How to choose + train for your first 5k race

Races are my jam, always have been and always will be. There’s absolutely nothing more motivating to me than knowing I’ve signed up and paid my way into an upcoming race. It doesn’t matter the distance, they’re the same come race day-exciting, nerve wracking and down right fun!

So, you’ve decided to sign up for your first ever 5k, NOW WHAT?

Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. In the time I’ve been running over the past 10 years (how did I get that old already?) or so, I’ve completed countless 5k’s, 10k’s, 4 half marathons and a full marathon! I’ve had my chance to dabble in a variety of different races and distances. While the beast of all beasts, the full marathon is like no other, I’d have to admit the half marathon is most definitely my favorite distance. It’s just enough to get you knee deep in long runs, but just enough to make you thank your lucky stars that you aren’t having to comlete an addiontal 13.1 miles when you split off from those crazy full marathoners on race day. Saying that though, the 5k is my close second favorite race distance. I find myself regularly running around 3 miles each time I head out for a run. It’s such a good distance to break a sweat and really get the blood flowing, but won’t take all the energy out of you when you’re done. (Well, most days at least.)

There are definitely a few key things that I wish I had known before I signed up for my first ever 5k and I want to share them with you! While each race experience is different for everyone there are some things that really do make a difference when you go in knowing in advance vs finding out when you toe the line for those 3.2 miles.

Let’s start from the very beginning, mmmk?

So you’ve been thinking long and hard and have decided running a 5k is on your goal list. Cool. Let’s pick out the one that fits you best!

Tips on picking out your first ever 5k:

1) Find a race that’s local, (i.e. within 15-20 minutes from your house.) No one wants to drive an hour and a half before their first ever race. The nerves kick in and that hour long drive feels like an eternity.

2) Make sure the race date is at least 8-10 weeks out from training day #1. You want to have plenty of time to be prepared. Just when you think it’s “just 3.2 miles”, you end up regretting not taking those weeks before putting in some training time to get yourself physically ready to tackle that distance. While it is probably way more do-able to just “wing” a 5k race, I wouldn’t really suggest it just to prevent injury.

3) Pick a race in the best season for YOU. Some people prefer to train for/run races in the Fall (in my opinion, the BEST races!), others in the Spring, a few in the Winter and there are those crazies who like the Summer races. (Not me.) What weather fits you best? Summer humidity can make a race 10 million times harder, so that’s why I choose to run more races in the Fall than any other time. Definitely something to think about and consider before signing up.

4) If you are a social butterfly, head to your local running store and join their 5k training group. I know there are SEVERAL around me and they do group training runs weekly to prepare for an upcoming race. This makes things easier for accountability and you can find a few friends that run at your pace to keep you company. They usually have lists of upcoming races to run too so this will make picking one out even easier!

5) Not a social butterfly? No biggie! You can just google upcoming 5k races in your area and I’m sure you’ll find a running list to choose from. If you’re in Arkansas, I always head over to to check out their calendar to plan for my upcoming races.

6) Most races are usually for a significant cause or purpose. I used to not really have any idea what all the money went for, but once I realized that some are for causes near and dear to my heart-it made the picking out process even better! What’s better than running for a great cause?

7) Consider whether a small race or a big race would be a good fit for you. Do you get overwhelmed by large crowds? If so, I’d suggest starting small. While the smaller more local races are lacking some of the “big” race perks, they can be a great place for beginners! You have room to run from the get-go because you’re not bombarded by giant groups in and all around the start line. Parking is usually easier and exiting is usually less of a headache due to less people. You also get THAT much closer to getting a good rank in the race results because there aren’t as many people in your age group! Bigger races can sometimes be equally as fun to start with too! The expos are usually packed to the brim with awesome running gear to load up on. Your race day packets are usually filled with some pretty awesome goodies and you almost always get a medal and a T-shirt! The crowds at big races on the sidelines also help keep you going when the going gets tough mid race. Just a few factors to weigh when decided which race would be best to start with.

8) Know if the starting time is 8:00AM or 8:00PM. Some races start in the afternoon while most are morning starts. This is definitely a factor if you’re not much of a morning person. While there are less to choose from that start later in the day, there are still a handful to select if you’d like!

9) Once you’ve selected your race, commit by signing up and paying the entry fee! Don’t wait until the day of because your race may sell out! I’ve learned this the hard way by waiting until the week of and missing out on my race of choice that I’ve been training for. No fun at all.

Have your 5k picked out and all signed up? Awesome!! Now the work begins!

How to train for your first ever 5k:

1.) Pick out a training plan that works for your schedule. There are SO many different training plans on the world wide web that you can pick from. Some people love to use the app “Couch to 5k” which is a great starting point! This helps you build up your distance by starting with walking intervals for so many seconds/minutes then building up to your goal running distance as you progress each week. Some of my favorite plans are from Hal Higdon and you can find his “Novice 5k” plan >>here<<. There are also a ton on too! Like I said, there’s no lack of options out there if you just do a little bit of research. A training plan is definitely a necessity though so that you have a guide to get you to your first ever 5k finish line.

2.) Know that whatever training plan you select, is just that–a plan. It’s not set in stone that you are required to get in EVERY single run on that calendar. If you miss one, have to modify due to scheduling conflicts, it’s NOT the end of the world. I can promise you that you WON’T die on race day by missing a few scheduled runs. Use it as a guide to prepare you for race day. Don’t beat yourself up when life gets in the way because it happens to everyone. Definitely try to aim to hit most of the runs/walks on the calendar and do the best you can.

