While “running a 5K” can sound daunting, it is actually a perfectly achievable goal for people of all levels of fitness, even those who are currently sedentary. We don’t like to think of people who aren’t active as “couch potatoes” but as runners with untapped potential! The key to successfully making it to the start (and finish) line of a 5K is in a sound training program grounded in principles that will help keep you injury free and motivated to keep progressing.
First, find your motivation: for many, signing up for a race is a major motivating factor. Having a date on the calendar (and letting people know about your plan to run the race) helps keep you focused on an actual, tangible goal. Recruit friends and family to join you- having support and company (and even a little friendly competition) can also keep you on track. The promise of a reward- a manicure, massage, or even the occasional yummy treat- works for others. Or keep track of your progress on a calendar, online training log, or some other way of visibly seeing your accomplishments along the way.
Once you are motivated to start- and stick with- a training program, make sure you have the right gear. The best investment you can make when starting a running program is a good pair of running shoes from a specialty running store, where the experienced staff can fit you in the right shoes for your biomechanics, stride, and goals. We often see beginner runners get injured because they are running in the wrong type of running shoe, or a running shoe that is too old. During the winter, good cold-weather running gear is also essential to keep you out and running comfortably even when the temperatures drop.
Finally, you need a good training plan that is based on the principles of progressive overload, or slowly increasing your mileage as your body gets used to each new level of activity. Beginners should start with intervals of running and walking, gradually increasing the run intervals and decreasing the walk intervals. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to increase your weekly mileage more than 10%. So if during the first week you go out three times and run (or run/walk) for 30 minutes (total of 90 minutes), the next week you don’t want to go out for any more than approximately 99 minutes total. Or, if you are basing your runs on mileage, if you run 10 miles in one week, you don’t want to run more than 11 miles the next week.
A sound training plan will also incorporate rest following periods of activity. Rest is as important as the activity, as your body will recover and get stronger while you are resting. If you are running three days a week, it’s best to spread those three days out throughout the course of the week rather than putting them all together, one after the other (the “weekend warrior” syndrome).
In addition to watching how much you increase your weekly mileage and making sure you are getting plenty of rest, you need to pay special attention to the pace of your runs. We encourage our runners to use the “talk test” when running- i.e., can you carry on a conversation with your running buddy while you are running? If you are huffing and puffing so much that you can’t get out a sentence, you are running too fast and will risk injury. Run at a pace that feels comfortable and that you feel like you can maintain the entire time- these slow, long runs are the key to building your endurance and improving your fitness. Physiologically, this is how your body will adapt to the longer distances and sticking to this pace will help you avoid injury.
By finding your motivation, getting the right gear, and following a well-rounded, smart training plan, you can take small steps towards accomplishing a big goal- before you know it, running 3.1 miles won’t seem daunting at all and you’ll be planning your next big goal! (Of course, always check with your doctor to make sure there are no contraindications to starting a running program.)
Check out our beginner training plan targeting one of our favorite local Spring 5Ks, Jeremy’s Run in Olney, Maryland (the race also has a 10K course for more experienced runners). All you need is about 30 minutes, 3 times a week- likely less time than you spend on Facebook, watching TV or thinking about exercising!