With so many local fundraisers choosing to have a 5k (3.1 miles), it is easy to wonder if it is a distance that even a non-runner could do. Indeed, many walkathons are about that length and can be covered in about an hour if walking a 20MM pace.
If covering the distance of an organized 5k is your goal, it is good to do some prep-work before the day of the event.
Get clearance from a physician before undertaking any strenuous physical activity. Even if you ran a marathon 5 years ago, your body has changed and it is time for a physical again anyway.
Get some workout clothes and, most important, running shoes. Choose clothes that won’t chafe, wick away sweat, and allow freedom of movement. Synthetic material are much better for running than cotton.
It is best you can get fitted for running shoes at a running store. Go in the afternoon or evening when your feet tend to be larger than in the morning. A running shoe is typically fitted at least a size larger than street shoe size.
Even people who consider themselves to be “in pretty good shape” will want to go out and put in some miles. If you are sedentary, it is even more important and will want to have a graduated training plan like Couch to 5k.
Many training plans take 3 months to allow time for tendons, joints, cardio-vascular and other physical systems of the body to get in shape for covering the distance without doing harm to yourself.
Choose a race that you have enough time to train for. Make certain it is one you will be comfortable participating in. Some 5ks are small local races that allow people to run with their dogs or push their babies in strollers. Some races are very large and will require that you know your projected finish time so you will enter the correct corral at the start of the race. Some races are only for women and some races have age restrictions or require parental permission. Some are very walker friendly while others have time limits and close down the course after a certain amount of time. Some have aid stations and plenty of access to toilets, others do not.
Some races allow you to sign up online and the earlier you commit, the lower the fee. Most online sign-ups close before race day but many races will still have registration open at packet pick-up (see below in BEFORE THE RACE) or even the day of the race.
Know the course before you go so you can train for it.
Have a plan for keeping hydrated, proper fuel and running on the terrain and elevation changes that your chosen 5k course will have.
Running on a treadmill is nothing like running outside. Running laps on a track is nothing like a hilly trail race.
If you are training with Gatorade, find out if the race only offers water (or nothing at all).
BEFORE THE RACE
Along with knowing the course and preparing your body, there are a few things that will make your first 5k much less stressful. When you have a question that you can’t find the answer for, email the race director well before race day.
Many races have a time the day before and/or the day of for picking up race bibs, timing chips and other promotional swag. Stay aware of the time(s) and location(s) of packet pick up. Some are in conjunction with health and fitness expos where you can look at/shop for cool running stuff.
Don’t plan on wearing or using anything new you pick up at the expo or in your packet. If you have trained in a tech fabric shirt and the race is giving out cotton t-shirts, you could have a very unpleasant race if you choose to wear/use anything new. Save the new hydration pack, Gu fuel or racing flats for sometime after you have tried them out in training. Best rule of thumb – “Nothing New on Race Day.”
If you are running with a group or friends, not all races allow you to pick up other runners’ packets. Some allow it but require a photocopy of their ID.
Packet pick up is a great time to ask any last minute questions you have come up with:
Where is the best place for spectators to safely watch the race?
Where along the course are the aid stations?
Where will there be access to restrooms/port-a-pots?
What signage will there be along the course?
Is the course closed to traffic?
Will there be volunteers directing runners at turns or police stpping traffic at intersections?
Will there be pace corrals?
Any questions you have about…
Hopefully when you signed up you were put on an email list that sends out race updates. If not, or if you are signing up at the last minute, know where you are going and what time the race starts.
The bigger the race, the more difficult the parking. Allow plenty of time to find the parking and get from there to the start line. Some races have very specific places the ask runners to park (or NOT to park). Some end to end races have a shuttle that will either take you from parking near the finish to the start line or back to the parking at the start line after the finish. Some races require parking passes that are either printed online or given out at packet pick up.
The farther away parking is, the more careful you will have to plan what you are taking with you and what you are leaving in the car.
