Training For Your First 5K, Part 3: Choosing a Training Plan

Training For Your First 5K, Part 3: Choosing a Training Plan

5k training plan for runners

Hey there, and welcome back to the Training For Your First 5K series!

Over the last two weeks, we’ve covered some important stuff: finding the time to train and staying motivated throughout the process.

Now, it’s time to decide how you’re going to do the actual training.

You could, of course, just lace up your shoes, head out the door and see what happens. But if you’re willing to do a little research and planning, a systematic, well-designed approach to training for your first race will give you the best chance of success.

How To Find The Best 5K Training Plan

A Google search of the term “5K training plan” will render countless results, most of which are variations of the same concept: start with run/walk intervals and gradually decrease the walking until you’re running the entire distance. This is a fantastic approach. In my opinion, progressing slowly from your current fitness level to your eventual goal is pretty much the only way to get there.

couch to 5k training programUnfortunately, training plans can vary widely in their progression from beginning to end, with some promising that you’ll go from sitting on the couch to running a 30-minute 5K in just 8 weeks. The truth is, this may be somewhat aggressive for a beginner.

Time and time again, I’ve heard my clients fret about not being able to keep up with a Couch-to-5K (C25K) schedule, when in reality, they’re simply following a plan that just doesn’t work for them. Going from a run/walk ratio of 30 seconds/90 seconds to running three miles in 30 minutes eight weeks later is just plain unrealistic for many people. It takes time to build up that kind of endurance, especially if you’re carrying a few extra pounds.

My advice? Begin with an honest evaluation of your current fitness level, then use that information to choose an appropriate plan for your starting point. Based on your progress, modify as necessary to ensure you stay motivated and injury-free.

How To Evaluate Your Running Fitness Level

5k training plan cardio workout

Even if you’re not currently a runner, a good base of cardio-respiratory fitness will give you a leg up on training. If you’ve been working out pretty regularly (running or otherwise) for at least 6 months and have a good fitness base, you can start with a more advanced plan. But if you’re literally starting from the couch (or recovering from an injury), a beginners plan is probably more appropriate for you.

First, can you currently walk 3.1 miles? If not, make sure you’re able to complete this distance by walking before you formally begin your 5K training.

Next, do this simple test to help you figure out where your training plan should start: warm up by walking briskly for 5 minutes, then run at a comfortable pace (somewhere between a sprint and a slow jog) for 30 seconds. Stop and walk for one minute. Repeat a few more times.

How did you feel at the end of each 30 second interval? Were you breathing very heavily or did you feel like you could have kept going at that pace for at least another 30 seconds? Did you recover quickly or were you still tired and out of breath when the next running interval came around?

How To Choose The Right 5k Training Plan For Your Experience Level

Based on the results from your test run, use the following criteria to help select a training plan.

    • If 30 seconds felt very difficult or it took more than 2 minutes of walking to feel ready for the next interval, find a plan that starts with shorter running intervals (15-20 seconds) and builds from there.
    • If 30 seconds was tough, but manageable, choose a plan that starts with 30-second running intervals (preferably with at least 90 second walking intervals)
  • If 30 seconds felt too easy, find a plan that begins with 60-second running intervals.

When considering plans, err on the side of caution. It’s much better to start out slowly and adjust accordingly than to overdo it in the beginning and get discouraged – or worse, injured. Don’t ignore the length of walking intervals, either – they’re just as important as the running.

In the beginning, you need at least the same amount of walking (or more) as running. If your lungs and legs haven’t recovered by the end of your walk interval (either you’re still out of breath, and/or your legs feel like lead bricks), extend it for another 30 seconds (or minute) before you start running again. And please remember: adding extra walking to your plan is not failure – it is simply being realistic about what your body can do right now. You will get stronger and faster over time, I promise. Be patient, because doing too much too soon could land you right back on the couch with an injury, which means you won’t be training at all.
5k training program

A solid training plan should progress slowly but steadily from week to week. If you’ve completed a week but don’t feel ready to move on, repeat it as many times as you want, or begin to slowly mix workouts from the next week into the current one to allow your body to adjust before moving on. This might mean it takes you longer than expected to get to the end of the training plan or that you don’t complete the entire thing before your race – and that’s OK! On race day, just run at your current ability. 5Ks are everywhere. You’ll always have another chance to do one faster (and if you’re like most people, you’ll get so addicted that the next one won’t be able to come soon enough).

On the flip side, if your training plan isn’t challenging you enough (for example, you’re barely breathing hard at the end of each running interval and could recite the Pledge of Allegiance with ease), you need to push yourself a little more. Either pick up the pace on the run intervals or move on to the next week until you start feeling challenged.