3.) Choose whether you’d like to do run/walk intervals or if your goal is to run the entire thing. This will help you determine how your training runs should go. If you plan on running the entire race come race day, then you’ll want to practice running longer distances up to about 3.2 miles so that you’re more than ready. If you plan of doing run/walk intervals (i.e. run 30 seconds, walk 30 seconds) the entire time, then you’ll want to practice that too during your training runs. Whatever you do, don’t decide the night before the race that your goal is to run the whole thing when you haven’t practiced doing that in the previous weeks. This will most likely only lead to disappointment on your first ever 5k and no one wants that! Same if you plan on walking, practice your pace in your training days so you’re well prepared for just how you want things to go on actual race day.

4) Have dress rehearsal runs/walks. Pick out your race day outfit a few weeks in advance and go for a few runs in it. This will ensure you’ll be comfortable in the clothing you’ve chosen and nothing will rub you the wrong way. No one wants to deal with shorts/shirts that ride up or arm bands that fall down every 2 seconds come actual race day.

5) Have “dress rehearsals” for your food/water too! Practice what you’ll eat the night before your race, the morning of and after. Everyone has different digestive systems so you want to make sure yours isn’t unhappy the day before or day of your race. It’s tempting to try new treats when you see them passing them out mid-race –but don’t do it! You could end up having to stop half way through because your stomach just isn’t having it, which would be NO good. I suggest doing these rehearsals about 3-5 times during your training period to nail down exactly what works best for you. Some foods make you feel sluggish and some give you energy, so try out a variety and you’ll find what works best. *Also, there’s no real need to have those “gu”s or gels for a 5k race distance. Typically you’ll start needing to have those in your plan once your runs pass the 45 minute mark in longer distances. Those only become necessary when you’re needing to replace calories lost and gain some energy.

6) Practice running in the morning around the same time your race will start. If the gun goes off at 8:00AM on race day, practice waking up at 7:00AM and getting ready to go to run by 8:00. Same for PM races.

7) Know that everyone is a beginner at some point and HAS to start somewhere. Don’t get lost in comparing yourself to veteran runners who could run 20 miles in their sleep. You can get there one day if you so choose.

What to do the night before your first ever 5k:

1) Hydrate. Drink plenty of water the day before to make sure you’re fully hydrated.

2) Head to bed early! Get plenty of rest so you’re ready to get going bright and early!

3) Lay out your race clothes. (Socks, shoes, headphones, shorts, shirt, headbands, race bib (including safety pins), chip for your shoe (if they give you one), etc.

4) Charge your electronics (phone, watch, Fitbit, headphones)

5) Eat a solid dinner. Nothing too fancy and no need to necessarily “carb load.” It’s a misconception that people think they need to load up on carbs before any and every run. When you run a 5k race, you typically burn around 2-300 calories. This is significantly less than running a half or full marathon when you’re burning upwards of 1-2000 calories during the race. A basic bowl of spaghetti is usually my go-to pre-race day dinner.

6) Set your alarm!! (Maybe 2 if you tend to oversleep).

7) Pick up your race day packet! This is the fun part! Some races have super awesome race expos and give you tons of coupons and goodies in the race bag! Plus you get your T-SHIRT!! Woo hoo!!

Tips on race day:

1) Get to the race location about 30 minutes beforehand. There may be a ton of people around and parking may be a little crazy. If you get there beforehand you’ll have plenty of time to get to the start line, stretch, drink a little bit of water, whatever you need to get going.

2) Eat breakfast as you normally did before your training runs. Don’t, and I repeat DO NOT try a new breakfast before your race begins. Trust me, your stomach will thank you for keeping things the same if you eat as you normally would.

3) Soak up the excitement of the race day. This is my favorite part! The energy of being surrounded by other runners/walkers and the people on the sidelines is the absolute best!! It’s energy you can’t really find anywhere else!

4) When you feel like you need to walk, do it! The adrenaline will be pumping when you take off and quickly dies down about a mile in. So, if your legs are starting to ache and your lungs are burning, don’t feel the pressure to keep pushing yourself. You want to enjoy this race, not kill yourself trying to finish it. The beauty of a races is that there is such a variety of people going alongside you. There are people ranging in all ages, pushing strollers, running with toddlers, senior runners in their 80’s (that I’ve been passed by countless times!), kids, teens, moms, dads, grandpas, grandmas, you name it—they’re there. Remember, run this race as you’ve practiced and do what works for you!

5) Don’t go out too fast. Like I said before, the adrenaline is pumping when the gun goes off and you take off running. Remember to keep your pace comfortable because if you run too quickly too fast, you’ll burn out very quickly. This will again lead to disappointment and frustration that you’re struggling getting to the finish line. I promise, 3.2 doesn’t sound that far, but when you’re running on fatigued legs it seems like an eternity.

6) Line up according to your pace. I usually get in line mid way as a runner. Some races require walkers to start in the back to avoid being run over by runners. So, find yourself a comfortable spot that fits you according to your race day plan.

7) Soak all the good stuff up! Enjoy that first ever 5k PR. (Personal Record!) You won’t ever get that “first 5k” feeling back so make sure to soak in all the butterflies and fun running vibes!!

8) Last but not least, congratulate yourself and get some rest after all that hard work! Grab yourself a celebratory breakfast afterwards and plan your next race! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Trust me, once you’ve been bitten by the race bug you won’t ever go back!

*Also, I like to keep each race bib for my memory wall and any medals I get, I keep to hang up on my medal rack. Runners are so sentimental ;).

Good luck on your first race!! I hope you knock it out of the park and enjoy every last drop of the race day fun!!


Have you ever run a 5k before?

If so, what tips do you have for beginners?

What race goals are on your list for the rest of the year?

As always, From Chelsea