You will know the weather by this point and can choose what running clothes will best suit you in the race. Lay out your entire running outfit, including race bib and something to carry car keys/phone if you will have them so that nothing is missing when you put it on the next day or pack it to change fore the race. #flatrunner
If it is going to rain, include a large garbage bag to wear over your clothes as you stand in the corral and wait for the start. You can take it off and toss it off of the race course just as you start.
Try to get a good night’s sleep the couple of nights before the race. If you are nervous and can’t rest the night before, at least you will have gotten a good rest the night before that.
Eat healthfully and choose things that you know have not given you Gastro/Intestinal issues in the past. Don’t eat/drink anything new unless you have a system that never has any GI issues. Nerves can also play a factor so choose wisely.
Nothing New on Race Day Nothing New on Race Day Nothing New on Race Day Nothing New on Race Day
Get up in time to allow your bodily functions to get moving. Have coffee unless you haven’t trained with it or find that it makes you have to pee a lot. Have a good poop before getting to the race if you can. Calf stretches can help for some of those who have a hard time getting their bowels in gear.
If it is a later race or you need to have a breakfast, only eat what has settled well for you in past training.
Allow Plenty of Time
Head out allowing time to get yourself near the start line in time to warm up. Most training programs start each run with a warm-up and some even stretching, make sure you allow time for this on race day.
Plan to Meet Up
Before you split up with friends or family, especially if it is a big race, have a predetermined place to meet after the race. Even if you plan to run together, the crush of the crowd can make it hard to just wait by the finish line and find each other after the race. Some races only allow runners in certain areas after the finish line so choose a spot that it clear enough to find and accessible to everyone who is planning on meeting up afterward.
Before the Gun
Take time to warm up for 10-20 minutes, jog around to see where the port-o-pots are, do the approach to the finish line if it is a loop course, shake out the jitters.
Make sure your bib is visible and on the layer you intend to race in (don’t pin it to a warm up jacket that you intend to toss to a friend in a half of a mile). If there is a section of your bib that will need to be torn off at the finish line, do not pin that section down. If the race is bib chip timed, don’t fold your bib. If race is timed with a shoe chip, have it securely attached or laced onto your shoe.
When they call you to the start line (the larger the race, the earlier the call) find your pace corral (larger races) or get yourself at least halfway back of the pack (smaller races). Don’t be intimidated nor over confidant by who is around you. You are all going to make it to the same finish line and you have to focus on your own race. DO NOT STAND AT THE START LINE.
It is hard to hear announcements when you are lined up to race, even if they are using loud speakers. Middle/back of the pack runners have a lot of runners in front of them to follow and, if you did your homework, you know about the course and the signage and aid stations and road crossings. You are ready even if you can’t hear the race director thanking all of the sponsors so don’t fret.
In a large race, you might hear the gun or air horn go of and not move at all. The race has started but you are so far back in the pack, elbow to elbow with other runners, you don’t even budge for a few seconds. Then when you do start moving, it is barley a shuffling walk. It can take you a full minute or more to even get to the start line where you cross a sensor and/or start your watch.
Even in smaller races it will take you a few seconds to get into a jog or running stride. Be patient and don’t be stressed about passing people, things will open up soon enough. Look at it as blessing that the other runners are keeping you from letting the excitement of the race let you go off too fast at first.
While in the crush, try to stay aware of the small section of road coming up in front of you. If there is a runner with a dog on a leash or stroller that might trip you up, look for a way to navigate around them without cutting others off. Unlike when training on a lonely bike path, no need to call out “on your left” to everyone you pass. You may even find it necessary to cut a bit off course on a grassy shoulder early in the race. Try to watch the footing and listen if runners are calling out about hazards ahead.
