about the 5K distance is that it doesn’t take a lot of time and miles to train for. If you find that no matter what you do, you can’t get 8 hours of sleep, such as being a new parent… try to limit your exercise… even if it’s just walking 20 minutes a day. This will keep you moving without wearing you out.

First Steps – Mentally Preparing for a 5K

While longer distances, such as the marathon require a lot of mental preparation, the 5K is a distance where you can harm yourself by overthinking your race. There are three areas you need to re-assure yourself to be mentally prepared to run a 5K. The first is to not worry about being able to run the 5K distance. If you have done your training, you have done all you can and should have actually run longer than a 5K which is a huge confidence boost. The second is worrying about your finishing time. You will either feel like you left a lot of energy out on the course, or tired when you look at your running time. When you do, whether it is slower or faster than expected it only represents a single point in time and you can improve upon your time the next race, or if your next 5K isn’t as fast, just enjoy that you ran that fast as its “better to be a has been than a has not!”. Lastly, if you have life events that are complicating or stopping you from race day, don’t worry, there is a race about every weekend. Just sign up and run the next 5K. In short, don’t stress out, there are a ton of 5Ks out there to run, and you will have all the strength you need to not only achieve your goal of running a 5K, but you might even surprise yourself.

First Steps – Emotionally Preparing for a 5K

Your first 5K should not be stressful. It’s easy to let it consume you and feel like everything has to be in perfect order for you to even set foot at the starting line. The reality is that “feeling pumped” before a race is not an indicator of running a great 5K, it’s your preparation that determines your run. You should feel excited about your 5K and it’s normal to be a little nervous. Even the most elite athletes get a bit of “jitters” before the starting gun goes off. The bottom line is that if you follow the training plan, you have done all you can. There is no promise that you will not have a setback during your race (more about setbacks later in this article), but know that these pass and are all part of the running experience… which is where you should focus… excited to be a runner where running your 5K is the reward for all your hard work.

First Steps – Signing Up For Your First 5K

Signing up for your 5K is not very complicated, but can feel monumental. It can feel very stressful, but remember this is a reward for all your training to reach this point, so find one you enjoy. I recommend signing up 4-6 weeks out from your running goal of being ready for the 5K in week 12 of the 5K running plan. This gives you enough time to coordinate travel without making it such a focal point that you lose focus or get upset if a live event occurs that causes you to miss your 5K. If you miss your 5K, just sign up for one the next week. Many 5Ks also offer an early bird discount if you register early. Some large events, such as marathons, also have a 5K race option. Don’t sign up for an alternative 5K such as a trail race or obstacle course for your first 5K, but rather a local road race so you can easily coordinate your attendance and get a true sense of what a typical 5K road race is like. Once you complete your first 5K, you may likely want to do more, and if you are returning to running after a long layoff, it’s a great way to regain your confidence. RunSignUp and Active are two great Websites to find and signup for a 5K. Your local running store may also have signups for races, as would a running club. If you are in a running club or group, check if you can receive any discounts on the race by virtue of your running club membership.

First Steps – Getting Your 5K Running Base

Training for your 5K requires establishing a strong running base that allows you the strength and endurance to not only run a 5K with confidence, but shift your body and schedule into that of a runner along with the supporting cross and strength training. The following 5K running plan is 12 weeks long and is intentionally 3 weeks longer than the Couch to 5K as the goal is to ensure that you just don’t make the finish line, but feel like you could run a mile more! In fact, as part of your training you will run longer than a 5K which builds up great physical readiness and mental / emotional strength in preparation for race day. As such, here are a few things to remember while training:

