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How to train for a 5K: What you need to know

Learn the do's and don'ts for training for a 5k

Man running outside.
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Running is one of the more accessible ways to engage in physical activity. Without any gym membership and too much gear, you can get all the science-backed benefits of running.  

For many running beginners, the first milestone is finishing a 5k race. Although entering a race as a beginner may sound daunting, once you understand how to train for a 5k, it will feel within grasp. Continue reading to find out all the do’s and don’ts of reaching the 5k milestone.

Can a beginner run a 5k?

Man running on trail.
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Running a 5k is definitely achievable, even if you are new to running. The average person who is moderately active and has a history of regular exercise may even be able to run a 5k on their first try, even without training at all. However, this is not advisable, and if you do achieve a 5k without training, you’d likely not make good time. 

As a beginner who’s trying to run a 5k, get to training. Start with a mix of running and walking, then increase your pace slowly. Of course, there’s a lot more nuance to running a 5k, but don’t worry; you’ll find everything in this article. 

How long does it take to train for a 5k?

Man running
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According to the running publication Runner’s World, training for a 5k takes eight to 10 weeks. However, your cardiovascular fitness and previous activity levels will also affect how quickly you can run a 5k. 

If you have a history of extensive physical activity like resistance training, running a 5k would take less time for you than for the average sedentary person. However, like with almost anything exercise-related, training consistency is also essential. 

Even if you’re relatively inactive, you can reduce your 5k training time by a fair amount if you stay committed to a training plan and progress over time.

What to eat while training for a 5k

Oatmeal
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Eating to prepare for a 5k would not differ much from any healthy diet. However, there are specific nutrition recommendations that runners must take into account. The first step to getting your nutrition right while training for a 5k is working on your macronutrient balance. 

Here’s a breakdown of each macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and how they could affect your 5k training.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for day-to-day activities, as they metabolize into glucose really quickly, fuelling your body when you need it. Because runners require a lot of energy, the average runner’s diet should mostly consist of carbs. John Hopkins Medicine recommends this majority to be at 60 to 70 percent

This sounds like a lot, but do not worry; you may not need this much if you’re only training for a 5k, especially if you already eat a fair amount of carbohydrates. Just focus on eating a lot of whole, low-glycemic carbohydrates like rice, quinoa, potatoes, yams, and fruits like apples. 

When eating such foods, strive to consume about 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight every day. This should be enough fuel for a successful 5k. 

Protein and fats

Protein is an essential macronutrient, and it is mostly useful for muscle building and repair. For this reason, the fitness community can’t stop talking about it, and rightfully so. However, if you are a beginner who’s training for a 5k, you don’t need as much protein as someone following a muscle-building diet. Consider consuming 0.5 grams per pound of body weight.

To meet your protein intake, focus on eating foods like fish, beans, poultry, tofu, and lentils. Many protein sources, such as peanuts, contain healthy fats. Fats are great because they help with nutrient absorption and general training recovery. Together, fats and proteins can account for a small percentage of your food intake (15 to 20 percent). 

Don’t forget the micronutrients 

Runners need a myriad of micronutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins. Dairy, eggs, tuna, salmon, tofu, almonds, yogurts, cheese, legumes, and leafy greens are great options for vitamins and minerals. Almonds, fish, and yogurt are particularly high in calcium, which is essential for strong bones and joints. 

Exercise guidelines for success

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For successful 5k training, first, establish three baseline training sessions per week and gradually increase your distance every week. During your training sessions, you should incorporate interval training, which involves short, intense exercise bursts with short rest times in between. This way, you can also reap the benefits of high-intensity interval training

Rest days are essential because they help you prevent burnout in your workout routine. This is why three sessions per week is a great place to start so that you have rest days in between. 

During your rest days, you can also cross-train and engage in other activities like cycling or swimming. Additionally, active recovery workouts help to prevent injury, so you could incorporate one or two. 

Finally, a balanced diet is essential. Focus on your carbs for adequate energy and eat enough protein for muscle repair. Don’t forget to add your vegetables and fruits for extra vitamins and minerals. If you need motivation, joining a running group or community could help push you to that 5k-starting line. So, consider joining one, whether online or in person.

How many minutes should a 5k take?

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The time it takes to run a 5k depends on an individual’s age, fitness levels, and experience. Many runners finish a 5k between 20 and 40 minutes, and beginners may take even longer.   

According to data collected by RunRepeat.com and World Athletics, the average 5k finish time for men in the US is 35 minutes, 22 seconds. For women, it’s 41 minutes, 21 seconds. 

As a beginner, a good approach is to set a realistic personal goal based on your pace and training progress. You may not finish your first 5k in under 40 minutes, and that’s okay. There’s always room for improvement.

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Christine VanDoren
Christine is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with an undergraduate degree from Missouri State University. Her…
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