Chances are, no matter where you live, there’s a 5-K nearby soon. It’s the most popular race: 7,500-plus 5-Ks held in 2006 drew more than 3 million runners. Why? “It’s only three miles!” says Mike Mahan of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Well, 3.1 miles, but so as long as you’re logging three half-hour runs per week, you can complete a 5-K this weekend, says Tommy Tomlo, fitness director for the Susan G. Komen National Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C., the nation’s biggest 5-K series. And you can run a fast 5-K with as little as six weeks of concentrated training.
2. Just Have Fun
“5-Ks are a great way to meet people and stay in good shape,” says Lois Wims of Mobile, Alabama. And they’re newbie-friendly. “I was so afraid that the ‘real’ racers would be annoyed with a novice,” says Eileen Doherty of Phoenix. “The opposite was true! The local running group cheered me on.”
3. Use 5-Ks for Speed
Runners training for a longer event, like a half or full marathon, can use 5-Ks in place of speedwork, says Teri Garzon of Ontario, California. “I run a 5-K almost every weekend in the fall,” says Cara Hawkins of Jefferson City, Tennessee. “It’s a good way to race into shape.” Mark Goldstein, 75, who has run all 114 5-K Races for the Cure around the world, runs every other day in between events when he’s racing a lot. “I run a little slower than race pace and for about 20 to 25 minutes,” he says.
Here’s how Chuck Roose of Tampa trains and runs a 5-K (or other distance) every weekend:
SAT: 5-K race
SUN: Easy run, mid-distance
MON: Rest day
TUE: Speed session
WED: Easy run, longer distance, or rest day
THU: Speed session
FRI: Rest day or easy run with last half mile at race pace
4. Eat a Little (Maybe)
You don’t need additional calories before you run a 5-K, but if you’re used to eating breakfast, you might feel hungry. “Your body needs some calories to help you wake up and keep going, but don’t overdo it,” says Sherri Abbassi of Gainesville, Virginia. “Just half a bagel with peanut butter, half a banana, or gel/sports beans/shot blocks is enough.” Gabrielle Rubinstein, who hosts a running club out of her shop, Joe Coffee, in New York City, always has her cup of coffee. “I can’t get going without caffeine,” she says. Others prefer to wait for the postrace bash. “I see no reason to eat before a 5-K, as they all have real food afterward,” says Jill Merenda of Brooklyn.
5. Drink a Little (or Not)
It’s telling that most 5-K races have only one aid station, usually located about midway. “That should be enough liquid for you,” says Abassi of Virginia. Steve Burns of Simsbury, Connecticut, points out, “Any water you take in during the race won’t affect your performance because the race is just too short.” Christian Taylor of New Holland, Pennsylvania, believes that stopping for water only slows you down. That said, if it’s hot out, grab a cup at the aid station. “Don’t drink the water, but splash it in your mouth or dump it on you,” Burns says.
6. Warm Up Wisely
“A proper warmup will improve any performance,” says Jerry Cuellar, from Middleborro, Massachusetts. He does a slow jog 15 minutes before the race, followed by a few 50-yard sprints. Warm up on the racecourse itself. “You can preview the race,” says Tim Guimond of Evanston, Illinois, and get a handle on where the hills and turns are.
7. Cut Corners
Race in the lightest running shoes that work for your foot type, says Andy Clark of Morristown, New Jersey. Studies show that if you lighten your load by six ounces (swapping training shoes for racing flats), you’ll run one to two percent faster. For a 24:00 5-K runner, that’s 14 to 28 seconds. “Don’t neglect the benefits of drafting behind other runners, especially if you’re running into wind,” says Clark. “And run the tangents–the shortest distance between two points.” Think of creative ways to motivate yourself to go faster. “For every person that passes me after the one-mile marker, I tell myself I have to pass two,” says Bob Kaufman of Windsor, Wisconsin.
8. Take It Easy–At First
Even though it’s short, it’s still possible to start out too fast and run out of gas. “Your breathing pattern may get messed up, and then you have to stop or walk to catch your breath,” says Susan Harmeling, race director of the Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, one of the largest 5-Ks in the United States. “Start out in the middle or back of the pack, force yourself to run slower, and wait for that first mile split to determine your race strategy,” says Kaufman of Wisconsin. Jim Dolan of Princeton, New Jersey, suggests “running moderately fast at a pace that feels faster than your daily runs, but not so fast that you feel that you’ll need to stop soon.”
9. Or Start Fast
“At a recent race, I decided to start much stronger than usual and see if I could hold on for the entire race. I beat my previous PR by 59 seconds!” says Taylor of Pennsylvania, who ran 10 5-Ks last year. Starting fast helps you beat the pack in more than one way. “You don’t get trapped near the back,” says P.J. Van Beurden of Los Osos, California. “It takes a lot less energy to start fast than it does to weave in and out of people.”
10. Finish Strong and Celebrate!
“Once the finish line is in sight, kick with everything you’ve got and leave people in the dust,” says Van Beurden of California. The short, concentrated amount of time and distance means the race can be over before you know it. “If you finish using every drop in the tank,” says James Vaughan of Twin Oaks, Oklahoma, “it doesn’t matter if you’re first or 200th, you’ve already won.” And then pat yourself on the back. “It is absolutely necessary to drink a pint of a fine brew afterward!” says Tom W., of Allston, Massachusetts. “What’s a race without a postrace party?”