  • Don’t increase your total mileage more than 10% – 15% a week
  • If you feel tired, it’s okay to back off and take a day off to rest
  • The 5K running schedule includes cross training and strength training, but don’t forget about the importance of diet and sleep
  • You will be running 3 days a week and the focus is on quality not quantity of miles
  • Don’t be intimated by how many miles you will be running by the end of the running plan, as you will have more than enough strength and endurance once you get to that point
  • Since the goal is to become a runner with the 5K being a “reward” for all your efforts, you may want to continue your new running lifestyle. If so, please read our comprehensive guide on how to start running
Week Miles Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
1 3 1 mile, walk as needed 1 mile, walk as needed Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 1 mile at relaxed pace, walk as needed
2 3.5 1 mile, walk as needed 1 mile, walk as needed Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 1.5 miles at relaxed pace, walk as needed
3 4 1 mile 1.25 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 1.75 miles at relaxed pace, walk as needed
4 4.5 1 mile Cross Train/Strength Train 1.5 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 2 miles at relaxed pace
5 5 Intervals – 1 mile, .5 mile warmup, .25 mile with 30 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .25 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 1.5 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 2.5 miles at relaxed pace
6 5.5 Intervals – 1.5 miles, .5 mile warmup, .5 mile with 30 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 1.5 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 2.5 miles at relaxed pace
7 6 Intervals – 1.5 miles, .5 mile warmup, .5 mile with 60 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 1.5 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 3 miles at relaxed pace
8 6.5 Intervals – 1.5 miles, .5 mile warmup with 60 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 2 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 3 miles at relaxed pace
9 7 Intervals – 2 miles, .5 mile warmup, 1 mile with 60 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 2 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 3 miles at relaxed pace
10 7.75 Intervals – 2 miles, .5 mile warmup, 1 mile with 60 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 2 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 3.75 miles at relaxed pace
11 8.5 Intervals – 2 miles, .5 mile warmup, 1 mile with 60 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 2.5 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 4 miles at relaxed pace
12 9.5 Intervals – 2.5 miles, 1 mile warmup, 1 mile with 60 seconds at increased pace, 60 seconds at normal pace, .5 mile cool down Cross Train/Strength Train 2.5 miles Cross Train/Strength Train Long Slow Distance (LSD) – 4.5 miles at relaxed pace

First Steps – It’s Race Day, Here Are Some 5K Race Tips

Race day is here and you are about to step foot at the starting line of your first 5K! You may have a lot of emotions and thoughts going on at this point (please read the sections on mentally and emotionally preparing for your 5K), but you can only do what is in your control. With that in mind, here are a few tips:

  • Get to the race early to pick up your packet as you don’t want to be late for the start of the race
  • Don’t run the first mile too fast, but rather try to stay comfortable the first mile, feeling like you are pushing a bit during the second mile, and sustain your second mile effort into the third mile. As soon as you can see the finish line, start picking up your pace and finish strong!
  • Start in the appropriate pace group and be aware of the crowd around you. In essence, don’t start at the front of the line, but try to find others of a similar pace and try to give others around you room as you start. You may find that are walking / jogging up to the start line because of the amount of runners, but know that your actual time doesn’t begin until you reach the start line
  • Sip, don’t gulp, water at the water stops
  • If you don’t feel the best, it’s okay to walk until you can get back into your pace
  • If for some reason, you have to drop out of the 5K, just sign up for the next one. If you have an injury or setback (more on unplanned setbacks in the coming sections), know that you did all you can and there will be a path to recovery or options to stay healthy beyond running
  • Most of all, enjoy your 5K running experience and cheer for everyone, as they are cheering for you!

If you need more race day tips, check out planning for your first running race.

First Steps – Expanding On Your 5K Running Base

Once you have hit the necessary mileage to run a 5K, you may want to train for a longer distance or train to run a faster 5K. These are not mutually exclusive, and even without running more days a week it’s possible to add more miles or speed and strength workouts. At some point you will likely end up running on a track for the speed aspects via intervals, adding a day or two of running a week for longer distances, and running up hills or adding tempo runs to your running schedule. In any scenario, you need to work into this slowly while ensuring that you can maintain it with your lifestyle outside of running and sleep demands. Some helpful ideas and schedule for expanding your running base are within our How to Start Running guide.

Planning for the Unplanned 5K Run Setback

It is not guaranteed that you will have a running setback. Some runners never get injured or fall victim to mental doubts or burnout, and many setbacks may not be physical but demands from external factors such as a life event (parenthood, work demands, etc.). Many runners also don’t get injured while running but while doing some sort of other activity.

