How To Run Your First 5K

Three steps to go from a complete beginner to running over three miles.

Poor endurance is an incredibly common problem among new runners. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity, or one hour and fifteen minutes of high intensity activity, every week. In order to spend that much time on their feet, beginner runners need to focus on increasing their endurance.

Five kilometers (approximately 3.1 miles) is a great endurance goal for beginning runners. It’s hard enough that most adult beginners won’t be able to achieve it immediately, but attainable enough that most new runners can build to the distance within a matter of weeks or months.

It’s also the most popular distance for local road races. Signing up for one of these 5k races can add an extra layer of motivation and accountability to your running.

For a brand new runner though, running 5k without stopping may sound like an intimidating goal. Fortunately, there are a few tried-and-true strategies that new runners can use to quickly build their endurance:

Alternate Running and Walking

When I first started running, I was so out of shape that I could only run for a minute or two at a time. Unfortunately, going on a two-minute run and then heading home wouldn’t do much to build my endurance. The solution was to alternate running and walking.

As a complete beginner, each of your runs should start with a short walking warm-up, and then consist of a series of short runs with walking breaks in between. Despite their short length, these runs are not sprints — stick to low or moderate intensity as best as you can.

The exact timing of the intervals will vary based on your current fitness level. Don’t be afraid to start with more walking than running, such as running for one minute, then walking for two. The total timing of your entire running session should be about half an hour.

As your fitness improves, try to reduce the amount of time you spend walking and increase the amount of time you spend running. You can time your intervals exactly, or go based on feel.

Many new runners are reluctant to use this “run/walk” method because it feels like cheating. This is a shame, because it’s one of the fastest ways for beginners to improve their endurance. Eventually, you’ll be able to remove the walking intervals completely.

Slow Down

Another way to start running farther is to slow down. Many new runners place are more concerned with improving their speed than in improving their distance. They end up treating every run as if it was a race.

This is actually completely counterproductive. If you go all out every time that you run, you’ll risk over-training and injury. Instead, most of your runs should be at a low-intensity, casual pace. Aim for a speed at which you can carry on a conversation.

By slowing down, you’ll be able to run much further. Many beginners who think they can’t run 5k are actually just going way too fast.

If you’re having trouble getting past the one- or two-mile marks on your runs, try slowing down your pace by at least one minute per mile. You’ll be surprised by how much farther you’re immediately able to run.

Stay Consistent

Finally, in order to run a full 5k, you need to stay consistent with your running schedule. Aim to run 3 to 4 days a week, and make sure not to take any weeks off.

It can be easy to feel discouraged when you’re first starting to run, especially if you start comparing yourself with other runners. When I began, I couldn’t resist comparing myself with more experienced runners, and with new runners who started in better shape than me.

There are plenty of athletic teenagers who can knock out a 5k as their first ever run, but for most adults, it takes time to build up to this distance. Expect to take at least a couple of weeks before you’re able to run 5k, and possible several months.

The single most important thing that you can do is to stay consistent. Far too many runners give up after just a few weeks. Stick with it and you’ll be achieving distances and times you never imagined were possible!

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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