Get to Know the 5K, the Most Approachable Distance in Running
All your questions about the OG distance, answered.
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Whether you’re new to the running world or a seasoned vet with enough pairs of retired shoes to fill a walk-in closet, there’s a race distance that deserves a spot on your running bucket list: the 5K. For new runners, the allure of this distance lies within completing it—developing the endurance and building your stamina and strength to get from the start line to the finish line on your own two feet. The feeling of finishing your first 5K is a rarely-replicated rush of self-efficacy and pride, and it’s often the defining milestone that helps that runner allow herself to finally self-identify as a “runner.”
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Experienced runners who have been logging regular weekly miles for months or years frequently continue striving to complete increasingly longer races, working up to the marathon, and oftentimes, the 5K falls somewhat off their radar. However, the magic of the 5K is that the distance has plenty of benefits for beginners and advanced runners alike.
But what exactly is a 5K? How far is a 5K in miles? How long does it take to run a 5K? Keep reading for the answers to these questions and everything you need to know about one of the most celebrated distances in the running world.
How Far is a 5K?
The “K” component of the 5K distance stands for the metric distance of a kilometer, so a 5K is 5,000 meters. For those of us in the United States who are more accustomed to miles, this converts to slightly longer than 3.1 miles. Don’t worry if you don’t want to run with your phone and don’t have a fancy GPS watch: most road and trail 5K races will have signs (aptly called mile markers) along the course, marking each mile of the race so you know how much is left.
How Long Does It Take to Run a 5K?
Obviously, the length of time it takes to run a 5K depends on the pace you’re moving. For example, if you run each mile in 10 minutes, your 5K time will be slightly over 31 minutes. Many beginning runners aim to maintain somewhere in the 9 to 14 minutes-per-mile range, which will result in a 5K time of somewhere between 27 and 43 minutes.
Can I Walk in a 5K Race?
Absolutely! One of the best things about running as a sport is that the community is very accepting and diverse. We are all united by the common goal of finishing the race, and you can do that however you see fit—walking, “jogging,” running, or a combination thereof (or in a wheelchair or hand cycle if you have certain physical limitations). In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a 5K race open to the general public that doesn’t have at least several walkers, if not a significant portion of the entrants. You are free to walk the entire race or take walk breaks wherever and whenever you need them, and deliberating planning in walk breaks can actually be a very successful strategy for completing your first 5K. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed—walking is totally normal, and you’ll have plenty of fellow walkers by your side. Even some experienced runners choose to walk certain sections of a race to build in some muscular and cardiovascular recovery.
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How Do You Train for a 5K?
If you’ve never run before, or if the last time you remember running likely involved the famed mile run in gym class decades ago, the thought of being physically able to actually complete a 5K run may seem near impossible, or certainly quite daunting. You’re not alone; running 3.1 miles without stopping is an impressive feat. The good news is that barring certain musculoskeletal injuries, with proper training, you can absolutely do it.
No matter where you are in your fitness journey, and no matter what size and shape you are, a 5K is totally doable. There are many popular programs such as Couch to 5K that progress you slowly over a few months from simply walking a few minutes to running the full 3.1 miles. If you’re brand new to running, look for beginner plans (we have a great one) that gradually build in time and duration. It may take roughly 12 weeks to train for your first 5K.
If you have some running under your belt, or if you’ve been walking regularly or doing another form of cardio (such as an elliptical or cycling), you’ll be able to train for a 5K more quickly as you will already have a good fitness base. Depending on the time and energy you have to train, and your goal for the race, plan to spend a month or so training before race day.
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Most beginning running plans incorporate walking and running, progressively increasing the length of the running intervals and decreasing the walking time. Some plans incorporate cross-training activities, which are other forms of exercise that supplement your training. Swimming, biking, and elliptical trainers, for example, are great activities that can supplement your running workouts without inflicting the same high-impact stress on your bones, joints, muscles, and connective tissues. Runners who jump into training too aggressively, or overtrain without allowing their body to have adequate rest between workouts, put themselves at risk for injuries. As much as it is exciting to start building your fitness and running further and faster each workout, taking rest days is a critical component of any training program. Resist the temptation to be an “overachiever” and run every day. Follow your plan and give your body that well-deserved day off to rebuild.
