How to Mentally Break Down a 5K


, by Nick Bester

Photography by: avevizavi_com

Whether it's your first or your fiftieth time running a 5K, your mental approach to the distance will determine how well you perform. In this article running coach Nick Bester breaks down the 5K, explaining the psychology behind each kilometer of the distance.

There’s just something so beautiful about the 5K distance. Perhaps it’s because you can recover quickly after doing one and go again, or perhaps because it’s the same distance as Parkrun which is continuing to grow.

Whatever the case, here’s how I mentally breakdown a 5K.

Kilometer One: Active warmup

It’s very important to control that adrenaline that you start with. Right at the beginning of the race is where your competitive juices are flowing the most. You have that race buzz in your stomach and you’re raring to go. You want start off on a positive note but you don’t want to go off at a pace substantially quicker than your target race pace. It’s going to feel easy right in the beginning, it always does, but try not get carried away.

The 5 km distance can still be a long way, especially if you hit a wall earlier on in the race. The way I like to view this first kilometer is as an active warmup. It’s all about finding your rhythm and flow and settling into your goal pace. I always allow for around 400-500 meters after the start before I check my watch for the first time. GPS can often be inaccurate in the early stages but I find that this is a sufficient distance for your smart watch to give you a good indication of what your pace is.

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You should always run based on efforts and how your body is feeling and not let your watch dictate this, although I know it’s always a confidence boost when your watch is giving you those numbers you’re ideally looking for. If your efforts are out of sync with the pace your watch is showing, try avoid surging. Rather look for subtle changes of pace within the race to get you back on track.

Parkruns are a great way to challenge yourself at the 5K. Photography by: WoodysPhotos

Kilometer Two: Settle into your stride

Now that we’ve got through the first kilometer, hopefully, you’re more or less in line with your goal pace. If you went out substantially faster in the first kilometer, just know in the back of your mind that you’ve banked a bit of time and you can allow your average pace to gradually slip over the next 4 km. If, however, you are behind target goal pace, look to make it up over the remaining 4 km and not just within this second kilometer.

It’s the part of the race where you really want to settle into your stride. You’re not at the halfway stage just yet, but often the burn tends to start here already. Embrace this, keep it consistent and save that mental energy for the latter part of the race.

Kilometer Three: Grind, grind, grind

Often during this km, all pre-race nerves and adrenaline have worn off, making running at goal pace feel slightly harder than in the early stages of the race. I find it mentally tough when you’re not even at the halfway point but already you’re starting to feel the burn. It’s always great when you cross the halfway mark because every step you take now brings you closer towards that finish. However, let’s not be fooled, the work is far from done.

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This km you need to grind it out. No slacking, no getting distracted but just sticking to the task at hand and continuing with that momentum you’ve hopefully established within the first two kilometers.

Kilometer Four: Remain focused, give it all you’ve got

This is by far the hardest kilometer of the 5K and, generally, the slowest. You’re fatigued, the burn is real but you can’t quite smell that finish line just yet. In the back of your mind, you probably want to save something for a good sprint finish which means taking your foot off the gas slightly in this fourth kilometer. The demons are well and truly in your head, screaming at you to slow down.

Now is the time to be mentally tougher than ever. Right here is where the magic is made. This is what separates you from the rest of the pack. Nail this kilometer and you will almost certainly have a good race.

You need to remain focused. It takes a lot of concentration to push your body to levels you never thought you were capable of. Dial in that mind and tap into those reserves. You’re almost there and you can always find something in that last kilometer. Don’t give up, don’t quit, that’s not us. We’re winners and we want to walk away from this 5K proudly, knowing we’ve given it all we’ve got. Now is the time to prove that!

Kilometer Five: It doesn’t count

The reason why I say this final km doesn’t count is because you can always find something extra when you can smell the finish line. The mere thought of the finish being just around the corner often gives us that adrenaline boost we need at this stage of the race. Leave it all here! Everything you’ve got! There’s only a few minutes and seconds left in this 5K and there’s a big chance that whatever you put in now will dictate your mood for a big portion of your day after the race.

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Think of something that will push you to your limits. Whether it’s a special person, a personal challenge, the buzz of a potential PB, whatever it is, let it hit home and run this part with your heart. We never want to walk away from a 5k thinking that we didn’t give it our best and left a bit out. Full send all the way through to the finish line. Every second counts!

Photography by: Rob Wilson

I hope this thought process helps you work through your next 5K race. This is the way I like to break it down. These races don’t get easier. You just get mentally tougher each time and are able to push yourself further than you thought you were capable of.

I’ve personally run my 5K personal best based on a negative split strategy so I hope that works for you too. I know we’re all built differently and run differently so find a thought process and strategy that works best for you.

Onwards and upwards,

Coach Nick

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