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How to Train for a 5k for Beginners

By Stephanie Howe, PhD, sports nutritionist, and Team CLIF® Athlete.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition related activity.

I ran my first 5k when I was 8 years old, and I remember how daunting it was. I had trained with my dad and my little sister to run our local 5k. The training wasn’t always enjoyable, but we stuck with it, and come race day, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the feeling of running with a number pinned on. Crossing the finish line was one of the most gratifying experiences of my young life. Since then, I’ve run hundreds of races, some of them much longer, but I often think about that first 5k and how meaningful it was. Running your first 5k can feel overwhelming, but stick with it, because once you cross the finish line, you will be so grateful.

So, you want to run a 5k? COOL! Maybe you signed up for a race or are thinking of running one but you’re not sure how to prepare for it. This is the guide for you!

Stephanie Howe on a run

You don’t need any running experience to follow this plan. It’s built for the new runner, who may be running their first race. Or for someone who hasn’t run in years but wants to start up again. This plan is six weeks long, which is enough time to start from zero running to getting you ready to run 3.1 miles in a little over a month.

A 5k Training Plan for Beginners

How This Plan Works

First, the plan starts with a few run/walk sessions, but if you need to walk more than what’s prescribed, do it. Just aim to have the total time be the same (for example, 10 x 1 min run, 1 min walk = 20 min total). Don’t stress if you need to walk a little more over the first couple of weeks. Gradually try to increase your run to walk time as you feel comfortable.

Second, if you are pressed for time and cannot manage 4x per week that the plan above shows, focus on running three days per week, such as Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. The walk on Thursday is a good supplement to your running, but it’s not necessary to be successful. The goal is to space out these runs so you have a day to recover between. You can easily shift the days to fit your schedule, just make sure to keep a rest or cross training day between the runs.

Third, if you are feeling good and want to try pushing yourself, you can adapt Wednesday’s workouts to be a little tougher. Simply run the “Run” portion a little faster, and jog during the “Walk” portion. This is an interval that will help you work on your speed. That’s only IF you feel good and ready — there is no problem following the plan as is.

If you miss a day, try to make it up the following day, but do not stack workouts. For example, if you miss Monday and Wednesday, don’t run on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to make up for it. Rest days are important, and running too many days in a row doesn’t let you fully recover between sessions.

If you haven’t run much before, it may feel tough to start. Know that it WILL get easier, but it will take time. Be patient with yourself and know that rest days are important for progress. Similarly, don’t compare yourself to others. Social media platforms that allow you to track and compare are fun, but they can also lead to self-doubt and judgment about your own training. If you do use some sort of app or platform, try to be positive and focus on your own progress over the six weeks of training.

Training for a 5k — Beyond the Running

When we think about training for a race, we most often think about the physical part, i.e., the running itself. While running is obviously very important, there are also other things that contribute to your ability to train and recover. We often neglect things like nutrition, sleep, mental preparation, etc., and just focus on the miles. To let you in on a little secret — the little things matter. A LOT! And they work synergistically with each other. So, while the actual running needs to happen, the supplemental aspects should also be made a priority.

Nutrition

Let’s start with nutrition. A well-rounded diet is the foundation of any healthy athlete. This means focusing on three good meals a day (plus snacks) made up of nutritious, real food. Everyone’s needs are slightly different but still fit within a general framework.

Early Morning Snack

The most important meal of the day. If you are an early-morning runner, it’s still important to get in something before you head out the door. It doesn’t have to be much — even just a small bite before your run is beneficial. Choose one of these quick options:

  • Banana
  • CLIF BAR® Minis
  • Piece of toast with peanut butter
  • ½ flour tortilla spread with jam
  • 8 oz. of orange juice

Think of the food you eat before you run as putting gas in your tank before you start. Running with adequate fuel will not only help you feel better throughout the run but will also help you recover more quickly afterward.

Lunch & Dinner

These meals should be full of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and high-quality proteins. Focusing on real food ensures you get essential micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Some examples of balanced meals are:

  • Rice bowl with black beans, vegetables, and avocado
  • Salad topped with chicken, fresh vegetables, and feta cheese
  • Fish tacos made with grilled fish and topped with avocado and pico de gallo
  • Pasta with fresh herbs, sausage, and olive oil
  • Vegetable wrap with hummus

Make sure to save meals like this for after you run to avoid any stomach issues from the fiber.

Snacks

It’s also important to refuel after a run to help with recovery and keep you going between meals. The best foods for after a workout include some protein along with carbohydrates to help with muscle repair. Some good options for a post-workout snack include:

  • CLIF Builders® Minis
  • 8 oz. of chocolate milk
  • Handful of almonds and dried cherries
  • Apple + packet of peanut butter
  • 4 oz. of yogurt
  • Tortilla with peanut butter, rolled up
  • 2 rice cakes topped with hummus

Sleep

Now let’s focus on rest and recovery. We can push our bodies all we want, but without proper rest, we can’t adapt and thrive. Sleep is the most underrated part of a training program.  Most of us could use a little (or a lot) more sleep on a regular basis. The amount you need depends on your lifestyle and level of activity, but most sleep studies say a minimum of eight hours of sleep is required for us to feel our best.1 It’s easy to say you want to sleep more, but it’s tough to carve out the time to make it happen.

Train Your Mind

Another overlooked piece of training is how to mentally prepare your mind. This isn’t just for race day, but for the entirety of your training. There will be days when you feel amazing and everything is clicking, and there will also be days when you feel completely awful and just want to quit. We can’t always control how we feel, but we can control our attitude.

When it comes to race day, visualize yourself running the race and feeling strong. If you can see the racecourse (or a map) ahead of time, go through it in your mind. See yourself running the entire course and give yourself some verbal cues to think about. Choose a word or mantra that you can repeat to yourself when it gets hard. This can help you stay present and focused on the race.

Body Work

Last but not least, it’s important to take care of your body. Body work can mean a lot of things — stretching, yoga, a massage, seeing a physical therapist, acupuncture, etc. Taking some time to give your body TLC on a regular basis is so important. Even if it’s just a few minutes to do some dynamic stretches or take a hot bubble bath, these little things can help you recover and feel good. A massage is a very nice treat after a hard week of training.

Running a 5k can be daunting, but when you have a goal and a plan to get there, it’s much easier to break into smaller chunks. Take things week by week and focus on doing the best you can for the day. Don’t forget the big picture, but also don’t worry about it too much as you progress through the six-week plan. Taking some time to do the little things — eat well, get enough sleep, prepare your mind, and take care of your body — will help you immensely in this process.

Reference

  1. Hamlin MJ, Deuchrass RW, Olsen PD, et al. The Effect of Sleep Quality and Quantity on Athlete's Health and Perceived Training Quality. Front Sports Act Living. 2021;3:705650. Published 2021 Sep 10. doi:10.3389/fspor.2021.705650

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