So you finally took the steps to sign up for your first 5k.
You’ve put in the miles and followed a training plan.
So now how do you make your first 5k race a success?
I’m here to give you 23 tips to help you rock that first 5k so you can jump for joy, or just give a fist pump if you’re exhausted, when you’re done.
How do I know these things?
Well, I’ll give you a little background on my racing experience.
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My Racing Experience
I ran my first 5k over 13 years ago. I had been running off and on for 6 years, but was very nervous to actually race against other people. Lots of fears ran through my head.
Will I be able to finish?
Will my time be fast or really slow?
Will I hit my goal time?
Will I embarrass myself somehow?
So I guess you could say I was afraid I would fail.
All of these fears and more ran through my head. Being a perfectionist and incredibly competitive, I expected a lot of myself and put a lot of pressure on myself to do well.
I almost backed out of the race on the way to it. But I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to go for it.
I entered the race with my husband, and was hoping he would not beat me by too much. We trained similarly, but despite the fact that I had 5-6 more years of running experience on him, he was still faster than me. I didn’t want to be too slow.
But before I go any further, let me assure you, there is nothing wrong with being slow. It’s all relative anyway. What may be slow to you, is really fast to someone else.
Everyone’s pace is different.
Well, my first 5K was a local race at my college, so there weren’t many people there. I remember the adrenaline pumping through my veins, and feeling the need to pee, even though I had just gone.
I remember seeing this older gentleman jogging before the race. I think I heard him say that he had already ran three miles. I thought he MUST be crazy! Who would run three miles before a race!
I knew nothing about warming up, so I only jogged around for 3-4 minutes.
Being a seasoned runner, I now understand what he was doing, and have done this many times before I race. Sometimes it’s just to warm up longer. An unfortunate fact about getting older: it takes longer to loosen up. Other times, it’s to get in extra miles because the race is being used as a workout and you will run even more miles afterwards.
Ready, Set, GO!
Knowing nothing about racing except what my husband had explained to me from his 1 or 2 races, I lined up at the start. I got close to the front, but not in the front. I had no idea what I would run.
I did have a goal of finishing under 27 minutes. But other than that, I had no idea what would happen.
I had done the occasional speedwork, and knew I liked to go fast. But I did not follow a training plan, so I had no concept of goal paces or workouts.
Beginner Mistake #1
Soooooo, can you guess what happened next?
I made the mistake that so many new runners make during their first 5k, or any race for that matter. And even seasoned runners make this mistake when they get too excited and hyped up at the start. It takes time to get this right.
I went out WAY TOO FAST!!!
I was trying to stay with my husband, even though he was faster than me.
I guess I figured I would follow him as long as I could.
I had no idea what pace I was going (at least 45 seconds to 1 minute faster than the pace I should have been going).
I felt great…….for about half a mile, then my lungs began to burn, and my legs hurt, and I was slowing down. The girl I was trying to stay with moved further away from me.
So I spent the next 2.5 miles just trying to keep myself moving and breathing smoother. I focused on the girl in front of me, who was now off in the distance.
The race seemed to last forever, and I was soooooo happy to see the finish line. I sprinted with everything I had left in me and crossed the line exhausted but happy. Already determined to run faster next time.
I had even crossed the line a couple minutes faster than I thought I would, despite my poor pacing.
I finished 4th female overall, but they only gave awards to top 3. So I was a bit sad by that. But it was my first race, so I was happy to complete it in under my goal time.
So the tips below are there to help you run an awesome 5K and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls of many new runners during their first race, including myself. If you’d also like to push your kid in a stroller, this post will help you out.
23 Tips to Rock Your First 5K
Make sure you have put in the miles
Ideally, you would want to have been running for at least a month to build up some endurance and stamina before you run your first race.
This isn’t a necessity, but it will definitely help make the race go smoother.
Young kids tend to be the exception and often seem to race with little training with a fair amount of ease.