Hitting Your Stride
As the pack starts to loosen up and you find your regular running stride it will be easier to relax a little and remember all of the things that worked for you in training. If you find you are going to fast, back off the pace and drop your hands to loosen up a little. If you are back of the pack and see everyone out distancing you, know that it is a long race and you will pass some of them later when they burn out, trust me, you will. You do you, your race, your pace.
If you run with music know that some races don’t allow earbuds. If they do, it is still a good idea to consider wearing only one so that you can hear any race directions, if other runners are warning of an oncoming car on a course that isn’t closed to traffic, or the cheers of the good folks who have come out to lend support.
Try to thank course volunteers or even folks cheering. It make you feel good and they feel good too.
Navigating Aid Stations
It helps to know when to expect aid stations so you can anticipate them. Many people running a 5k don’t need any hydration nor fuel but it helps to know where they are so you can avoid getting slowed by them if you don’t require hydration. If you aren’t going to get a cup of water to drink or pour on your head, stay clear of the tables and volunteers and allow anyone who needs clear access to the water. This will keep you from having to come up short because the person whose heels you were on needs a cup of water and is slowing to get some.
If you do need water or gatorade, remember to “drink to thirst.” Listen carefully as you approach the aid station to hear if they are calling out “water” or “gatorade.” Also, slow a bit but don’t stop as you approach as to not put on the brakes right in front of someone running in right behind you.
The best idea is not to go to the very first volunteer/table but shoot a bit ahead if there are multiple volunteers/tables. It becomes less congested toward the farther end of the aid station. Just be careful you are getting what you want in a cup. Pouring gatorade over your head is not going to be pleasant if you were expecting water.
You have listened, heard the call of “water” and have your sights set on a volunteer somewhat down the table. They are holding out a little cup and you want to try to make eye contact as you keep moving toward them. Even if you plan on slowing to walk when you drink, you want to clear out of this area as quickly and carefully as possible. Hold you hand out toward them as you approach (like loosely pointing), stick your index finger INTO the cup as you take it and the rest of your hand will follow through and take the outside of the cup. Keep moving without tipping the cup. This also works if it is just a table of cups but no volunteer handing it off.
If you want to slow and drink after the aid station, move to the side (many runners hold up their free hand to show runners behind them that they are slowing) and drink your hydration. There are typically garbage cans for cups just after a station. You don’t have to put the cup in the can but do crumple it and get it well off the course by tossing it.
If you want to keep running or jogging with your cup after you clear the aid station, pinch the cup so you can control how much liquid is coming out and you will be less likely to spill it or breathe it in as you run. Again, crumple the cup and toss it well off the race course so that no one trips on it after you. Leaving it as close to the aid station is advisable to ease clean up.
Finally, not everyone cares to keep the course clean of cups so be very careful not to trip on cups after aid stations.
Number one has to be to follow the rules of the race event. Even if you are used to running with your dear dog, if the race says no dogs/strollers/headphones, don’t do it.
Register for the race rather than just hopping in and “banditing the race.” It took a lot to organize and your entry fee covers the fact that the roads are closed to runners even if you don’t take anything from an aid station. Same goes for friends who want to run a section with you. The course support is there for registered runners and it gets confusing and dangerous when kids join in and they aren’t registered.
Try not to pee or poop anywhere other than the designated restrooms and port-o-pots. It is super unsanitary.
Walkers should start back of the pack.
When you train on your own, it is less of a big deal if you sniff and spit snot on the road but will matter a great deal with a lot of other runners just off your elbow. Noses run when most of us exercise outdoors and a farmer blow or snot rocket is a hard thing to pull off in a race. Using a kleenex is pretty problematic, especially in the rain, so it is best to just try to be aware of who is around you and where they are when you have to “hawk and spit.”
Listen to officials and police. Stay aware of course direction.
If it is a multi-loop race, stay to the side as faster and lead runners pass you on their advanced laps.
As mentioned in navigating an aid station, if you have to slow or stop, raise your hand to alert runners behind you and move to the side of the course. Step off the course if you have to stop for any reason (like tying your shoe).
