woman running first 5k

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9 Tips for Running Your First 5k

Surprise, surprise! This was a post I had put on my planner agesssss ago, before the thwarting COVID decided to cancel loads of races.

BUT. There are now races cropping up again, and all of these tips will still apply to virtual races as well. Since I think running a 5k is such a great goal, I still wanted to write this for anyone currently working up to a 5k race.

So if you’ve found your way to this blog post, rest assured: these tips apply to 5ks in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s a multiple day event of mini-races, soft start, virtual run from anywhere, or the regular mass start, these 9 tips will be more than helpful for running your first 5k race.

Tip #1 | Get a Good Night’s Sleep (2 Nights Before)

Okay, I still haven’t found a very conclusive study on this, but this article from Runner’s World does support it and the interviews show many athletes agreeing.

In my personal experience, I’ve found it to be true; the night before the race doesn’t matter as much. Your sleep is most important TWO NIGHTS before the race.

I can recall multiple experiences where this was the case. I remember staying up late in high school, finishing an AP Biology outline and thinking about how badly I needed to get to bed since I had a cross country race the next day. But I still had an amazing race and actually got 1st place!

The fact of the matter is that many of us won’t sleep well the night before a race anyway. If it’s not our busy lives keeping us up, nerves often will.

So don’t worry too much if you don’t get much sleep the night before. It’s your overall sleep leading up to the race that truly matters.

Tip #2 | Don’t Eat/Drink Too Close to Race Start

We’ve all had runs where we instantly realize we ate our last meal too recently.

You DON’T want that heavy, sloshy feeling on race day.

A good rule of thumb is to cut off eating at 2 hours prior and drinking water at 20-30 minutes prior to 5k race start.

Everyone’s bodies work differently, so this will of course vary from person-to-person. This is what I’ve found works for me.

Running a 5k is NOT like running a marathon (#captainobvious). The race is “short” enough that your body doesn’t require fueling during it. In fact, if there’s a water station during a 5k, I never ever grab water from it – even on a hot day. Chances are, you’ll be done running before the water even gets absorbed by your GI tract.

Make sure you fuel up ahead of time, but cut yourself off at strategic times prior to race start for smooth-tummy-sailing.

Tip #3 | Start Your 5k Slow

Alright, who was waiting for this one?

This has to be the most commonly dished out runner tip, but one we could always do with hearing again…and again.

My cross country coach used to say, “There are no prizes for winning the first 400 meters.” (And girl, was he right!)

Unless you’re a world-class runner who can go out front and maintain that pace, you better not be leading the pack in the beginning. The entire rest of the race you’ll be huffing and puffing as other people pass you.

I always love to share my story of running in Connecticut’s State Opens my junior year of high school. I went out SUPER slow – like, probably too slow. There’s a video of the race start where I’m pretty much in last place (and this race had about 200+ runners in it). It was also the race where you had to get top 25 to qualify for the next race, New Englands.

Once I realized just how slow I had gone out, I was mortified. I was literally watching my chance for New Englands run away from me.

So I sped up…because I could. I hadn’t spent all my energy on the beginning of the race. I wove around people and passed other tiring girls. And I finished 14th and qualified!

Looking back, I’m so glad I started my race that way. And although that’s a pretty extreme example, I truly subscribe to the idea of starting your 5k race slow, especially if it’s your first one.

Tip #4 | Perfect the Pre-Race Warm-Up

We all know how important warming up is. But how much is too much, and how much is too little?

30 minutes before a 5k race, I recommend starting a 10 minute warm-up jog. While 10 minutes may sound like a lot, remember: this is supposed to be at a super easy pace. If you think this may be too much running for you, try 5 minutes jogging and 5 minutes brisk walking to warm up instead.

Then stretch for about 5 minutes. This leaves you with 15 more minutes to go to the restroom one more time, change into race clothes, switch shoes, stretch a little more, etc.

tips for running your first 5k

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Tip #5 | Bring Extra Clothes on Race Day

Now I of course recommend planning your outfit for race day (based on temperature, weather, personal preference, etc.), but always bring some options in case the weather pulls a switcheroo or you change your mind.

Depending on the time of year, you may want to bring quite a few extra options. Being able to change what you’re wearing can make a big difference in your comfort during the race.

(You also never know when you’ll run into a muddy patch. Having extra clothes – especially a shirt and a pair of socks – is really nice post-race too.)

Tip #6 | Make a Pump-Up 5k Race Playlist

Not everyone runs with music, but it really can make the difference in your mood while running.

I credit my first half-marathon playlist with keeping my pace in the low 7 minute range the whole time. It kept me upbeat and motivated.

When in doubt, I always recommend making a playlist of your favorite music. If the race energy or surrounding festivities is enough to keep you going, you can always turn it off.

Tip #7 | Use Positive Self-Talk

This is KEY for running your first 5k! Whatever preparation you’ve put into this race, that’s what should be on your mind the entire time.

Trust me, this will drastically change your entire race outlook.

I often had unintentional mantras that probably helped me achieve my potential in high school. During a race I would think, “I can do this. I’ve trained all summer for this,” or something like, “No one wants this as badly as me.”

And during that slow-start State Open’s race, I just kept thinking, “It’s not over yet,” to remind me I still had time to place top 25.

While I’ve never planned out a 5k mantra ahead of time, it’s something I would absolutely encourage. I love this idea list from Run to the Finish. Some of my favorites on it are:

  • “I am strong”
  • “One step at a time”
  • “I eat hills for breakfast”

Tip #8 | Focus on Your Running Rhythm

Like having a running phrase or mantra, another good focal point is your running “rhythm.” No matter your pace, we all settle into a breathing and footstep pattern while we run. It may be 1 breath for every 4 steps or something completely different, but we all do it subconsciously.

If you’re trying to run a faster 5k, you can focus on increasing the tempo by moving your feet faster.

So if you catch yourself feeling tired or getting discouraged, this is another great way to refocus and take the stress down a notch.

Tip #9 | Enjoy Running Your First 5k

The MOST important tip I can give you is a reminder that 5k races are supposed to be fun!

During my first half marathon, I had the time of my life. I simply enjoyed the energy, being part of something active and healthy, and just ran from a place of gratitude. No matter how difficult a run may feel, not everyone is physically able to run. Being able to is a privilege.

So get out of your head and get grateful! Enjoy the freeing feeling and the wonderful ability you already have. Just simply enjoying yourself can even help you to go faster.

Out of all the tips for first 5ks, this is the most important one to keep in mind.

running first 5k tips

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More Running Tips:

Running for Beginners: 11 Little-Known Tips to Sky-Rocket Your Progress

8 Top Running Watches: Which is the Best for You?

10 New Runner Mistakes That Are Ruining Your Progress

Fun 30 Day Running Challenges Guaranteed to Boost Motivation

Do you have a 5k planned? Share where and when it’s taking place in the comments below!

9 Tips for Running Your First 5k