My Dad entered a race one time with me, having never run but was in excellent physical condition, and finished in under 30 minutes (by run/walking) at 53 years old and a smoker! So as I said, it is possible, but not recommended. I still remember that race though. It was his one and only race, and he ran it in Chucks of all things. He even got a 3rd place trophy in his age group. He was so proud, as was I.
Choose your race carefully
What I mean by this is that the location, size, and course of the race, may affect how you run or feel.
If you need encouragement during runs and like to hear lots of people cheering and get energized by crowds, then you will benefit more from a larger race. How large is up to you?
The larger the race, generally the more spectators there will be. However the larger races come with some disadvantages, such as are often more expensive, crowded (so you may get stuck shuffling at the start or get bumped a lot), and you may have to get to the race or start line really early and wait.
Larger races are often in larger cities, too, so the scenery is often office buildings. But sometimes this means you can see some cool sites that you may not have seen when visiting the city.
Smaller races have fewer runners, so not as much chaos at the start and are often less expensive and have easier parking. However, they can also have fewer spectators, run through the country (which I actually prefer, because I like scenery and the quiet). Fewer runners, also means you may be running alone during some or all of your race. This can be hard sometimes if you need motivation.
I usually seem to get stuck in “No-man’s land” a lot and am running by myself, no matter what pace I’m running.
Another thing to consider is the course. Is it hilly? Flat? Lots of turns?
This will be a personal preference. Some runners don’t care what the course is. Some runners like to travel and others only run local races, so they will be more limited to the types of courses.
The town I live in uses a few variations of the same course. So we know the race will always have a big hill somewhere in the race that goes around the Capitol Building. Sometimes it’s at the end and other times it’s in the middle. I HATE the course and hate running up the big hill because it always slows me down.
But my 5K PR (personal best) is on this course. Which might just be because I’ve run it SO many times.
So the race choice is yours to make.
Do NOT race if injured
If you are injured on the day of the race, you should consider NOT racing. You can sign up for another race on another day when you are healed. Running while injured can make the injury worse.
Remember, you want to enjoy your first 5K, not hobble through it because you decided to race with an injury. That could result in a miserable experience, with extended recovery time.
Give the injury time to heal. Rehab it if you need to. Some injuries need total rest, others you will need to work on strengthening the muscles around them.
An example being that knee pain is often the result of weak hip muscles, including your glutes. So work on strengthening your butt muscles. (may include link to another post on exercises)
The good old advice of R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, elevation) works well for most injuries if you catch them early enough.
Then get back out there and run.
Do NOT wear any new clothing, especially shoes
This becomes more important at longer race distances, but a general rule of thumb is to NOT wear anything new on race day.
You won’t know if it causes blisters, chafing, or shin splints.
If you are prone to chafing or blisters, be sure to apply some kind of protection to those areas. Body glide works well to prevent blisters and vasoline can work, too.
It’s better to break in some shoes during a few training runs, than find out mid-race that they are causing you knee pain, or rubbing in the wrong spot and cause bleeding.
Racing flats are a little different since they are designed to be worn during races. I generally wear these during one of my fast workouts to get an idea how they will feel during the race. I warm up in my training shoes, and put my flats on just before the race.
Be hydrated (especially important if in hotter weather)
Being well hydrated before the race will help your body and muscles function properly and you won’t be as likely to get dehydrated.
I try to hydrate well the week of the race. I don’t usually drink any water during a 5K, unless it is really hot. Then I will just take a few sips and dump the rest on my head to cool me off. You don’t want the water sloshing around in your belly.
If your body can handle water during races, and you drink water during your training runs, or you just need it…..Drink the water!
Fuel properly pre-race
Generally, you want to eat something light, with carbs and a little protein, at least an hour or two before the race. This could be a banana, bagel, peanut butter and crackers or sandwich.
You want to provide your body with some fuel, but you don’t want it sloshing around in your belly.
So you should stay away from dairy or anything with much fiber in it, like oatmeal, since that may upset your stomach later.
I can usually only handle about half a banana now a days, about an hour or more before the race.
But I used to eat a slice of toast with peanut butter, and then switched to a few peanut butter and crackers. But now my stomach is even more sensitive. So only a banana for me.
