How To Race a 5K

5Ks kick my distance runner butt. It is the dreaded, personally less than successful distance of my high school cross country years. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being on the team but I never trained properly prior to the season and, thus, never performed up to my full potential during the season.

I think my personal best was somewhere in the 22 minute range. Just to give you perspective, I run about 7:40-7:55 miles for 7 miles now. When I race 5Ks, I run 6:45-7:00 without actually training for the shorter distance. My thirty-i@nr*tsld#kh year-old self runs faster than my 16 year-old self. Yeah, but I feel like I want to vomit the entire time.

This is probably the last time I raced a 5K. I was a little excited. To be fair, it was in Yankee Stadium.

That’s how those shorter distances go.

You run your guts out for 20-something minutes (or less) and then it’s over. Shorter distances are a completely different beast and racing them requires a strategy all its own.

#1.  Warm up

For most of us, the first several miles of a marathon/half marathon serve as warm-up enough and it’s usually too crowded to run fast at the start of any race. However, in order to reach your full speed during a short distance, you have to warm-up for at least a mile. Why? It’s gets your heart rate going, your muscle fibers twitching and responding, and allows for you to race right out of the gate.

Middle miles racing on the Warning Track of Yankee Stadium. Not bad.

#2.  Strategize

  • Run your first mile at a comfortably fast pace that you practiced during your tempo runs. No faster, no slower.
  • The second mile is where you push a little harder, find that next gear. Don’t kill it just yet, but get those legs moving a tiny bit faster. You want to negative split your miles, but they don’t have to be drastic changes in order to make a big difference.
  • The third mile is where you lay the hammer down. You use your arms to make your legs go faster and increase the speed of your foot turnover. Start picking off people in front of you.
  • When you are a half-mile out, rock it. Get to that place where you are pushing as hard as you can and leave it all out on the course.

Arms up! Big finish! (not really the finish, but it's a fun picture)

#3.  Cool down

You’ve just run really hard and your heart rate and blood pressure are sky-high. You MUST at least walk around, but preferably jog around, after you’ve caught your breath. This will help to loosen your legs and guide your heart rate to a safer place. If you stop, lie down, stand still or otherwise cease moving immediately following high-intensity exercise, you run the risk of having your blood pool and passing out.

Are any of you running shorter distances in the near future? What’s your game plan for these races versus the longer distances? Does your training schedule change at all? Tell me all about it!

Now go out and run.

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6 thoughts on “How To Race a 5K

  1. I love this post! 5ks seriously kick my butt too. They are good for me – totally outside of my comfort zone from the second I cross the Start Line until I make it to the Finish. I raced my fastest 5k last weekend, with a time of 21:18. It was the first time I ran every mile under 7:00, and I am psyched about that BUT I have a lot to improve on with the 5k. Each mile was a little slower than the last, and I want to reverse that. I believe I have a sub-21:00 5k in me and want to conquer that some time in 2012. 5ks are brutal for this slow-twitch muscle fiber mamma, but I love ’em anyway and am determined to race them right!!!
    Always love your posts, Abby!!!!!!!

  2. That’s excellent advice. Particularly the part about not needing drastically negative splits to make a difference–in the 5k every second counts! And the first mile always feels too easy to me… it’s the second half of the second mile that starts to hurt a LOT.

    As I’m training for track now, the 5k feels LONG to me, so perhaps my perspective is different. Being able to gun it in the last mile is a relief after the agony of ‘will I be able to keep enough energy back?’ in Mile 2! My last 5k I actually negative-split too much, going 6:37, 6:24, 6:18, :30. (19:49 total). See, that, I think, is too much. A 10-second difference between miles 1 and 3 would be better.

    As for training, I think 20-minute tempos run with slightly negative splits are key for the 5k distance since they mimic the race experience, as is some solid basic speedwork like fast 200s and hill sprints for the final kick. Still, the 5k is about 90% aerobic (sadly for me), so speed is mostly good for form and economy (which saves energy overall) and trying to kick and sprint the last .1. There are few more satisfying experiences than sprinting the last .1 of a 5k.

  3. Pingback: Time Trials « run stronger every day

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