You have been making your way through the race, following the course markers, Seen the mile and kilometer markers and you know you are going to make it to the end.
Maybe there have been photographers along the race course, some will have them only at the finish line. Frequently, the photographer will make race photos available online for viewing (lo resolutions) or purchasing (high resolution). The only easy way to find any photos taken of yourself is to make sure your bib number is clearly visible. It is by bib number that race photos are sorted.
Having you bib number visible is also important near the finish for very large races so that they know you are a registered runner and not banditing the race. Some races they might try to pull you off the course before the finish line if your number isn’t showing. Don’t look down at your watch at the finish line unless you want your race photo to look that way.
Well before the finish line, sometimes before even half way, many folks will shout out, “Almost there!” Don’t believe them until you can see the finish line ahead of you.
Some larger races, you can hear the cheers of the crown a mile or so even before the finish line depending on how the course loops around. Just keep running you race the way you trained to make the whole distance.
Even if there isn’t a course photographer, have a great time crossing that finish line. You worked hard for it. Even if you are the very last runner (who gets the heartfelt cheers of the spectators AND all the other runners) you have all run the same distance and this is your moment. Run, walk, wheeling a chair or hobble on crutches, you did it!
YOU did it, not your kids, not your sweety or besty. Make sure they know it is not ok to cross the finish line with you.
Soak up the moment but when crossing the finish line, keep moving as to not clog the chute. Cross all the sensors and keep moving. If your bib has a tear off section that race volunteers are taking, allow them access to it and then keep moving.
AFTER THE RACE
Recovering from the big event can help determine how fondly you remember the accomplishment of a lifetime.
Refueling and Rehydrating
You’ve crossed that finish line and there are tables of fruit and granola bars and water bottles and chocolate milk. Even if you aren’t hungry right after you finish, grab a nibble or 2 for when you start feeling better and definitely a bottle of water.
What you DON’T want to do is also grab something for your kids or spouse. They may have been real troupers coming out to cheer you at your race but this food is for the runners who have yet to come in. If they need a special treat, give them one later. Tell them they have to run the race to get race food.
Sadly, because not everyone thinks of the runners yet to come or the race just didn’t get enough food, occasionally post race food (and sometime water from aid stations!!) is gone for the back of the pack runners. If you know that you might be in the position or cannot eat any of the typical post race food, have something for yourself in the car.
Try to eat something with carbohydrates and protein within a half of an hour after the race. Also be hydrating so that your urine is flowing in a lemonade color when you urinate.
Post Race Maintenance
Walk around for 10-20 minutes after your race to cool down and allow your heart rate to return to normal. If you require medical attention for any reason, seek out someone who is working with the race and ask if there is a med tent.
If you have far to drive afterward, take a moment to stretch out before you hop into the car. Also take breaks on your drive to walk and stretch and your recover will be much faster.
A shower and a good meal is essential after a 5k. Take care of anything that might have gone awry, hot pavement can cause a blister even in a 5k. Take it easy on yourself, this was a first for you.
Your first 5k was everything and more than you had ever hoped or maybe you didn’t run the whole way as you hoped.
Take what you experienced and think on it a bit. The thrill of the finish line can cloud the miles of discomfort so signing up for a full marathon that night is not a good idea. Give the whole experience some perspective.
If you didn’t complete the race as quickly as you felt you should have, it is easy to call it “sour grapes” and write off running all together. If you have people in your life that put you down for not even being able to: run the whole way, at least run a 10 minute mile, finish a 5k – forget what they say. Running is for you and just by trying you have completed more than many. Congratulate yourself for all you DID do.
After some time you may want to try another race. Maybe an easier course. Perhaps it went so well you want to check out a 10k training plan. There is always a chance that it was hard work and you need to think a while before you undertake something like a 5k again. Hopefully you can take away the best parts of the experience and empower yourself to keep trying and doing amazing and healthful things for yourself.