I do, however, like to take 2 GU energy chews about 15 minutes before the race to give me a little boost. These are my fuel of choice during longer races. But many people don’t like to have to chew while they run.
Tackle your fears
It’s OK to be afraid. I was afraid of failing, running slow, and hating it.
But after my first 5K, despite how much it hurt and how badly I paced myself, I was hooked.
Whatever your fear is about the race, just shout it down and say, “I can do this!! And I will be proud of myself, no matter the outcome of the race.”
Pre-register for the race
Preregistering for the race will make race day much easier. You won’t have to wait in line to pay and get your race number. You are more likely to get a shirt in your size, and it is usually cheaper. There is also no panicked rush to get to the race in time to register.
Many races have race day cut-off times to sign up. You don’t want to get to the race and realize you missed the deadline and now you can’t race.
Some larger races require you to register by the night before the race (some even months ahead of time) or even have packet pickups the day before so they don’t have to deal with handing out packets the day of.
Get there early
You do NOT want to get to the race as the gun is going off!
Trust me: been there, done that!
You don’t want to feel rushed.
You will also have an easier time finding parking and generally get to park closer to the start.
Usually you will want to arrive no later than 30 minutes to an hour before the start.
If you need to register, then aim for an hour before.
This gives you time to register, warm up, and stretch before the race starts. Some larger races may require you to arrive up to 2 hours earlier, to ensure parking. And then you have to wait at the starting line for a while.
Do a warm up
Ideally you will want to warm up for at least 5-10 minutes. This can be with a slow run or even walking around.
You want to get the blood pumping and loosen up your legs. This becomes more important if you’ve been sitting around for a while before the race, or if your race is early in the morning. Your legs will be very stiff.
The debate is still out on whether stretching is beneficial. But I like to take a few minutes to stretch the major muscle groups: quads, calves, hamstrings since these tend to be the tightest.
I will do a mix of static and dynamic stretches.
Get to the starting line early
You don’t want to be jostling around for a spot before it starts. That can make you feel a bit overwhelmed.
Check the race information to find out if you have to be at the starting line by a certain time. Larger races may require you to get in line 30+ minutes early.
In smaller races, I usually do a few strides (quick bursts of speed) and then line up. I’ll stretch a little while in the starting corral while I’m waiting for the start.
Line up according to pace
If you’re a slower runner or walker, you should line up near the back, or at least towards the middle. You don’t want to get trampled by the faster runners.
Faster runners line up in the front.
My observation is that runners with a 6 minute mile or faster are in the front. So if you believe you can run this pace, then line up toward the front.
There may be some races that are very small and don’t have any really fast runners in them. Just have an idea of your pace, so you get an idea of where to line up.
If you are unsure of where to line up, start asking other runners what pace they are aiming for. If they are faster than you, then line up behind them. If slower, line up in front.
Little kids often do this because they think they are fast. Which often times they are, for about 200 m, then they fade or stop and faster runners try not to step on them.
Trust me, this is a big pet peeve of seasoned racers. Parents should not allow small children to line up in the front, unless they truly are fast. If they are on the cross country or track teams, they may be okay.
But don’t put a 5 year old up front and get mad if he gets knocked down.
Runners are usually pretty nice, but it’s hard to stop when you’re running hard.
Make sure your gear is set.
You do NOT want to be fidgeting with gear when the race starts.
Double knot your shoes!
Yes this is important!
I had forgotten to double knot my shoes before a 2 mile race. I was wearing newer racing flats and was adjusting the tightness of the laces.
Well, I forgot to double knot them and they came untied after the mile 1. So being too stubborn to stop and retie them, I chose to continue running. I ran slower trying to keep my shoes from coming off, instead of just taking the 15-20 seconds to retie them.
Also, if you plan to listen to music, make sure your phone or ipod/mp3 player is ready to go and you just have to push play before the start.
Make sure your GPS watch is ready, if you plan to use one.
And make sure your race bib is secured so it does not flop around during the race.
