How to Train for Your First 5K

Crossing the finish line of my first 5K changed my life forever. Drumming up the courage to start the race fueled a newfound confidence that led me to tackle other challenges.

Reaching the finish line ignited the start of a whole new active lifestyle.

Getting Started

I always wanted to run, but every time I tried to run I’d make it to the end of my block—only to begin crying because it wasn’t much fun. Then I’d promptly drag myself back home and toss my shoes in the closet.

Each time I vowed to quit, never to return again, until I would see my softball coach, Rosemary, run by with a smile so bright it could light up Texas.

I wanted to run. I just couldn’t figure out how and didn’t think I had the body of a runner.

A Community of Runners

That was, until I started my very first day at an internship in Milwaukee. All of my co-workers were runners, which I found quite intimidating as I couldn’t even make it down my block without tears.

Runners being runners, they challenged me to run a 5K with them at the end of the summer. I promptly explained to them that I wasn’t a runner and I would do almost anything (toilets, filing, laundry) for them, but there was no way I would be running that race.

What happened next turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life. 

Making a Plan

They encouraged me to train with them at lunch and helped me devise a training program that started with 20 minutes of walking and slowly built up to run-walking and eventually running 30 minutes.

Turns out the combination of an enticing goal (shirt included), a supportive group and a program that started from my humble fitness beginnings (couch potato), was all I needed to tap into my inner runner.

It worked. I finished, and it didn’t even matter that I was almost last!

I went from a chubby, out-of-shape intern, to a runner in a matter of weeks and you can too. I loved it so much I eventually quit my job to coach others in finding their finish lines.

Here are a few tips to get started on your journey to your first 5K.

Define Your Carrot

Register for a 5K and it will serve as your motivation to get in shape and keep your training regular and consistent. The difference between exercising and training for an event is that every workout is purposeful when training and you’re less likely to miss a session if you have a target ahead.

Whether this is your first race or you are getting back into shape, running the 5K is a great way to succeed at learning to run—and earn a great shirt too.


Shopping for running shoes and apparel is a lot of fun. The essentials include: a supportive pair of fitted running shoes, technical-wicking socks and a sport watch. Sure, there are lots of fun toys you can purchase along the way, but the best place to start your journey is to get professionally fitted at your local running specialty store. Stride for stride they will support you to the finish line.

Avoid crying, like I did, by starting from your current fitness level.

It’s best to shop at the end of the day when your feet are swollen from the day’s activities and be prepared to try on several pair. The staff should watch you walk and run in the shoes to make sure they work with your foot type. The shoe should feel comfortable. If not, keep looking.

Use your new running shoes only for workouts to avoid wearing them down more quickly and aim to replace them every 350-500 miles. Mark the date purchased on the side of the shoe to keep tabs on the life of the shoes.

One Step at a Time

Start from where you are, rather than where you want to be. Avoid crying, like I did, by starting from your current fitness level. Running too much too soon is the number one reason most newbie runners quit.

If you are new to running, begin with sprinkling in running with mostly walking. This allows your body, mind and spirit time to adapt to the demands of running and it makes for a very enjoyable running experience. It will also allow you to run a bit farther.

Always begin with a walking warm-up of five minutes to prepare your body for the run ahead. Finish with a walking cool down to bring your body back to reality.

For the running workout, start with 30 seconds to one minute of running and follow with at least double the time power-walking—1-3 minutes, or until you catch your breath. Progress little by little, adding more running to the mix and less walking.

Focus on going farther, not harder. Include no more than three runs per week and alternate run days with rest or cross-training activities (cycling, swimming, yoga, etc.) to allow your body to adapt and recover run to run. Before you know it, you will be running 30 minutes at a time with a smile on your face!

Take Time to Recover

Listen to your body while you train. The body actually grows stronger when you are resting. Training is a process that includes strategically-placed workouts and rest days to allow your body to be stimulated by the activity and then recover during the rest.

Many people make the mistake of over-training and running too much, too soon and end up with an injury. It doesn’t have to be the case though if you listen to your body for aches and pains or just fatigue. If your body is giving you a yellow flag with a few aches, take an extra day off and adjust your training to allow full recovery.

Additional ways to improve recovery include getting at least eight hours of sleep every night and eating frequent, well-balanced meals throughout the day.