Consider the length of each workout vs. the distance you’re covering in that time. If your plan specifies four 30-minute runs each week, but you’re only covering 2 miles during that time, you’re not training for a 5K, you’re training for a 3K. Increase the amount of time you’re running on at least one day per week to make sure your legs get used to the full distance. This is most important for the last few weeks of training, when you’re starting to assess what you might be able to achieve on race day.

Finally, remember that the last week before the 5K should be a taper week. In other words, back off on your training that week, to make sure your body is at its energetic peak for your event (that means run a little less, and a little easier – not sit on the couch). If your plan doesn’t allow for this, build it in yourself by doing your runs at an easier pace than usual or cutting back 20% on time. Avoid running entirely on the day before your race.

get fit runbuzz training 5k

Run a quick internet search and you’ll turn up hundreds, if not thousands, of 5K training plans (and corresponding smartphone apps), many of which will meet your needs. Print out a few and compare them. My personal favorite is (of course!) the GetFitFor5K plan, right here on RunBuzz. It’s a plan designed for absolute beginners, and the reason I love it so much is that it has a lot of flexibility and valuable guidance for the new runner. This plan starts with 1 minute run/walk intervals, but if you’re not quite there yet, you can work up to that point with 30 second run/1 minute walk intervals for a few weeks until you’re ready to move on.

Keep a Journal of Your Training

We’ve talked about it before, but I’ll mention it again: keeping a running log can be really helpful. Tracking when and where you ran and how you felt before, during, and afterwards can give you some perspective on days where it feels like you’re not making any progress. Other things to consider include the weather, the type of route you ran (hilly, trails, treadmill, etc.), and what you were doing on non-running days, (cross-training, resting, etc.). It’s all data that can help you see each workout as a part of a whole experience, rather than an isolated event.

Food journals are helpful too, because your running performance is impacted by how you fuel your body. Going out for a burger and beers the night before a long training run will have an effect on how you do the following day. Of course, that’s not to say you should avoid ever going out and indulging, just that you should be aware of how it will affect your training and not be surprised when you’re feeling a little sluggish the next morning.

Whatever you decide to record, make sure you review it from time to time to see just how far you’ve come!

Train in the Same Conditions as Your Race

This doesn’t mean that you do every training run on the race course (because that’s nearly impossible), but rather train properly for the course you’ll be running. Find out what the route is and what the terrain is like (pavement, trails, track, beach, hills, etc.), and make sure most of your training is on a similar surface. If you do all your training on a flat trail, and there are tons of hills in your 5K, you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.
5k training planTreadmill training will do in a pinch, but unless your race is inside a gym, it isn’t the best way to prepare. A treadmill actually helps you run, because the belt is ever-so-slightly pulling your feet along. So when the display says you’re going 5 mph, your actual real-life speed (i.e., if you were running outside with wind resistance, changes in elevation, and different surfaces) is slower. This can result in a disappointing performance on race day, when you expect to run a 12-minute mile and can only maintain a 13-minute mile pace, without the help of the treadmill.

So try to limit your treadmill time if possible, and get at least one run per week outdoors. And when you do run on the treadmill, set the incline at 1-2%, to give your legs a little extra resistance and better mimic outdoor conditions.

Set Realistic Expectations

Now listen up, because this point is important: If you trained with a walk-run method, plan to run your race the same way. There is no magical path from walk-run intervals to running 3 miles without stopping, aside from consistently progressing your training until you get there. This doesn’t mean that if you get a sudden burst of energy on race day that you shouldn’t pick up the pace and go for it – just don’t expect it to happen. Use your final week or two of training as a barometer for your race day performance, and expect to do perhaps 10% better during the actual event (the adrenaline rush from all the crowds will give you an edge).

Your first 5K is a great opportunity to experience a race atmosphere, have a good time, and see what you can do when you’ve got crowds cheering you on. However, it won’t be much fun if you’re berating yourself the entire time for not living up to your expectations. Starting out slowly gives you room to improve. Plan to finish and to give it your best effort, but don’t worry too much about your time. Enjoy yourself and know that you can come back again and again to improve your performance!

Check back next week to learn about handling injuries.

In the meantime, run fabulous!

5k training plan for runners

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Jill Angie

Jill is a personal trainer, coach, runner, triathlete, blogger and author, who wants to live in a world where everyone is free to feel fit and fabulous at any size. She writes about the joys and challenges of being a curvy runner, and shares her experiences, knowledge and expertise to help her readers embrace their inner athlete. In addition to running, she has an unbridled passion for kettlebells, cupcakes, champagne, fuchsia and murder mysteries (not necessarily in that order).

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