The Basics of Running: Getting to Your First 5k Race

If you are anything like me, eventually you will start to lack the motivation needed to crawl out of bed each day, put on your running shoes, and get your rear end out the door for a run. In order to really be motivated I need a goal, a mission, an objective! One of the most motivating things a runner can do is to register for an upcoming race, and as a new racer you will want to register for a 5k.  As a first time racer, the process of finding, registering, and getting to race day can be slightly confusing and pretty intimidating.

You are probably sitting there asking yourself “am I really ready for a 5k?”, “could I even make it through a 5k” or “what is a 5?”  Well, if you have completed the 7 week training program I suggested in my article “How to Begin” or you can jog for 30 minutes straight you are more than likely ready to register for an upcoming 5k.

Once again, my disclaimer! I am not a certified trainer, coach or running expert. I consider myself an intermediate running, having spent two years running completing a marathon, some half marathons, and handfuls of 10ks and 5ks. Nothing on this site is designed to be taken as medical advice. A Run with Meghan is meant to provide general information on my personal running, training and medical experiences only. I suggest everyone consults a trainer or physician before beginning a running routine.

What is a 5k?
5k stands for 5 kilometers which equals 3.1 miles.  The 5k race is a good choice for your first race because it is a relatively short distance and is one of the most common race distances ran throughout the country.  The 5k also offers you a lot of motivation, enjoyment, and is the overall perfect distance for first time runners!  The good news: even if you are a couch potato, you can be ready for a 5k in just a couple of months!

How do I find a 5k to run?
Before becoming a runner, I had no idea how many local races were often ran in my own community!  There are hundreds of websites which list races that you can register for. Here are some websites that I use the most to find and register for my races:

RunMichigan.com
Runner’s World
Active.com

All of these sites will allow you to search by location, race distance, date, etc. They will also link you directly to the event’s website and online registration areas, if the races offers the ability to register online.  There are races who will not offer the option to register online.  These races are typically smaller-local races being ran in your community who have a printable registration form on their website you will need to print, fill out, and mail to them along with your entry fee payment.

You can race at any time of the year, but I strongly suggest for your first 5k you consider picking a race in the spring or fall when the temperatures are a little more mild.  Extremely hot or frighteningly cold weather will make things just a little more difficult, and who wants their first race to be difficult?  However, if you are dying to register for your first 5k in the middle of the summer, do it!!!

Make sure you register for the race early or on time! In order to do this you will want to try and pick a 5k that is approximately 2 or 3 months away from when you plan to begin your 5k training.  Many races offer an early registration discount to those who register months ahead of an event, and they increase the registration fees the closer it gets to race day.  In addition to a discounted fee, most races will only guarantee a runner shirts or medals to those who register in advance and will not guarantee anything to runners who wait and register the day of the event.  You will also encounter a race which will only allow a certain number of runner to enter their event!

As you become more of an intermediate or advanced runner and begin to run longer races, if you are anything like me, you will always continue toss a few 5ks into the mix each and every year! 5ks (and eventually 10ks) are a great way to run a race with your friends and family who are not seriously into running, gives you the feeling of competition and a lot of time your registration fee is going towards a great cause.

I am Registered, Now What?
Congratulations on registering for your first 5k!!!  It is so exciting, and I know you are dying to get ready and now you can begin your training!  There are many different training options for a 5k and one of the most well-known plans is the “Couch to 5k” or “C25K” training plans which are available online.

Here are a few different links to “Couch to 5k” training plans available online. As you being to meet runners you will find every runner has their own preference as to which training plan they prefer and why.  I personally use Hal Higdon’s training plans for the appropriate distance I am running and his 5k training plan is available here.  My suggestion: try to find a plan which suites you and stick with it for that race.  If it works, then continue training with a similar plan.  If it does not work, then mix it up next time and try a different type of training plan.

Most of these training plans use the Run/Walk method where you run “x” minutes and then walk “x” minutes. This is a great way to start training for your 5k.  Whatever you do, make sure the training program you choose is based on your current abilities and goals.

(Example: A Walk 5k training plan v. a Novice 5k training plan v. a Intermediate 5k training plan v. a Advance 5k training plan.)

At the start of race week, you will want to make sure that your running mileage decreases. (Note: Most training programs will have this decrease already built into them.) At this point, your training is really about resting your legs so they are ready to run on race day.

Welcome to Race Week!
You have spent at least 8 weeks training and now it is race week. As a first time runner you are going to feel nervous as well as excited!  If you are anything like me you are probably also feeling under prepared and slightly intimidated about your upcoming race. Just remember, every runner around you on race day was in your shoes at one point, a new racer!!!  Now we are going to run through what you should be prepared for throughout race week.

Pick Up Your Race Packet Early
When you register for your 5k you will want to pay attention to the “packet pick-up” times listed on the events website or registration form. As a first time runner DO NOT wait until race morning to pick up your race packet and goody bag, unless it is the only option you have.  Picking up your packet prior to race morning will save you from rushing around that morning, as you will already be slightly nervous and on edge.  When picking up your race packet make sure the event organizers have your name, age and sex listed correctly on your race bib to ensure that you are entered into the proper divisions.  If there is an error, make sure you get it fixed prior to leaving the packet pick-up area!!  Once you get home make sure you figure out where the timing chip is located and ensure that you know how and where you are going to wear it.