Do You Need to Run the Full 5K Distance Before Your Actual Race?
It’s a common assumption among new runners that they need to run at least 3.1 miles in training before the real race in order to ensure they can finish the race. However, you don’t have to have run the full 5K distance ahead of time to be adequately trained and “in shape” to complete the distance on race day. Particularly because you can always stop and walk if need be, as long as you pace yourself on race day and have a base of fitness with some running under your belt, you should be physically prepared to complete the race. With that said, the race will be more enjoyable—and likely more successful—if you can run/walk at least 30 minutes, and if you have covered the full distance in training, you’ll be able to toe the starting line with that much more confidence that you’ll be throwing your arms into the air victoriously as you cross the finish line.
Tips for Running Your First 5K
Most runners experience a range of emotions simultaneously as race day approaches—from excitement to nervousness and anxiety—especially if you’re tackling your first race. And while pre-race nerves are completely normal, being prepared for the race and executing a smart race plan will help ensure the run goes smoothly and should ease though jitters on the big day. The following tips will help you stand on the starting line with the wisdom of a more experienced runner, even if it’s your first stab at the 5K distance.
Set a realistic goal.
Think about the training you’ve done, and set a realistic goal. A great goal is just to finish the race and enjoy the experience. If you do want to set a time goal, use the average pace you have been running during workouts.
Consider joining a running group or finding a running buddy.
One of the best things about running is the running community. Running is a social activity, and some of the best conversations and friendships are built over the miles shared stride by stride. Look for other women to run with—perhaps in your neighborhood, at your job, in your parenting group—or look into a local running group. The miles always fly by when you have a buddy to enjoy them with. If you prefer to run alone but want a race day companion, consider befriending another woman or group of women on race day morning. Once the race is underway, you might even find that your pace naturally settles into the same one as a fellow racer. Encourage one another as your run—most runners are friendly and happy to share the journey.
Don’t try anything new on race day.
This is an important one. It’s super fun to have fancy new running clothes, but race day isn’t the time to take them on their debut whirl. Your body likes routine and predictability. Resist the temptation to try a new breakfast, wear brand new shoes, or guzzle a sports drink you’ve never had on race day morning. You won’t be able to predict how your body will respond, and you might find yourself doubled over with cramps or blisters, wishing you had stuck to what you have been doing in training.
Fuel and hydrate appropriately.
Throughout training and on race day, fueling your body with nutritious foods and staying properly hydrated are important factors that contribute to having good workouts.
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You’re apt to be very nervous on race morning, so allow yourself plenty of time to arrive to the course so you can pick up your race number or register, get the lay of the land, warm up or stretch a little, and make the all-important bathroom trip. Bathroom lines are notoriously long on race mornings, and you might even find your nervous stomach is landing you in the line more than once.
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Harness your fabled tortoise, and let go of hare. In other words, try to run the race at a steady pace, and at the same pace you maintained for all your training runs. Something powerful happens on race day: when the starting gun sounds, your legs suddenly feel like they have turbo-powered engines in them. Racers around you will blast off sprinting. Take a deep breath and try to hold back, running at a comfortable pace you can maintain for the whole race. You’ll end up passing all those eager runners who went out too hard.
Soak in the experience.
You only have one first 5K, and chances are, it’ll be an empowering experience you’ll look back on fondly for years to come. Enjoy race day as much as you can. Take in the crowds, the music, the cheering. Keep your eyes up as you race and enjoy the novel scenery. Try to resist the urge to run with headphones, even if you do in training. Be present and live in the moment of your race. Celebrate what you’ve done!
Thank the volunteers.
Even before you arrive on race day, dozens to hundreds of volunteers have helped get the race off the ground, from setting up the course to handing out water, directing traffic to draping that finisher’s medal around your neck. They often go unrecognized. Thanking them for their support will make their day, and after all, they made yours possible.