Set a goal, but be flexible
It is a good idea to have a goal going into the race. It will be your motivation when you feel like slowing down or stopping.
Is your goal just to finish?
Run the whole race without walking?
Finish under a certain time?
If you’re super competitive (like me), your goal could be to beat your friend or spouse, so you can rub it in later J
Whatever the goal, try to remember it while running and use it to keep your feet moving.
However, you will want to be flexible with this goal.
The weather can be unforgiving. So if it is really hot or windy, expect to run slower, so adjust your pace accordingly.
If the wind is at your back, you might get a nice boost and run faster with the same effort.
If it’s raining, it could go either way. I personally love running in the race, so I tend to run faster. Same with the cold. I do NOT like being cold, so I tend to run faster to get it over with.
Also consider the course. If it is a really hilly course, your pace may be slower. You will be conserving energy going uphill and running slower, and hopefully you can run faster on the downhill.
Have an idea of race pace
You want to have some idea going into the race of what your pace per mile will be. Whether it’s a sub 6 minute mile, 10 minute mile, 12 minute mile, or anything in between, knowing your race pace will help you run a good race.
If you have run a few 3 mile runs or longer, your pace will generally be at least that pace, up to one minute per mile faster (if you have incorporated speedwork).
If you still aren’t sure what pace to shoot for, just start out at your normal run pace and slowly pick up the pace with each mile. If you wear a GPS watch, this will help you keep pace. I have a Garmin Forerunner 210, which is an older model. I like to train with it, but rarely wear it during a race.
Do NOT go out too fast
This is usually a BIG mistake for new runners. You get caught up in the energy and excitement at the start of the race, so you take off like you are sprinting. Well, that will not last.
You want to save a little energy to push the pace at the end.
It is not a fun feeling when you crash after the first mile or two and have to shuffle to the finish.
It is much more fun to pick people off at the end of the race, than be passed early.
So again, DO NOT GO OUT TOO FAST!!
Run with a buddy
This person will help keep you motivated, and possibly pace you through your first 5K.
This could be your friend, spouse, significant other, or even your kid (if they are able).
It will be easier if this person if a little faster and willing to pace you, or if they are the same pace as you. You can still run with someone slower than you, but then you will have to adjust your goal time, if you have one.
This is the most important one! Just have FUN with it!!!
Think of all the training you have put in and how far you have come.
Run your best.
If conditions aren’t great or you aren’t feeling well, just finish the race. Make that your goal.
High-five kids along the course.
Be proud of yourself for conquering your fears (if you had any).
Do NOT be too discouraged if you don’t hit your goals. That doesn’t mean that you failed. Learn from this race and be prepared next time.
Run across the finish line
You’ve trained so hard, now is the time to shine. Run across that finish line!
Even if you’ve walked the last mile or so, try to run the last 100-200 meters and cross the line with a smile on your face.
This will also make for good pictures.
Fuel up after the race
You won’t need too much fuel after a 5K. But it is a good idea to hydrate. Drink some water or Gatorade.
Eat a small snack if they offer one, such as a banana, bagel or granola bar.
Fueling after the race will speed up recovery.
Now this is a personal preference if you want to cool down before or after you eat something.
I usually just drink a little water and then go jog some to get my heart rate down slowly and get the “junk” out of my legs. And then I will eat something after my cool down. I don’t do well with too much in my stomach while running.
So you should walk or jog for 5-10 minutes and then stretch for a few minutes.
You have just completed your first 5K.
Way to go!!!!!
Now you can relax.
Stick around after the race to mingle with friends and fellow runners. Thank those that helped you (if you ran with someone or even if it was a stranger that helped keep you motivated during the race).
You may even get an age group trophy or medal to add icing on the cake.
Sign up for your next race
Now that your first race is over and a success, you can think about the next one.
Haha! Or not if you absolutely hated it.
But many people are hooked after their first race.
If it was part of a race series, you can look at the ones in the future and decide if you want to sign up for any more.
So now you have some awesome tips to run your first 5K.
Go out there and ROCK IT!!!!
Keep in touch. I would love to know how your race goes and if these tips helped.