A quick note about timing chips: Timing chips are technology and just like every piece of technology we own sometimes those devices fail!  You, or a runner you know, could one day run a race and discover afterwards that your timing chip malfunctioned.  Although this can be extremely disappointing, most race directors will work with you on finding a solution which will give you a pretty close finish time that they will use as your “official” race finish time.  (It happened to my Mom during a half marathon two years ago!)

Do Not Over Dress 
A good rule of thumb is that you need to dress as if the weather is 15 degrees warmer that what it is. That is how much you will warm up once you start running. If it is cold you can always wear warmer clothes while you are waiting for the race to start. One of my favorite tips to new runners: Head to your local second hand store and pick up a few large sweatshirts and sweat pants… things that you will not mind leaving behind on race day. Wear these over top your running outfit, then as the race begins and you warm up you can peel off the sweatshirt and pants and just leave them right there. As you begin to run longer races, they will offer “Gear Check” locations where you can store a bag with extra clothes for before and after the race.

Pinning On Your Race Bib
Your race bib goes on the FRONT of your shirt, NOT the back!! This is a very important detail that quite a few runners (new and experienced) tend to easily over look. Although this does not sound like an important detail, it really is for a few reasons.

First, almost every race has official photographers throughout the race course and especially staged at the finish line to capture the amazing moment when you run across the finish line!!  A few weeks after the race, the photographers will release the race photos for you to download or purchase the ones with you in them.  Without your runner’s number showing on the front of your shirt, the photographers will have no idea who you are afterwards, as they work on tagging all of the photos they took!   I can tell you from experience that being able to get a copy of your first finishing photograph is completely thrilling!!! So make sure your runners number is clearly visible!

The second reason is having your race number showing on the front of your shirts immediately lets the race staff throughout the morning and especially during the race that you are a registered runner!  Most races are staffed with volunteers who have willing donated their time to come out and make sure you have a smooth and enjoyable race day!  Making their job easy by identifying yourself as a runner is extremely helpful to them!  There are races who remove non-registered runners from the course, and you would hate to be pulled off track because no one could see your runner’s bib on your back!

There are two different methods to securing your race bib to yourself. First is the tried and true method to use safety pins on all four corners in order to keep the bib securely in place. (All races will include or offer you four safety pins when you pick your race packet.) I personally prefer to never use safety pins, because I hate how they leaves holes and can cause snags in my nicer running shirts. I prefer to use a race number belt which buckles around my waist and has clips where I clip my bib. My belt also has two small pockets which carry my Cliff Shot Blocks for my longer runs.

Finally, you will most likely get a race t-shirt included your goody bag for registering for the race. You should not wear the shirt until after you have completed the race, as it makes you look like a newbie runner!

Pre-Race Meal/Fuel
You should eat at least one hour prior to the start of your race. Choose something high is good carbohydrates and lower in fat and fiber. My go to breakfast race morning is a wheat bagel coated in peanut butter and a banana. (Stay tuned for a whole article on how to properly fuel yourself before, during and after your training runs and races.)

I’ve Eaten, I am Ready Now What? Get There Early!
As this is your first 5k you will want to arrive at the race site a little earlier than normal.  Normally for a 5k I aim to arrive at the race location about 30-45 minutes prior to the start time.  As this is your first time running a race, I would suggest you aim to be there approximately one hour prior to the start time. Having this extra time will help you find your parking spot, scope out the starting/finish line, give yourself time to warm up properly, and help settle your nerves. Make sure you have your race with you when you leave the house that morning!!

It’s Time to Line Up
As a first time racer, this is when your nerves are really going to kick in! Not only are you about to start your first race, but you are probably really questioning where you are going and what you should be doing right about now. You will find a lot of smaller races where the direction of the start line is not clearly marked.  Do not worry! First and foremost, follow the masses! More experienced runners will know which side of the starting gate to lineup on and you can just follow suit.  (That is exactly when I did with my Mom when we ran our first 5k together in 2010.)

Unless you have learned to run very fast (5-7 minute miles), do not line up near the front of the starting line! The faster, more experienced runners should not have to weave around a newer (and more likely a slower) runner at the start of a race. Lining up towards the back of the pack will allow you to run at your pace without fear of being run over or in the way of other runners.

As you begin to run more races you will eventually encounter a race which has a corral starting system. When you register for the race you will enter your approximate finish time and this will allow the race organizers to start you around other runners who run the same pace.

Enjoy the Race & Aim to Finish
The race begins and you are off! Make sure you enjoy the race and take advantage of the water stations on the course! As a first time runner, you should try to not put pressure on yourself to achieve a really fast finish time. Just finishing the race and enjoying the experience are the perfect goals!

Bring Cheerleaders
Having cheerleaders as you run your race is an amazing feeling! You should invite your friends and family to come out and support you. Ask them to stand near the finish line or final stretch of the race where they can cheer you on!

A final piece of advice: The best advice I could ever give to a beginner runner is to make sure that you are going low-n-slow.  The number one reason beginner runners get hurt is because they push themselves too hard too fast.  Although you may feel as though your cardio system could handle running further or faster, it takes months to properly develop a muscular system which can handle the additional distance and speed.

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