Run Your First (Or Fastest) 5-K

Run a 5-K for a fast, fun challenge that can complement your other goals.

Cindy Kuzma |

Run a 5-K for a fast, fun challenge that can complement your other goals. – By Cindy Kuzma


The half marathon has the newfound popularity, and the marathon gets the glory. But in terms of fun and flexibility, the 5-K might just beat them both. The not-too-long distance means almost anyone who attempts one can complete it. Often it serves as a gateway to longer efforts, says Camille Herron, a runner who began by running road 5-Ks and has gone on to win 16 marathons.

Those aiming for the podium can train hard without running taking over their lives, says Matt Thull, a coach at ThunderDome Running (and the proud owner of a 14.11 road 5-K PB). And if your primary goal is to enjoy yourself, there’s the explosion of themed 5-K events, from obstacle races and late-night light-up runs to doggy jogs. Whether you’re looking for a personal-best time or just a way to let off some steam, here’s how to make the most of your 5-K experience.

Finish faster

Crossing the finish line once may have a near-immediate side effect: wanting to do it again, and faster. Thanks to the manageable distance, you won’t have to wait too long for your next shot, Thull says.

MAKE IT HAPPEN For best results, allow yourself at least five weeks to try again – one to recover, and four for the next block of training. Newer runners can start by adding one ‘challenge’ run per week – say, a longer effort of at least six kays, or a 30-minute run with a two-minute fast surge at the end of every kilometre. More advanced competitors can work up to a 10- to 15-kay long run plus one other hard workout every seven to 10 days.

One of Thull’s favourites: a strength-speed combo starting with five to 10 hill repeats. Choose an incline that takes about 45 to 60 seconds to ascend, and slowly jog or walk down in between. Then do an 800-metre recovery jog before finishing off with two to three kays at 5-K effort on a road or other flat surface. “Just as you would the last kilometre of the race, when you think you have nothing left, you’ll learn to push through,” Thull says. During race week, skip the hills but keep some speed: A max of three kays of 400- or 800-metre repetitions at 5-K pace, with equal or longer rest in between, gets you to the starting line sharp but not overly fatigued.

Race with a friend

Regardless of your respective experience levels or speeds, signing up together can motivate you both. If you’re fortunate enough to find a friend who’s just slightly swifter than you, using her as a rabbit can help you push your own performance, Thull says.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Even if your paces don’t sync, you can find a way to train as a twosome – for instance, joining a training group, or warming up and cooling down together but splitting for the rest of your run. And as for your rabbit, keep up with her on a maximum of one hard workout per week, then allow a rest or easy day afterwards. Leaving your comfort zone in training prepares you to race your best – but only if you allow adequate recovery.



Tune up for a longer event

Running a 5-K during half-marathon or marathon training gives you mental practice in a race setting as well as a way to test your fitness. Plus, alternating between longer races and shorter efforts keeps your fast-twitch muscles well-trained, honing your finishing kick, says Herron.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Schedule a 5-K at the beginning of your training cycle. Warm up well with an easy jog that lasts at least as long as you’ll be out on the 5-K course. Give the race your best effort; if things go well, carry that confidence into training. On the flip side, don’t get discouraged if your performance is sub-par. Your main focus is on longer distances, and you still have time to train hard and fine-tune your race-day approach. If you like, you can run 5-Ks every month or so throughout your build-up to practise different skills – for instance, add to the warm-up and cool-down to log a long run that’s broken up by the fun of a race, or intentionally start slowly and speed up at the end to build pacing patience.

Try something wacky

If you’ve ever wanted to run through a haze of coloured chalk, or wearing only undies, or while munching doughnuts, you’re in luck – there’s a 5-K out there with your name on it. New runners may find these events a welcoming first challenge, while more experienced racers can get a boost from breaking up the monotony of more focused training.

Keen to enter a race? Click here to find a race in your area.

MAKE IT HAPPEN Schedule these races well before or after a goal race to avoid training interruptions. You can take your preparation more lightly, too. Participants at the Neon Run stop at glow stations and enjoy entertainment from South Africa’s top musicians and DJs. Still, you’ll want to think through basic logistics, such as how you’ll use the portaloo in that glow-in-the-dark onesie, says Herron, who knows from experience: she holds the women’s Guinness World Record for wearing a superhero costume in a marathon (a 2:48:51 wearing a pink Spider-Woman outfit).

Considering your first 5-K? Go for…

Friendly runners, free food, sweet shirts, energising music – if nothing else, races add festivity to your regularly scheduled weekend kilometres.

Elite runner Camille Herron began running 5-K races in aid of charity at high school because both of her grandmothers had breast cancer. Scout your local race calendar for a race benefiting a cause that’s meaningful to you.

You might never know how fast you can go until you let it rip in a race environment. “It’s a different experience to anything you can simulate in a workout; it’s more serious, more focused,” Herron says – though not, to be clear, any less enjoyable, especially if you run well.

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