If you have a setback, it will likely be one of two types. 1) You have a setback but with rest and recovery will be able to run again. 2) You have a setback, such as a significant injury, that will not allow you to run but will allow you to participate in other activities.

In the first type of setback, the 5K is a beautiful distance to recover too as the distance and effort required to train for and run a 5K is nowhere near what longer distances, like a marathon demand. You may not be as fast as you used to be prior to your setback, but you can still get out and enjoy the running lifestyle. This is especially true for runners returning to the sport who may not be able to run the longer distances anymore.

In the second type of setback, you may not be able to run anymore. It is important to grieve for the loss but be able to move on to the new activity taking the lessons learned and experiences with you. In fact, it doesn’t mean that you have to leave the running community whatsoever, as you can be involved coaching others, helping out at races, etc. The key is to remember that being a runner is more than putting miles in, it’s the understanding that since you embrace the running mindset and community, you are a runner. If you decide to leave the community of running, please find an alternate activity to stay active and healthy. Work closely with your health care professional to determine what activities and levels are right for you.

Since setbacks are such a delicate area, we devoted an entire section of our running guide for dealing with running setbacks with tips and guidance you may find helpful to get on the path to recovery.

Next Steps – You Have Run Your 5K, Now What?

Congratulations on completing your 5K! So what’s next? The first thing you should do is stay in your running schedule with one modification. Since most 5K races are on Saturday, instead of doing your normal workout on the Monday after a race, walk for a mile. This will allow you to keep your body moving while slowing things down. You will either feel like you need a little more rest or have the urge to run, which is a great indicator of what your body needs. If you are ready to run more, there are so many options. Recall that running the 5K was a reward/by-product of you using the 5K goal to become a runner. Now that you have achieved this goal, you can continue running 5Ks, train for longer distances like the 10K, start trail running, or just run for the sake of running! Whatever path you choose, work into it slowly being mindful of your responsibilities outside of running, but with the confidence that you can and will do it.

Sources/Further Reading on How to Train for a 5K:

Find a Running Club

The Best Cross-Training Exercises for Runners

Is Bread Bad For Your Health?

A GF Runner’s Diet: Gluten-Free Carbo Loading

Search Races

5K Races – Find Your Next 5K

5 comments

    • Team MTF Post authorReply

      Great question Grant. While Lyme disease is usually something trail runners worry about, your 5K training may take you off-road and into dangerous territory. Lyme disease is an incredibly complex disease in itself. Coupled with the co-infections that ticks carry, it can cause a “double-whammy” that even if the Lyme is treated, the co-infections alone could cause life long or life ending circumstances. If you participate in any off-road running, including running across grass, its important to always check for ticks post your run. Get your clothes into the washer and dryer immediately after a run (a good idea for anyone to avoid a “stinky house”) and if you find any ticks (a rash from a tick bite only shows up maybe half the time) seek medical attention immediately with a Lyme Literate doctor.

      Lyme disease is very controversial with a lot of outdated science in the mainstream, and not enough funding and resources via alternative medicine so it may be a battle. Not trying to scare you away from the trails, but if you decide to run off-road consider preventative aspects via bug spray for ticks (there are non Deet options such as permethrin) and always do a thorough check post run.

      Here’s a great article from Runner’s World related to Lyme Disease and Running: http://www.runnersworld.com/health/runners-and-lyme-disease

  1. Pingback: Top Running Workouts - Long Slow Distance (LSD) Runs

  2. John Reply

    My wife and I have made it a goal to run our first 5k together later this year for a charity event. Neither of us are very good runners though, and we’ve been out of shape for quite some time. I thought it was really interesting how the article mentions that you shouldn’t ever really increase you total mileage to more than 15% a week. This is good to know so we don’t end up over-training and injuring ourselves leading up to our 5k.

    • Team MTF Post authorReply

      Congrats to you and your wife on the 5K training. Slow and steady is the way to go. It will make running more enjoyable and help reinforce good running habits that will last after your 5K, where your 5K becomes a sort of “running reward” for all the work you have put in.

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