Train Comfortably

Take the talk test. The key to running successfully is to dial in an effort level that is comfortable while you run.

A good way to know you are running the right pace is by taking the “Talk Test.” If you can talk while you run, you are at the right pace. If you are gasping for air, can’t get a word out and are counting the seconds until you can stop, you are likely going too hard. When you run too hard, the fun factor drops, injury risk goes up, and the chances of returning for another run are slim to none.

Like the Tortoise and the Hare, you will reach your goals more successfully.

The secret is to finish the running workout knowing you could run a little farther if you had to. Running is all about having fun, getting in shape and feeling good. Run at a pace where you can still talk and you will find your running career taking off.

This may mean you need to walk a little more at first, or slow your pace a bit, but doing so will pay off as your body will progress more quickly. Like the Tortoise and the Hare, you will slowly reach your goals more successfully.


Running requires a lot more oxygen than not running and efficient breathing is key to getting the needed oxygen to the working muscles. Breathe through your mouth and nose and from deep in your belly.

Like dancing to the beat of a good tune, try linking your breathing tempo with your foot strikes, breathing in every 2-4 steps and out 2-4 steps. You will breathe more efficiently and get more oxygen to the working muscles.

If you find that you are gasping for air, slow down. Most likely, you are at a pace that is too challenging and your body is not able to keep up.

Pace Yourself

Learning to pace is perhaps the most challenging aspect of running. The best way to learn how to pace is to practice.

Mark a loop in your running area with your car or bike. Then predict what your time will be and head out the door and run or walk it. Keep track of the total time it takes to finish and see how close you are to your predicted time.

If you are within one minute, go out and celebrate; however, if you are one minute or more off, it’s time to keep practicing and fine-tuning your skills.

Another fun way to learn to pace is to mark off half-mile or mile increments on this same path or head to a track and practice learning how each pace feels.

If you feel like getting into running toys, there are a number of cool speed-distance monitors and apps on the market that will give you your speed and distance instantaneously while you run. A speed distance monitor is a watch that shows you speed, distance, time and even calories on the run. It is a great way to learn your pace and the ultimate running toy.

Build a Strong Foundation

Include total-body strength-training exercises 2-3 times per week for 1-3 sets to build strength in your musculature, tendons and joints. Developing strength supports your body as you run mile after mile. It will also improve efficiency and form while decreasing the risk of developing an overuse injury.

Avoid comparing yourself to your buddy… there will forever be faster and slower runners.

Mix up your routine; run one day and strength train or cross-train the next. Variety works a lot more muscle groups and keeps your workouts fresh and motivating. Alternating a run day with a cross-training day also allows your body time to adapt and recover from each run.

Find Your Style, Love Your Style

In many ways, running is like shopping for jeans. We all have different strengths, speeds and styles. There is no one running style that fits everyone. You may run faster than your friend or she may cruise by you.

Avoid comparing yourself to your buddy because there will forever be faster and slower runners. Some people progress and adapt faster while others (like me) take longer to improve.

Speed is relative, and it is a good measure of your success. Most likely, someone is looking at you and wishing they could be running too. Focus on your running career and where your footsteps are taking you. Like jeans, we all have a pair that fits our style.

Food is Fuel

You are what you eat. Your workouts are fueled by the food you eat every day. Keep a log of what you consume daily and it will give you a better perspective of what goes into your system.

If you are having trouble dropping the weight you wanted or just not feeling strong while running, it could have something to do with how you fuel your body day to day. Eat smaller, more frequent meals well balanced with fruits, veggies, lean protein and even fats too. Skipping meals is the quickest way to gain weight and decrease the performance of your next workout.

Every workout is a piece of the puzzle.

Think of your car and how it runs. If you run out of fuel, the car simply doesn’t move. If you put dirty fuel into the tank or no fuel at all, the car won’t run efficiently. Food is fuel and the ticket to your next strong running workout and recovery.


Keep track, stay motivated and have fun. Track your progress along the way. Keep track of your running time, mileage, mood, shoe mileage and more.

Every workout is a piece of the puzzle and will guide you in figuring out your running recipe. Train with a buddy and make a commitment to meet them regularly. Run with a group or train with a team for charity.

The more fun it is, the more you will want to do it again. Schedule a session with a buddy, take a new route and try something new.